Erik Kessels’ latest book presents around 70 miniature scenes from a woman’s life. We don’t know who she is. A brief text describes the pictures as passport photos. Some might not be, but she is certainly the sole subject. We see her clothes, her changing hairstyles, her different moods – sometimes she is radiant, sometimes she appears more reflective, even gloomy. In many cases, the portrait is part of a set and we see other pictures, with different expressions, shot at the same time. The earliest is dated 1926, when she looks about four, and the last is from 1978, which would put her in her mid-50s. There is no information about why the sequence stops or what happened next.
Outwardly simple—each spread consists of a single shot on a black background—the book is utterly compelling. It is not often you get to see a person aging, almost year by year, with this unwavering focus. Although the photos will have been taken by many different hands, the effect of seeing them as a group turns the project into a self-portrait. However the pictures came to be in this book, it’s clear that the woman herself must have kept them together as a collection, through the years, as a document of her life. She could still be alive, but everything about the book suggests she has gone.
The volume is titled In Almost Every Picture and it’s the sixth in a series—each book has the same title—that began in 2001. Kessels, their creator, is best known as co-founder of the KesselsKramer advertising agency in Amsterdam, notorious for its campaigns for the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel, which somehow contrived to make a selling point out of the dogshit in its doorway. On the side, Kessels has emerged as one of the most interesting figures working in the increasingly popular area of found photography. I caught up with him at a conference in Antwerp, where we were both staying in an old hospital that had been converted into a hotel. Quirky but tranquil, it turned out to be a good place to talk about Kessels’ obsession with the traces of their existence that people leave behind in their photos.
Kessels found the pictures of the woman in Brussels. He doesn’t know her name, but he is sure she is no longer alive. In the last decade, he has amassed around 300 old albums and collections of photos. “In Brussels, there is a market that starts every day at six o’clock, until 12 o’clock, and every day there is fresh stuff,” he says. “People die and then you have these Moroccan and Turkish dealers who empty the house and put it on the market that day. I recently went there and filled my whole car again with albums.” The dealers don’t see the value of old family photos, which are of no interest to most people browsing through the junk, and will sell whole collections for a handful of euros.
While artists such as Christian Boltanski, Hans-Peter Feldmann and Joachim Schmid have been using found photographs in their artworks for decades, a wider public interest in collecting pictures found in flea markets, in forgotten corners of the attic, or under foot in the street, has taken off only in the last few years, propelled by the internet. Sites such as Look at Me and Time Tales show ordinary snapshots sent in by people around the world and publishers have joined the trend with volumes such as Anonymous (Thames & Hudson) and Photo Trouvée (Phaidon). Found, a magazine dedicated to all kinds of serendipitous revelation, published a collection of found Polaroids. In 2006, Tate Modern even ran a found photography workshop.
In his role as art director, Kessels spends his days at the agency sifting through and selecting photographs, so handling other people’s pictures comes easily. “In this case, of course, it is much more private. I find these images, in most cases, ten times more interesting than a professional photographer would make them because there are errors and mistakes. The choices they make: it’s always on an amateur level. It’s like with the drawing of a child – you sometimes find very interesting things in there.”
For the most part, collections of found photographs focus on the singular image, which has no implicit connection with other equally random images among which it is shown. Kessels has acquired thousands of pictures of this kind, but they are not what he is looking for. “I’m not interested in making a book or collection of images just randomly,” he says. “I find it much more interesting to have a story.” He held on to images of an anonymous, well-dressed Spanish woman — found in Barcelona in a box of around 400 large-format square slides — for several years before deciding to make her the subject of the first In Almost Every Picture, where, in fact, she appears in every single shot. For 13 years, starting in 1956, the photographer, who can only be her husband, posed her by the sea, in the park, in the mountains, and wherever the two happened to be taking a break. Each slide was carefully marked with a number, date and location.
After the book came out, there was an exhibition of the pictures in Barcelona. Kessels treated the invitation as a fold-out poster, asking for anyone who had known the woman to come forward. “I also made a little promo for television and they aired that a lot. She was on the news and in El Pais they called her ‘Signora X’.” A couple of weeks later, a woman in her 70s contacted the gallery to say that she had worked with Signora X at Telefónica, the phone company, that her colleague’s name was Josefina Iglesias, and that she had died around 15 years earlier. Josefina’s husband, a doctor — “a skinny, small guy”, according to Kessels, seen in a few photos in the collection — had died several years later. They were childless and there was no family.
Josefina Iglesias’ curious second life didn’t end there. Agnès B saw the pictures at the photography festival in Arles and in 2005 mounted an exhibition at her Galerie du Jour in Paris. Four of the images appeared on a limited edition of 200 Agnès B T-shirts available to fashion-conscious buyers. Does Kessels feel responsible for the way he handles the memory of dead people who never expected their private photos to surface in the public domain?
“I feel very responsible,” he says. “It would be fantastic if I could give the pictures back.” In several of the volumes, there is a line saying that if the portraits belong to you, “they will be dutifully restored”. Josefina appeared on the cover of a Dutch novel, because the publisher asked for permission, but Kessels is adamant that, with the exception of the T-shirt, which does seem questionable, he would never turn the pictures into merchandise. The books don’t make money, he says, though the Josefina volume has sold close to 10,000 copies over three print runs. Nor would he use his archive of photos in any of KesselsKramer’s commercial projects. “For instance, I’m not going to blow these images up into enormous posters and put a logo on them.”
Even so, he speculates about a further use of Josefina’s pictures at some point. “I collect the appearance of her in other media as well – when she’s on the cover of a magazine. I think I could almost do something again with that.”
In subsequent books, Kessels continued to search for a story strong enough to hold together a set of pictures. The subject for the second arrived in his lap when a Dutch photographer, Andrea Stultiens, contacted him about a collection of photographs that a student in Nijmegen had rescued from the rubbish after the death of a taxi driver named A J Paetzhold, who lived in the same building. Almost every picture shows an elderly woman sitting in the front seat of a parked Mercedes against mountainous backdrops and scenes of the open road in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. By making enquiries, they learned that the woman had been disabled and used a wheelchair.
As Kessels notes, the pictures cut together to make “an almost filmic story”, though we see a lot more of the two Mercedes cars (one grey, one brown) than of the woman, who remains a distant, mysterious figure. Why did these two people collude to record their journeys in such a restricted way? If the pair had been engaged in an art project, the results could hardly have been more uncompromising. The concentration is, however, partly the result of editing. Kessels chose not to include shots of the taxi driver’s Audi and Opel, also used for the trips, giving the material a visual continuity that life never had.
On one hand, these books of found photos appear to be straightforward transcriptions of reality: direct, surprising and touching revelations of the normally hidden circumstances of an ordinary person’s life. They appeal to viewers who know that professional cameras often lie yet who still hunger for visual truth. Kessels refers to the “fake world” of advertising and his preference, in KesselsKramer campaigns, for messy realism. “I’m more interested in a poster with a model when she has a spot, which is very annoying. I believe that people look more at that image than at a Photoshop image, or somebody with beautiful white teeth. So I would leave the spot in.”
But these collections, like all found photographs, are also fictions. They engage us because, in the absence of much, or any, information about what the pictures depict, or why, they allow us to imagine anything we like about their contents, to project our own story on to the images. (In that sense we, too, are “in almost every picture”.) The brief essays at the back of each book have a tendency to over-interpret the photos. Kessels suggests that by the time Dr Iglesias took the later pictures of Josefina, he had fallen out of love with her, pushing her back further in the frame than in the early photos. Well, maybe. And, in the fourth book, what happened to the ever-present twin who is suddenly missing from the picture shot in Gibraltar on 6 June 1946 and never appears again? Did she die? That’s the implication, though we have to take it on trust that she didn’t return in a later picture not shown in the book. But, then again, as the critic Susan Sontag noted, all photographs are memento mori – reminders of death. “What I’m interested in is how life fades, in a way, throughout the albums,” says Kessels.
These books are exploitative in the sense that the individuals they show didn’t have a choice, although there are millions of photographs in circulation featuring people who weren’t asked whether they wanted to be a subject. Kessels displays a journalistic ruthlessness in his instinct for a good ‘story’, but he does it tenderly, without irony, as a remarkable short film he made about his sister confirms. Stuttering, repeated shots of Kessels and the girl playing ping-pong in the garden create a growing sense of menace until it finally emerges that Kessels’ sister died in an accident 25 years ago and this family footage is a kind of ghostly memory. When he showed his found photos at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, in 2006, he called the exhibition Loving Your Pictures, signalling both our compulsive fascination and the feeling we invest in these images.
In any case, distinctions between public and private are much less clear-cut now. We photograph ourselves with a frequency that would have bemused earlier generations who shot pictures on costly film more sparingly. Yet only a small proportion of these digital images ever become tangible prints in an album. “In 50 or 60 years’ time, it might be the case that there is not a lot left from this period,” says Kessels. That realisation makes the discarded images he has plucked from the trash even more poignant and precious.
The KesselsKramer shop, KK Outlet, opens on 1 February at 42 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB. See Kessels’ books of found photos and other publications at kesselskramerpublishing.com