Three years ago, a couple of ambitious artists named Oliver Wasow and John D. Monteith began communicating by way of Facebook. Wasow, a New York-based teacher and photographer, and Monteith, a painter in South Carolina, had a common interest in "found" photography (also known as vernacular photography) and decided to do something with it.
The result is "Artist Unknown/The Free World," a collection of such photography that includes almost 20,000 images. The sampling of this vast collection that's on view at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood is provocative, to say the least.
You will inevitably have a response when you walk into the center's main gallery and see the hundreds of small, identically framed photographs blanketing the walls. The sheer volume is overwhelming, and you may balk at it or bristle with excitement. I found the abundant imagery weirdly exhilarating.
Introductory wall text explains that Wasow and Monteith surf the internet continually in search of imagery for their mammoth project. It says: "No longer just the domain of thrift stores and estate sales, countless images of unknown origin are now available via the Internet. This has resulted in entire sub-cultures of people, including the artists, becoming involved in the collecting, trading, and transforming of digital material."
An essay in the exhibition's nifty little hardback catalog by writer Marvin Heiferman likens Wasow and Monteith's enterprise to that of the great photographer Edward Steichen, who in 1955 organized more than 500 pictures into "The Family of Man." That landmark show, which originated at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where Steichen was director of photography, traveled to 37 countries, reaching an estimated 10 million viewers.
These days, about 750 million people upload and share an estimated 100 million photos on their Facebook pages every day. That frightening overabundance of imagery is the wellspring from which the artists draw for their undertaking — they serve as self-appointed curators of all that photographic documentation of life in the postmodern world. (Wasow characterizes the dissemination of these images as "a kind of 'crowd sourced' curatorial practice.")
"Artist Unknown/The Free World" is organized into little clusters of images that have a common denominator. One section features photos of people with guns, ranging from a smiling child brandishing a pistol and a man in a thong shooting a rifle to a woman with two rifles alongside what looks to be a headless deer carcass and a man with his weapons collection arrayed on the bed beside him. In another section, people pose with famous landmarks: a squinting lad stands beneath towering Mount Rushmore; the Washington Monument appears to sprout from a woman's head.
Birthday cakes, television sets, twins, dancing, prayer, mirrors, shadows, extreme hairdos — sometimes the common denominator of a grouping is evident; sometimes it's trickier to tease out. Black-and-white snapshots mingle freely with sepia and color. All are from the 20th Century. Wasow's contributions tend to emphasize vintage photos that have been scanned and digitized, while Monteith concentrates on stills taken from video.
At some point, it struck me that, with few exceptions — a handful of photos of animals and cars, for instance — the imagery is almost entirely portraiture. In the case of Monteith's webcam captures, the shots are almost invariably self-portraits. There are few landscapes and practically nothing in the way of still life. This archive is emphatically anthropocentric.
What all this says about us is up for grabs. The photos have all been ripped from their original contexts and had new ones imposed on them, raising the question of how far we can trust these images to convey much of anything beyond their own existence. They become statements of being: I have been photographed, therefore I exist(ed).
I have to wonder if all the narcissism on display is ultimately a radical form of existential desperation. Like reality TV, social media, or the mainstream mass media's general obsession with what "ordinary" people think about any given topic, our determination to be seen (and heard) is a sort of cultural exhibitionism that appears to know no bounds. A friend of mine used to say, wearily, "Put people in front of a camera and they'll do anything." The grand sweep of "Artist Unknown/The Free World" suggests he was right.