Your Invitation to the Abyss

This article also appears in the book Jupiter – Reports, Stories and Excerpts 

This is meant to be a document on the concepts and process that evolved out of the People’s Photos Found Photo archive on Spillway.com.

The archive really began on Bayard St in Brooklyn, which seemed to be the most amazing magnet for strange obscure materials. It had a certain trashy flavor. Odd things would perpetually get dumped in front of or around the building we lived in.

Originally, the archive was kept in various photo albums that belonged to comic artist Sam Henderson. People brought and sent him photos from all over as he was very connected to the small press comics circuit.

The albums were particularly interesting at parties when people would make their comments and reach their own conclusions about these mysterious worlds. This most interesting human reaction of interaction only seemed to perpetuate the albums, as people who found out about them brought more pictures to put in, and these in turn would cause more reactions. In a way, the albums were like looking at some world that wanted to be forgotten, but then the reasons for forgetting that world could not be imagined.

After figuring out a structure and naming system, we decided we would set up a website as an experiment to see if the reaction would carry over to the internet. We originally scanned in and posted approximately eighty or so photos in various categories which I pulled from an old thesaurus. The categorization was really just an over-important parody of a real archive. We also listed all the information we knew about the photo, like the date, the initials of the finder, and the circumstances by which it was found. We decided that what identified a found photo was that it had to be completely detached from anyone who knew the elements or persons within the picture.

We put the system online in December 1998 just in time for the holidays, and sent out about 50 emails to immediate people in the underground comics community, and to the people who had originally sent Sam the photos. We stated in the introduction, that if anyone recognized themselves or any of the individuals within the photo, all they needed to do was tell us and prove it somehow, and we’d send the photo back to them. We invited people to send in comments about the photos. These were edited manually. I made a conscious decision to create thumbnails in each category that were cropped sections of the full photo. I thought it was very important to play with this method of not revealing the full photo.

Henderson’s part of the introduction to the website covered mostly the history of the found photos project and the rules for submitting photos. I took the more philosophical route and began to discuss what makes something found or lost. I became a bit obsessed with this over the next year. From the introduction:

There must be something said for favorable accidents and serendipity. The idea of an image being lost from the world, cast into oblivion, and found again must constitute a certain unseen force at play. It must make the image special and unusual in a certain way. An unexplainable reason for its existence. What we are faced with here, is a collection of these impossible moments that can be made possible again through meaning.

To complete a particular transit from ‘lostness’ to ‘foundness’ or to re-exist in the real world we share, the images must be interpreted and their very meanings reestablished. This is why we have opened the channels for you the user, to complete the transit of meaning….

We also invited people to send in their own found photos. We claimed we had some kind of “Fool proof system to tell if a photo was found or not. Our intention was not to exploit anyone, but to really discover the origins of these photos and situations as best we could.

Once we launched the site, absolutely nothing happened. Actually, for months nothing seemed to happen. A few people had sent comments in, and we posted those dutifully. Instead of taking the site down, we decided to send out another fifty or so e-mails.

This seemed to work better and the stats started increasing from week to week. The comments began to become more involved. The energy people put into their comments was quite fascinating. Around the spring of 1999 the site made Yahoo Picks of the Week, and the traffic went beyond what my ISP could handle. As did the comments. We had approximately 600 for the month of June 1999. Trying to keep up with the mail was becoming increasingly difficult. At times we were a month behind. Maybe three to four true found photos were appearing on a monthly basis. The site was getting many cross links from other sites, and appeared in some strange supplement of Entertainment Weekly, which never appeared in New York, although people were telling us it was there. Along with that, I was contacted by random organizations, like a genealogy magazine in Britain to do a written interview. They were interested from the standpoint of unearthing family connections. Other requests were more desperate, like a woman who was searching for a family album that was thrown away by mistake.

We also received mail from other people who had collections of their own. Collections that seemed to span years and contain hundreds of photos. There seemed to be a complete underground subculture of collectors. These people were the most enthralled by the site. I began to develop the theory that there were definitely people who acted as “Strange Attractors” of a kind, and had odd material gravitate towards them. Perhaps it was an attraction combined with a sensibility.

I agree about your comment about some people being almost predisposed to find things. I’m 31 and in my life have found among the photos…. a 5 karat diamond ring when I was 10. I found 480 dollars in a discarded toilet paper box when looking for boxes to move with when I was 19. I found large bag of marijuana (like as big as a toaster) at the airport when I was 20. I found a huge gold necklace watching some track and field events at a local highschool when I was about 22. I found a Jade pendant valued at over 1000 on the floor in Wal-Mart last year and I found an endorsed US Federal check for 2,300 about a month ago. My Mom took the diamond ring…I kept the 480…I turned in the marijuana…..I sold the gold necklace….I still have the Jade pendant and I returned the endorsed check to it’s owners. (It had their home address on it).

I wouldn’t call it luck as I don’t believe in good/bad luck. I attribute it more to a keen sense of observation…I’m always scanning the area without even noticing it. With exception of the cash….All the other items I found were in plain view and in populated areas.

Take care and THANKS for your time.

Charles P.

Out of the many comments we received only about half were making it up on the site. I realized that by editing the posts constructively on a micro level, one could control the direction of the discussion. It was basically like a feedback loop. If you put garbage into the loop, you got garbage out. If a comment was made that added to the experience of looking at the image, it went up. If a comment recognized something or connected something that was previously invisible, it went up. People started to create their own mythologies. They began to invent character situations, and write dialogue scenes based on the images. The pictures, in a way, were becoming archetypes filled with symbols.

A great majority of the “easy” comments seemed to constantly reference popular culture, or whatever was in the mainstream at the time. I found these to be much less effective towards the goal of discovering what the photo was really about. Those comments were generally cut, unless they were from a unique perspective. We made a point of using abbreviations for the people’s comments or using code names so people would feel less inhibited about commenting. Most importantly, we didn’t date anything. Everything was somehow all smashed up to the present moment. If we posted notoriety or press we had gotten, the stats went down and less people looked at the site. It was almost as if, users of the site were most interested in discovering something that was a unique experience to them, and seemingly hidden to everyone else. Then they were more apt to forward the link on to a friend. At a root level, people were excited by the experience of finding the site.

Another accidental device that seemed to perpetuate comments was that we were so behind on the comment mail. This seemed to make the comments more like a competition, which only added to better writing. People who returned to the site, realized that they had to say something relevant, or their post would not make it. I really felt that if we had an automated bulletin board system of posting at the time, it would have hurt the overall quality of the comments and a certain additive sensibility. If all the comments had been about cheap humor, or media references about a current popular movie, they all would have subsequently taken that direction.

I found that the most interesting comments seemed to be from women who were literally taking the pictures apart element by element. They seemed to relate one object or person in the picture with the others, or look at the motivations of the people in the photographs. They interpreted the images and their situations more on an emotional level. I also discovered that the mysterious motivations within the photos seemed to create the interactivity. I think the more obscure the motivations and situations, the more the amplitude within the feedback loop increased.

Or course, all the photos we received weren’t totally usable. Many found photos, or photos for that matter, don’t say anything whatsoever. I consciously would pick out the ones that would make good discussions. In some cases we received photos that were obviously too vulgar. That wasn’t what the site was about. Although I remember one grisly porn snapshot someone had sent in that they had found within the coils of a refrigerator in the apartment they rented. It just kept getting weirder.

People also sent in photos that they had held onto for years and not known why. The photo had always been the topic of some sort of discussion and a kind of fetish object. An entire mythology and story developed by the finder came with the photo. Those were by far the best.

We began to get photos that were very old as well, which I enjoyed even more, as they were even more lost. Some people sent in photos that they had found mysteriously and which they believed had given them good luck for a job interview, or in another few cases, there were people who had seen the site online, gone out into the real world, and then found a mystery photo. One Civil Engineer said he had never found a photo in his life. I thought that not only was the site reacting and behaving as a result of its users, but its users were reacting and behaving differently because of the site.

One man from Mississippi had sent in some photos he had found on his front lawn after a tornado had passed through his community. He said the destruction was unbelievable and people’s lives and debris were cattered everywhere in the aftermath. He didn’t know the people in the photos, but they must have meant something to someone. I would get an occasional request from a kid in school, who needed to use the site for a creative writing project, or needed character types for a project. I told him he could, but if he got an A he had to give us the report. If he got a D, it wasn’t our fault. I got a request from someone who wanted to go into business with us to make t-shirts and clothing of select photos. I got a request from a woman who was making a project of “God’s People” for her Church Sunday school class and wanted to use some of the photo references. She wrote back a week later to say that the project had been most successful with her kindergartener kids. A Hollywood producer thought that the site had genuine “Game-Show” potential. A woman named Julie In Texas had taken a photo and put in on her own site (www.istoleyoursite.com), and then went on to explain that she had gotten fired from her job, but not before she used some of the photos most effectively.

I want to write to THANK YOU for saving me my job. Well, actually, your website bought me a few more days before they *finally* canned me.

You see, I had the dastardly task of shooting pics of all my fellow co-workers and posting them on the company “intranet” along with company bio’s. As you may expect, plenty of drones were unwilling to take mug shots. I warned them numerous times, and when it came close to deadline, there were approx 14 employees who didn’t have pictures taken. This called for desperate measures.

I was pretending to be working that day when I stumbled upon your site by accident. #23 became our CEO, #423 was the Customer Service trainer, and #448 was our receptionist, and so on. I still got fired and so just for fun, I used your photos to post bogus internet auctions on the trading site. I claimed that I owned the human disposal depository in pic #310, claiming it was a port-o-pot visited by Robert Downey Jr., and the contents left inside that facility had a street value alone of $800…unfortunately, the starting bid was only $135.

I am one of your smallest fans (I weigh less than 100 lbs.) and have told all my enemies about spillway.com.

yours (as long as those southern comfort binges don’t count) faithfully,

-unemployed and snickering

Dallas, Tx

Some of the photos began to appear in other places. A famous Mullet site had absconded with another found photo someone had sent in and an inventive character description had seemingly created itself. People intermittently began to hijack the photos into forums around the net. In most cases there was a reactionary discussion after the picture was posted in a forum. It was almost as if the photos by their very nature caused discussion. People began to use the photos as avatar images.

Much of the viral impact and the perspective of the site began to concern me slightly. We literally only received three or four pieces of negative mail out of hundreds, which thought the site was exploitative. Mostly people just laughed and were astonished by how strange human existence can be and thanked us for conceptualizing this. I kept asking myself, where does someone draw the line between intimacy and technology, when one completely eradicates the other?

I realized that one had to have an awesome respect for these lost objects in a strange way, as they were so close to oblivion, and with age became more and more enveloped in the void. The older photos really fell into the realm of archeology. Could there be archeology from ten years ago? At what point does something become archeological? Is technology changing this gap quicker than we think, or is it widening it by making all points in time more accessible?

I originally vowed to stop the experiment when we got a positive I.D.. By this, I meant someone who had recognized themselves directly, or someone they knew directly. They would get their photo back, and would win a special prize, like five more found photos or something. But this never happened in three years. I thought one woman had nailed it when she thought she recognized her sister in one unflattering photo, and said she would show the site to her and her sister’s family over Thanksgiving to make sure. Her sister had never lived in LA in the 1970s however, where the photo was found. I never heard back from the woman.

I almost began to believe that out of the thousands of people who had rifled through the site, someone had seen themselves or someone, or something more personal than public, but ironically it went unrecognized. They had not made the correct associations or connections. A familiar element might have been missing. I realized I probably wouldn’t even recognize a picture of myself from twenty years ago, if there were no associations, or the photo was totally out of context.

I started reading more about the fine artist Joseph Cornell, and his associative theories. He believed, through his studies as an observant Christian Scientist, that our entire perception of the world is made up of only associations. You take the associations away and you no longer have the world. This theory led straight to the Surrealists, and their “Ready Made Art”.

Also, by its very nature, any kind of treasure or found item is a complete contradiction between something that is both fixed and lost simultaneously. It contains both of these qualities as an object.

In November of 2000 as the craze of the internet began its economic decent, I was contacted by USA today about a phone interview and article regarding the People’s Photos. By this time, I realized that the problem with any cult project is that at its best, the inventor or creator becomes a slave to that cult. The idea of putting out a mainstream article about such a fringe subject intrigued me as much as it disturbed me. I wondered if privacy was null if limited by accessibility. Was privacy threatened digitally by mainstream conservatism?

As the article appeared in this mainstream format, I noticed immediately that the voices that were responding to the photos, had less and less to say.

At that time I had also installed automated bulletin boards which were just simple guest-books for the latest top seven found photos. There was no editorial on these top seven photos. Much of the quality of the posts and what they added to the experience immediately declined due to this. People seemed more interested in posting their comments, if they were not threatened by the other comments, and perspectives. The same laws remained from before. Adding to the experience made others add to the experience. What was also interesting, was that people definitely did not think about what they were saying, as no one judged their ideas. It was clear also that the more vulnerable the content of the photos, the more depraved and detached the posting was.

After the article, I received a request for a photo that actually appeared in print of a man riding a bicycle on what looked like a road in Florida. The man seemed as though he was in the middle of nowhere. One of the only identifiable and unusual elements in the photo was the fact that the man was riding a woman’s bicycle. The picture looked as though it was from the mid sixties. I think I found the photo on a Brooklyn street somewhere years before. The request was extremely short and said that the picture was of her father in the fifties who had retired in Florida. The woman needed to see the photo to be sure, and I told her I’d send it. As I found the actual photo and examined the back of it, I discovered words in a woman’s handwriting that I had completely missed when I scanned and titled the photo originally. The writing said:, “Summer 1948 Nantucket”. I wrote the woman back and told her about my discovery. She then told me to send the photo anyway and to “proceed as planned”. This humorless reaction was what I had feared with the entire experiment in general. It is undoubtedly the point when the project’s conceptual open-ended nature had been closed due to something that had happened in a stranger’s past. I suppose it’s the point when all open ended projects end. The project was not ironic, mysterious or humorous to this woman as she was projecting something that psychologically hurt her into the photo. She was obviously threatened by the photo in some strange way. By sending the photo to her, it also seemed as though she thought it would become un-digitized. I didn’t tell her this, as I’m not sure she was capable of understanding, but the photo had been distributed electronically across the world to thousands of computers, and had appeared in a national newspaper. I sent her the photo anyway, hoping she found what she was looking for within it.

I began to ask myself if users were keying into all this, because they were identifying with something they lost within themselves. I realized that any collection was a way of filling in an emotional gap on a basic level. The idea of individuals who coveted someone else’s lost objects spelled out something even more profound for everyone involved. Were we all obsessed with the gray space of lostness because we wanted to be connected to something personal?

Something also rang true with the rawness of these images and the comments that grew from them. This dealt with the voice. I think the experience of the archive worked best when the voice and perspective of the engagement was strong and honest. People fundamentally look for true voices. They don’t respond the same way to information that is homogenized or that is trying to fool the user for commercial reasons. When you are asking directions you look for a true voice.

If one examines the project as a type of organic system, one would align it to an organism which is highly random in nature, viral in its level of abstraction and association, and which seems to subsist in a perpetual gray area.

The experiment continues with the spillway.com site. As broadband pipelines increase I have been adding in more types of media, such as found sound, random wrong numbers, and cheesy taped marketing phone surveys. I attempted to convert some of the photos into virtual space via VRML, which could be considered to be a further reconstruction of the lost moment. There is a place set aside where the original Photo Archive resides, in case someone happens across it sometime in the future.

I’ve begun to theorize that the end point of the internet is found media. Expansion of spillway towards discovery and controlled randomness is the key.

X.F. Pine © 2001/2016

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