Digging deep for lost treasures

To mark the opening of an exhibition dedicated to his life-long passion for vernacular photography, we put a few questions to collector Thierry Struvay, zooming in on the Belgian photographs in his collection and talking early beginnings, seeing what others don’t and the differences in style and substance between New York, Brussels and Paris.

When did your interest in vernacular photography begin?

I’ve always been passionate about photography, essentially through books. I probably started amassing them some 30 years ago. At the time, photography was still considered a lesser art – think of amateur photography…I functioned by associations, looking for images that made some sort of references to things I had experienced or seen.

Can you remember which is the first found photograph you ever bought?

I remember having found, one morning at the old market, a large format print depicting a cactus that reminded me of Karl Blossfelt’s work. I bought it for the meager sum of 20 francs. I since must have lost it whilst moving from one home to the other.

Digging deep for lost treasures

At its core, what do you think explains your interest in vernacular photography?

Being a very curious person, I always looked through shoeboxes filled with little treasures that represented a lifetime and now finding themselves brutally abandoned on the damp cobble stones of Brussels’ flea market. I’d find everything in them: jewelry, buttons, wallets still containing a loved one’s photograph. And it must have been my willingness to somehow save these intimates moments that pushed me to take a closer look at these photographs. I then very quickly developed the habit of looking at the family albums that ended up on the market stalls, often just sifting through them even though the stall holders would tell me to take them along, saying “they’ll be thrown away anyway.”

When looking for photographs, what do you look for?

When I go to the flea market in the morning, I have no idea what I’m going to find. Sometimes I look through a thousand pictures and don’t see anything…none of them express something for me. The next day, I’ll go back and take a look at a small Kodak folder that still holds a few negatives and failed pictures that evidently weren’t good enough for the family album. And bingo, nothing but masterpieces. That’s the magic of flea markets…

Does your collecting follow any patterns?

I don’t think I’m a collector in the traditional sense of the word because I don’t look for a specific theme. It’s often by coincidence that I realize I’ve accumulated hundreds of images that all are, somehow, part of a family. The similarity of the photographs I collect really happens subconsciously. You could say I collect more with a wish to learn and understand.

Is your collection organized in any way?

No. As soon as I buy them from the flea markets, I put them back in my own shoeboxes. I file them in protective sheets and class them in no particular order. That being said, despite there being no real classification, I know exactly where my favourite pictures are.

Digging deep for lost treasures

How many photographs would you estimate your collection holds?

I never counted them, but given the amount of shoeboxes stacked up in my office, I’d say 100,000. Between 2011 and 2014, I bought 8,421pictures in New York. I only know this because I had to list the contents of my belongings for customs when I moved back to Belgium from the States.

You continued collecting whilst living in the States for four years. How would say the photographs you found there differed from the photographs you found in Belgium ?

It’s in New York that I took note of the importance of this collection, mostly because the photographs I found in there were so different than what I had grown used to finding in Brussels and Paris. In New York, they were sometimes more extreme, more violent. The city allows everyone to live lives outside of the norm, and the images you find are, as a result, just as surprising. It’s a city of extremes, a city of the “now,” one where you discard the past with astonishing ease. And that’s probably why the intimate moments of these unknowns are so readily spread out for everyone to see – entire lives, childhood memories. Truth is, the images are often dosed in mystery, taking along with them the small and big secrets of extraordinary lives.

Digging deep for lost treasures

Did your collection take a different turn since your American travels? If so, how ?

I learned to look at photographs differently, with a fresh eye, in an environment that wasn’t familiar to me, without any marks or references. I met seasoned collectors that very quickly adopted me. Indeed, a little group of passionates often comes together to share stories and their latest finds. Fact is, the perception of others gave me more confidence, allowed me to explore other aspect of vernacular photography. And the selection I’ll be showing at Sorry We’re Closed is a good example of this.

Preparing for this exhibition, what were important aspects of your collection you wanted to touch upon ?

Amongst the thousand images brought back from the States, I selected those particularly American ones, those pictures I’d never have found in Belgium and that told a story, a moment in my life.

Did you discover anything you hadn’t previously paid attention to in your collection whilst preparing the exhibition ?

Together with Sébastien Janssen of Sorry We’re Closed, we looked through my initial selection a few times and we’d systematically find other centers of interest. Fact is, you could look through the selection 20 times and find something new – new details, new stories – at each new look..

Digging deep for lost treasures

Looking at your collection , do you seem to tilt more towards one period or the other ?

Each period is interesting. The pre-war American photographs are so much more whimsical than what you’d find in Europe around the same period. In the States, the use of Kodak’s Brownie by families and its relatively low cost allowed for a lot of experimentation that was, until then, only done by professionals. I also very much appreciate the colour photography of the 80s, the end of the snapshot’s glory days. And yes, digital cameras followed by camera phones definitely condemned this century-old discipline.

What would you say to the budding collector of vernacular photography?

Be curious, be passionate, learn to look and, especially, to see what others don’t.

Other than flea markets, what are the best sources to unearth found photography?

Unfortunately, many bookshops have disappeared these last few years and flea markets remain the best places to make discoveries. Brussels’ flea market is supplied daily, so everyday a treasure is likely to be found, after years of neglect, from an old box of biscuits.

Digging deep for lost treasures

How would you want people to take this exhibition? What should they see ?

This exhibition is a puzzle in which each element sits imperfectly with its neighbour. This means it is possible to compose it differently. I told a story, your turn to tell another one. I remember having found, one morning at the old market, a large format print depicting a cactus that reminded me of Karl Blossfelt’s work. I bought it for the meager sum of 20 francs. I since must have lost it whilst moving from one home to the other.

At its core, what do you think explains your interest in vernacular photography?

Being a very curious person, I always looked through shoeboxes filled with little treasures that represented a lifetime and now finding themselves brutally abandoned on the damp cobble stones of Brussels’ flea market. I’d find everything in them: jewelry, buttons, wallets still containing a loved one’s photograph. And it must have been my willingness to somehow save these intimates moments that pushed me to take a closer look at these photographs. I then very quickly developed the habit of looking at the family albums that ended up on the market stalls, often just sifting through them even though the stall holders would tell me to take them along, saying “they’ll be thrown away anyway.”

When looking for photographs, what do you look for?

When I go to the flea market in the morning, I have no idea what I’m going to find. Sometimes I look through a thousand pictures and don’t see anything…none of them express something for me. The next day, I’ll go back and take a look at a small Kodak folder that still holds a few negatives and failed pictures that evidently weren’t good enough for the family album. And bingo, nothing but masterpieces. That’s the magic of flea markets…

Digging deep for lost treasures

Does your collecting follow any patterns?

I don’t think I’m a collector in the traditional sense of the word because I don’t look for a specific theme. It’s often by coincidence that I realize I’ve accumulated hundreds of images that all are, somehow, part of a family. The similarity of the photographs I collect really happens subconsciously. You could say I collect more with a wish to learn and understand.

Is your collection organized in any way?

No. As soon as I buy them from the flea markets, I put them back in my own shoeboxes. I file them in protective sheets and class them in no particular order. That being said, despite there being no real classification, I know exactly where my favourite pictures are.

How many photographs would you estimate your collection holds?

I never counted them, but given the amount of shoeboxes stacked up in my office, I’d say 100,000. Between 2011 and 2014, I bought 8,421pictures in New York. I only know this because I had to list the contents of my belongings for customs when I moved back to Belgium from the States.

Digging deep for lost treasures

You continued collecting whilst living in the States for four years. How would say the photographs you found there differed from the photographs you found in Belgium ?

It’s in New York that I took note of the importance of this collection, mostly because the photographs I found in there were so different than what I had grown used to finding in Brussels and Paris. In New York, they were sometimes more extreme, more violent. The city allows everyone to live lives outside of the norm, and the images you find are, as a result, just as surprising. It’s a city of extremes, a city of the “now,” one where you discard the past with astonishing ease. And that’s probably why the intimate moments of these unknowns are so readily spread out for everyone to see – entire lives, childhood memories. Truth is, the images are often dosed in mystery, taking along with them the small and big secrets of extraordinary lives.

Did your collection take a different turn since your American travels? If so, how ?

I learned to look at photographs differently, with a fresh eye, in an environment that wasn’t familiar to me, without any marks or references. I met seasoned collectors that very quickly adopted me. Indeed, a little group of passionates often comes together to share stories and their latest finds. Fact is, the perception of others gave me more confidence, allowed me to explore other aspect of vernacular photography. And the selection I’ll be showing at Sorry We’re Closed is a good example of this.

Digging deep for lost treasures

Preparing for this exhibition, what were important aspects of your collection you wanted to touch upon ?

Amongst the thousand images brought back from the States, I selected those particularly American ones, those pictures I’d never have found in Belgium and that told a story, a moment in my life.

Did you discover anything you hadn’t previously paid attention to in your collection whilst preparing the exhibition ?

Together with Sébastien Janssen of Sorry We’re Closed, we looked through my initial selection a few times and we’d systematically find other centers of interest. Fact is, you could look through the selection 20 times and find something new – new details, new stories – at each new look..

Digging deep for lost treasures

Looking at your collection , do you seem to tilt more towards one period or the other ?

Each period is interesting. The pre-war American photographs are so much more whimsical than what you’d find in Europe around the same period. In the States, the use of Kodak’s Brownie by families and its relatively low cost allowed for a lot of experimentation that was, until then, only done by professionals. I also very much appreciate the colour photography of the 80s, the end of the snapshot’s glory days. And yes, digital cameras followed by camera phones definitely condemned this century-old discipline.

What would you say to the budding collector of vernacular photography?

Be curious, be passionate, learn to look and, especially, to see what others don’t.

Digging deep for lost treasures

Other than flea markets, what are the best sources to unearth found photography?

Unfortunately, many bookshops have disappeared these last few years and flea markets remain the best places to make discoveries. Brussels’ flea market is supplied daily, so everyday a treasure is likely to be found, after years of neglect, from an old box of biscuits.

How would you want people to take this exhibition? What should they see ?

This exhibition is a puzzle in which each element sits imperfectly with its neighbour. This means it is possible to compose it differently. I told a story, your turn to tell another one.

Digging deep for lost treasures
 
ME – Thierry Struvay
Vernacular Photography, New York 2011 – 2014
Until 26th March
Sorry We’re Closed, Brussels
sorrywereclosed.com