EASTHAMPTON — People reading comic books; dangerous-looking women; men named Dick. Stacy Waldman collects them all, and more, often with a particular client in mind. She buys and sells vintage snapshots and photo albums under the name House of Mirth Photos and helps other enthusiasts build their own collections, whether they’re seeking pictures of wartime pilots or the American West or kissing couples or cars. “I had one guy who used to collect photos where there were eight people in the photo — I mean, that’s an odd one,” Waldman said, but she sticks to a general rule: “No judgments . . . My mother used to say, ‘There’s a collector for everything.’”
Waldman has encountered all kinds of collectors and collections in the more-than two decades she’s been in business as a dealer of vernacular photography — pictures taken by non-professionals — combing flea markets, estate sales, and auctions for gems. She specializes in snapshots from the 20th century, when formal portraiture gave way to amateur snaps, following Kodak’s 1888 invention of a camera people could use at home. Once the simple box camera became commonplace, people “had fun taking pictures — they smiled, they did goofy things and trick photos and silly photos,” Waldman said on a recent afternoon in her shared ground-floor studio at the Eastworks building in Easthampton. “I have the greatest job because I get to look at little pieces of art every day, and it makes me happy.”
Waldman is one of a number of serious collectors and dealers of vernacular photography around the country, a tight-knit group devoted to the physicality of the printed image as the medium becomes increasingly digital. As well as being a collector, she is “a remarkable connector,” said Mark Glovsky, a real-estate lawyer who lives in Gloucester and has been buying photos from Waldman for 20-plus years. “Stacy has really been the glue that’s held that whole network together.” In addition to posting her own “found” photos, albums, and other ephemera on Instagram, she helps run Snapshot Mafia, a public group on Facebook where more than 3,000 members, including dealers and collectors, share vintage snapshots.
For collectors, part of the allure is the practicality: Snapshots are relatively inexpensive, small, and easy to store. There’s also another kind of accessibility at play. “They’re emotive. In other words, I understand them because we’ve all been in snapshots, and we’ve all taken snapshots,” said Robert E. Jackson, a longtime collector and client of Waldman’s. (His collection comprised the 2007 exhibition “The Art of the American Snapshot: 1888-1978″ at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) Unlike professional photographers, he noted, “snapshooters are pure” in that “generally they’re taking photos as an object of memory.”
Waldman estimates her own archive to include at least 20,000 photos — of course, that doesn’t include all the photos she has found and sold over the years. (Some have appeared in Ransom Riggs’s best-selling “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series.) Most of her snapshots are stored in her small studio, which is part gallery, part pawnshop with a window sign advertising “CA$H for your OLD PHOTOS.”
Some are artfully displayed on shelves: a pair of snapshots positioned just below a Kodak Brownie Bullet Camera show two different people — in color, a white woman in a red dress; in black-and-white, a Black man on an overstuffed armchair — next to their TVs. (“A lot of people collect photos of people standing proudly by their televisions,” she said.) Some are tucked away in file boxes with labels ranging from the matter-of-fact (”roadside attractions”) to the more provocative: “Naughties” rests near a small mesh basket identified as “Polaroids of a woman (mostly) modeling in her bedroom, $35 each.” Others spill out of metal tubs, on sale for a buck apiece.
“Things get lost rather quickly here,” Waldman said. They also get found. A key part of her business is buying people’s unwanted family photos; occasionally someone recognizes a relative from a photo sold online and gets in touch. The first question they ask her: “‘How’d you get this?’” she said. “Most of the time, it was at an estate sale or a flea market. And most of the time, people go, ‘Oh, I know who sold it.’” Years ago, on eBay, she sold photos of a mental hospital in Massachusetts. Soon after, “I got a letter from the state saying these were stolen and you need to return them,” she said. “Thankfully, the person I sold them to returned them to me, and I returned them to the state. I mean, stuff like that happens.”
Searching for a certain kind of treasure comes naturally to her. Waldman grew up in Randolph, N.J., the daughter of antique dealers who ran a shop called Passing Fancies. “I remember asking my father when I would go to auctions with him, ‘What do you think this is worth?’” she said. “And he goes, ‘When you sell it, you’ll find out.’”
The question of what something is worth still interests Waldman, 59, who in another life worked as a foreign exchange dealer in Madrid and Amsterdam, then as an accountant and set decorator for an independent film company in New York. In the late ′90s, she started selling items — books, antiques, costume jewelry — on eBay as a way to make a little extra money. A few years later, “I went to an auction, and I bought a big lot of photos and diaries, and I was just hooked,” she said. So were her eBay customers, some of whom continue to buy from her today. She opened House of Mirth in 2016, sharing the original space with artist Amy Johnquest; they moved to their current location in January 2020.
Waldman thinks of her own enterprise as being two separate businesses. “There’s the one where I’m selling single snapshots to people, mostly to collectors,” she said. “Then I sell photo albums that tell a story; for example, of a trip across country . . . or right now a lot of LGBTQ photo albums where there’ll be Polaroids because people could take the photo and not have to bring it somewhere to be developed.” Since COVID-19 struck, she’s sold a bunch of snapshots of people wearing masks, circa the 1918 flu pandemic. She also recently fielded requests from a prestigious medical school looking for surgical snapshots and MIT researchers on the hunt for photos of water filtration systems in the Merrimack Valley.
Her price points range from $1 for a single photo to thousands of dollars for an album, but the real value of any snapshot is in the eye of the beholder. “It just hits me. It’s really hard to say what makes a ‘good’ photo because a double-exposure photo, which is obviously a mistake, could be really beautiful,” she said. “So, it’s just what appeals to people.”
Ivan Briggs, director of comics at PBA Galleries in San Francisco, claims to have the most extensive collection of vintage comic-related photographs in the world. He’s looking for “pretty much anything that relates to comic books in photographic form,” he said, and recently bought from Waldman a snapshot of someone holding a 1940s Dick Tracy comic printed in the Chicago Tribune.
Glovsky, the lawyer-collector, isn’t after a specific subject but rather “something unusual about an image that makes it stand out,” he said. “It can be composition, it can be contrast, it can be framing, it can be something accidental that occurs . . . but it works as a piece of art.”
W.M. Hunt, a photography collector and curator based in New York, seeks “magical, heart-stopping images of people in which you cannot see their eyes,” he said; a selection of these images compose his book “The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the Unconscious.”
He loves snapshots with “some element of rapture or transcendence” — people flying through the air, or enrobed in a beam of light — though he appreciates the pictures of sunbathers that Waldman also sends him. “It’s just this complete fetish I have with her,” he said. “The way we work is periodically she’ll send me a shoebox of photographs . . . she has taken the time to vet it, so she’ll put pictures in it she thinks I’ll like, and she’s very good at it.”
Collecting is “this real visceral thing,” he said. “You’re just kind of obsessed with the weirdness of it, and it’s very private and intense. Stacy will always say, ‘I’m never really sure with you what it’s gonna be,’ but I know she has a really good instinct for it — she’s always surprised and engaged by it.”
Jackson, who lives in Seattle, now maintains a collection of around 15,000 photographs. He also collects trick cabinet cards, which Waldman remembered — she sold Jackson an image of a woman in a bottle that is “just the best example of that genre I have ever seen,” he wrote in an email.
Waldman herself has a few pet collections. She keeps some of her favorite pictures in her loft apartment upstairs from her studio. “I have a small collection of photos of people with frizzy hair because I have frizzy hair,” she said, touching her curly pigtails, dyed purple. Among them are 19th-century Circassian circus women who “put beer in their hair to make it frizzy,” she said.
Then there’s her “Dick” collection, photos of men — and women, children, even animals — who share the name. The idea took root one day as she thumbed through a box of photos and saw one of a man labeled “Dick.” “I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m gonna start collecting Dicks!’” said Waldman, who later published a book of the photos, also sharing the name. She’s currently planning a related exhibit with her studio partner at Pulp gallery in Holyoke.
Waldman now conducts most of her business online, meeting with customers in her studio by appointment only. In the past, she’s noticed that people who walk in off the street don’t always get it. “They just don’t understand why somebody would want a photo of them,” she said.
Some collectors even seek out damaged photos — ripped, taped, moldy, or touched nearly to the point of disintegration. A damaged photograph presents another reality, Jackson explained, because “it was not created by the person; it was found . . . I might be the only person that likes it, but I like it enough that I want to own it.”
Waldman has a whole selection of damaged photographs, though there’s one sub-genre that especially appeals to her: the wallet photo, “which is just a photo that’s been in the wallet and you can tell it’s been really loved,” she said. She walked over to a box on a shelf and pulled out a few worn examples, holding them carefully in her hand.
“I love photos that you can tell have been loved,” she said.