Lost and Found in America

Lenny Gottlieb’s sublime Lost and Found in America is a book that few of the amateur photographers featured could have imagined happening as they fumbled with their point-and-shoot instamatics in the autumn of 1968. Gottlieb worked at a processing lab in Boston and had the vision to rescue over 30,000 photographs that had been marked as ‘rejects, destined for the trash’ as Andrew Roth, who staged an exhibition of 500 images from Gottlieb’s collection, puts it.

The book is filled with the sort of sweetly intimate, technically clumsy fragments of home life that have come to define the family snapshot as a photographic genre; the collection’s impact heightened by the knowledge that the factory’s quality control staff, ‘making their choices about focus and exposure… carrying out their own personal censorship of the memories and moments of others’, had dismissed everything here as being unfit to be returned to their owners:

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The book has an extra resonance in that the photographs are presented against the backdrop of the war raging in Vietnam and ‘the violence that flickered on our TV screens’. It’s an interesting, ambitious way of framing the collection, creating a stark contrast to the scenes depicted. Aesthetically, in the context of the current vogue for the retro-hip of expired film, toy cameras, light leaks, and chemical burns, a number of the collection’s photographs resonate with the sort of nostalgic, ethereal beauty that now comes as standard with iPhone camera apps.

As 21st century life becomes ever-more subject to photographic documentation it’s interesting to see how a previous generation responded to innovations in mass market photography, both in terms of how the elements within the frame were staged and arranged, and what was seen as being worthy of photographing- amongst the images of family celebrations and days basking in the early autumn sunshine are scenes of random everyday activity that, viewed without any contextual frame of reference, seem positively loopy to modern eyes. Gottlieb’s inspired sequencing of the images weaves a narrative thread that accentuates this, subtly and cleverly guiding the viewer through a unique collection, drawing parallels between the forces of global politics and details of everyday life.

Lost and Found in America is available through the peerless Dewi Lewis Publishing.

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