The collection began thanks to a friend who was running late.
Waiting for his companion at a Chelsea flea market in New York in the early 1990s, Peter J. Cohen thumbed through a bin of bygone snapshots, torn out of discarded family albums. He didn’t know what attracted him to the images — he’d never been much interested in vintage photography, and he wasn’t the type of person to reach for a camera to document his own life — but, on a whim, he purchased five of them for $8. When he got home and inspected the photographs more closely, he knew right away that he wanted to return to the flea market to buy more.
“I took a good look at these five snapshots, and I said, I don’t know quite what it is about this, but I’m going back next weekend,” said Cohen, 68, an investment consultant and manager by trade. “And I’ve been going back the next weekend for a long time.”
Two-and-a-half decades later, that pile of five snapshots has burgeoned to 50,000-some photographs: lost or discarded personal images culled from the market and from antiques dealers, galleries, and other sources, amounting to what is perhaps the foremost private collection of vernacular, or amateur, photography.
Cohen’s found photographs, which span the 20th century and were purchased primarily in the United States, encapsulate the American experience in their depictions of everyday life. They showcase the most ordinary of moments, like a group of young men clowning around, heads stuck through a fence, or a baby, unaccustomed to the flash of a camera, caught with a deer-in-headlights look. And now, 300 of them are on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, in an exhibition titled “Unfinished Stories: Snapshots From the Peter J. Cohen Collection.”
Unlike many collectors of vernacular photography, who often are interested only in images that fit certain criteria or themes, Cohen will purchase anything that catches his eye. Most of his finds are in black and white, though he does have a sizable compilation of color snapshots, and his photographs predominately feature human subjects. He often likes to think about what transpired before and after photos were taken, what became of the people in front of and behind the lens, like he did with one of those first five images he acquired.
“The one that was the most poignant to me was labeled September 1944 and it’s a woman, maybe in her late 20s, leaning against a brick wall. She’s not particularly alluring, but there’s just a real longing in her eyes,” Cohen recalled. “In my mind, in the story I’ve made up for the photograph, she’s waiting for the war to end and for her loved one to come home, maybe a husband or a boyfriend.”
Spending an average of 15 to 20 hours per week looking for additions to his collection, Cohen still frequents flea markets, but is just as likely to peruse the Web in search of snapshots or full albums, scrolling through eBay while he watches Jon Stewart. His finds are neatly stored in colored boxes. He displays a few framed on the walls of his Manhattan apartment, rotating them every once in a while.
He organizes his collection by themes he’s come to recognize over the years. Many of the groupings are whimsical and unexpected: people standing, facing away from the camera, with one leg kicked up in the air; people precariously perched on ladders, up poles and in trees; and one that Cohen calls “The Mysteries of Interpretive Dance.” The categories, by and large, record Americans at play.
“Photography is a joyous activity; starting with the Kodak Brownie in the 1890s, you start to see in large measure that people are hamming it up and being extremely expressive [for the camera],” said Cohen, who once taught US history. “Americans in particular completely embrace spontaneity and joy in their family photographs. I’ve looked at enough photos over time to know that you don’t see that as much in other parts of the world.”
Cohen even looks for shots with presumably inadvertent features, like a photographer’s shadow or a double exposure. One of his finds, preserved in an album “Despite User Error,” boasts the caption, “Accidental double exposure — Hell!” Another favorite of Cohen’s is a badly crafted 1940s photo of a horse whose rider’s head is cut off, but is still labeled “Uncle George.”
Cohen will also purchase damaged photos, whether they’ve been cut, bent, or stained with coffee.
“I sometimes think those features add to the sort of emotional impact of the overall image,” he said. “You realize that you’re looking at a physical object that was developed, handled, put in a wallet. I like that part of the story.”
After 25 years of collecting, his passion hasn’t waned; he continues to create new categories, and has come across his fair share of surprises. Once, flipping through a random album given to him by friends, he found a lone snapshot of his grandfather posing in front of his sailboat. Though not labeled, the photo’s subject was identifiable thanks to the boat’s unique name, the “Devshire.”
Cohen’s vast assemblage has generated interest from a number of museums and institutions, including the Museum of Fine Arts, whose present exhibition is arranged to reflect Cohen’s organizational themes. Comical groupings such as “Hula Madness” and “Feet First” adjoin categories that chronicle advancements of modern life and the photographic medium.
The museum’s interest in vernacular photography, mirrored by gifts Cohen has given to the Met, MoMA, and elsewhere, indicates the broad appeal of the amateur snapshot.
“Photographs made by people who do not, first and foremost, consider themselves artists are very nostalgic,” said Karen Haas, the MFA’s Lane Curator of Photographs, who, along with colleagues Kristen Gresh, Anne Havinga, and Ben Weiss, selected photos for the exhibition. “People feel a connection to these types of photos.”
Though still avidly collecting, Cohen plans to continue giving away much of his collection. He asserts that the snapshot deserves a place in art history: “I don’t believe vernacular photography is the be-all and end-all of photography, but I believe it played a significant role in the development of [the medium]. Amateurs actually invented and promoted a huge number of techniques that went on to be used by professionals.”
Cohen hopes others find the same joy that he does, whether they grew up with the once ubiquitous silver gelatin photographs or if they’re of a younger generation accustomed to documenting their lives digitally, posting shots on Facebook or Instagram instead of seeing them in print.
“Some people find them charming, and others find them a sort of relic of the early age, but these are things that everyone can relate to,” Cohen says. “Everyone’s parents or grandparents had photo albums.”
And, he adds, there’s something enticing about being able to view so many images by the most famous photographer of all time: Unknown.
Eryn Carlson can be reached at eryn