Every Love Story is a Ghost Story
By Shea Sweeney
The title of the project is a quote from David Foster Wallace. He loved (loved is probably the wrong word) the phrase and it made many appearances in his work. After DFW’s suicide, D.T. Max published a biography called Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It’s safe to say that the phrase followed DFW to the grave. That said, this project is not about David Foster Wallace. I’m tempted to say it has nothing to do with him, but that would be incorrect. This is a project about ghosts. DFW, it seems, was followed by many.
Regardless of what DFW meant by “every love story is a ghost story”, I like the phrase because it implies that in every story or connection or action there is a shadow story, connection, action. We imbue objects and events with meaning, with omnipresent ghosts that resonate beyond what we see before us. We have faith in the uncanny. I wanted to research the infrastructure of this sensation. As I find more people to talk to, I hope this project about found things will continue to grow.
At noon there were seventeen people waiting in the small front desk area in a Manhattan storage unit warehouse. Some had trickled in only a few minutes earlier, but most had been waiting for an hour. Snow was coming down rapidly in large parachute flakes.
“Twelve fifteen. What did I tell you? Twelve fifteen.”
A man with white hair and soggy work boots leaned on a wall and shoved his hands into his sweatshirt pockets. The younger guy he was talking to was focused on his phone, watching a video of kid jumping into a pool, and didn’t look up. The white-haired man turned around. Behind him another man was seated in a chair with his legs crossed, holding a paper towel to what looked like an infected fingernail. He was framed by a wall display of different sized boxes that arched over him like a heavenly backlight. To his left, a man with smudged glasses crouched between two boxes, gripping one leg of the chair. They had been whispering to one another for the past hour, but when the man turned they casually stopped.
“Your friend is late for the first time,” said the white-haired man.
“He’s a dinosaur,” the seated man laughed, “Didn’t want to get out of the house.”
The men working behind the front desk busied themselves with customer calls and bickered about giving customers misinformation or sitting in some other guy’s chair without asking. At once though, the bickering suddenly stopped because a man with a glossy black ponytail had started a FaceTime call and a child was crying loudly on the other end. Two other men gathered around the phone.
“Its okay, its okay. Get ready. You gotta get ready to go. Get some breakfast and get cleaned up, okay? Okay.” The man with the ponytail spoke in an authoritative yet pained voice. He hung up the call.
“Your daughter?” a man beside him said. He was wearing a grey beanie that was cuffed on one side and drooping down almost over his eyebrow on the other.
“Yeah,” he replied.
The man in the beanie stood and started slowly pacing. “My daughter had a fever of one hundred and five two days ago. I’m telling you, I was just holding her naked and I just started to cry.”
A different guy who hadn’t been talking at all interjected.
“Did you take her to the hospital?” he said.
“Yes, yes I did. It was…I paid for a cab there and then a cab back, and because, you know, it was just a lot. And the medical bill. She had something though. It was bad.”
The man who had asked about the hospital also had a daughter. The conversation had moved from boxes and units to daughters. The two others reassured the man in the beanie that it would be okay. That their daughters had been sick too. The man with the ponytail looked up at the cluster of people waiting.
“The auctioneer is almost here. But we can’t start anyway because some files still have to be cleared.” Meaning, they had to make sure that the contents of the six units that were going to be bid on that day were indeed available.
That’s what everyone had been waiting an hour for. To bid on the unknown objects inside six personal storage units that belonged to people who had stopped paying their rental fees, disappeared, or maybe, died. Information about the previous owners wasn’t discussed.
At twelve fifteen, much to the white-haired man’s delight, the auctioneer showed up. He was a short man with a sculpted grey beard, baseball cap, dirty red vest, and collared shirt with a game fish textile.
The group of now twenty people – mostly middle-aged men, with the exception of myself and one other woman who was there with her husband – gathered around the auctioneer. Many guys came up to the auctioneer and shook his hand or patted his back. They knew each other. He started reading off the rules of the auction – just protocol since almost everyone already knew – and yelled when a group of guys in the back were talking and laughing over him.
“If you are the winning bidder, you will put down a $100 cleaning deposit which will be returned to you after you clean out the unit. If there’s any trash or damage it will be removed from your deposit. If you find any documents or personal photographs, return them to the office. Like, if you find a wedding album, return it to the office. Nobody has use for that anyway.”
Nobody has use for that anyway.
A few days ago I didn’t know anything about Nigel Maister. He was a woman at a waterfall staring into the camera, a group of children huddled in front of a Christmas tree clutching toy guns, a close up of a man with a battered face – light crust of blood on his forehead, a grey hound in the foreground of a desert landscape. I didn’t even know the name Nigel Maister. I emailed the “contact” address on foundphotographs.com, a digitized found photo collection that plays Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th” on a continuous loop when you enter the site. When I see a black and white photo anywhere now I hear the song in my head. Nigel materialized. We talked on the phone for an hour.
Nigel is a theater professor at the University of Rochester. He grew up in South Africa and has a billowy accented voice and accompanying chuckle that could be easily mistaken as British. He laughs often. “It’s nice to talk to someone about collecting found photographs,” he said. He mentioned more than once that many people who know about his collection are confused about why anyone would want photos taken by strangers of strangers just living their day-to-day lives.
“I don’t know where my interest in found photos came from,” Nigel said. When he was young in South Africa he like sifting through flea market photo bins, but didn’t think much of the hobby, which wasn’t really even a hobby at that point. This changed after coming to the United States and seeing two exhibits on vernacular photography at the Met and MOMA. He realized that there were people who were attracted to, maybe obsessed, with photos that were taken by people who, for the most part, never intended for those images to be understood as art; photos that had a different purpose in the hands of the long gone photographer than in the hands of the collector. He doesn’t like the term “vernacular photography” either because it sounds pretentious.
Nigel said his focus is on 19th Century images, but you wouldn’t really know that from seeing his site. It’s vast and though the images are sometimes broken up by style, era, or theme, there isn’t overarching consistency. “My collection is unusual in that many collectors focus on one thing, but my interest is very broad…So, it can be hard to explain it to people when they ask what I collect and why I do this.” Nigel said that there were three qualities he looked for in found photos, and if one of them is missing, he won’t buy it: there has to be something uncanny about the image – something striking that evokes an emotional or uncomfortable response, its funny (though he said this doesn’t always have to be the case), and it’s graphically interesting.
“I started where everyone does, at markets and junk shops, then auctions and sales, and now with dealers and eBay.” He acknowledged that the term “found photograph” is not totally accurate, since its not as if he just happens across photos any more. The images come to him now have been preselected by the people who sell them. The network of snapshot dealing may be small, but it is intricate. There are people called dealers who control the way vernacular photos are sold to serious collectors.
“Before I started collecting, I didn’t know any of this, but there is actually a front line of people working for the dealer who find the photos. That material sold off directly from the dealer first, then the others go to auctions and eBay. So, the first thing you do when you meet a dealer is say can you show me the material that no one has seen before.”
I asked if such a niche business is very lucrative for the dealers. “Yes, I think it is,” he said. “I know someone who makes their living entirely off dealing snapshots.” eBay has completely changed the snapshot dealing business. Nigel mentioned that there were a few really big dealers on eBay and some photos that might have been bought for fifty cents sell for anything from twenty five to hundreds of dollars. On top of this, the world of found photo collecting has its own trends. “At one point everyone was very interested in photos of diving, of people diving. Then it was shadow of photographer. That’s when you can see the shadow of the photographer in the shot and it adds a strange something to it that is sometimes paradoxical.” There’s a black and white photo on Nigel’s site of a dalmation sitting in the grass and staring up with its head cocked while two dark human silhoettes lie ominously to either side.
“And, if you’ve seen enough images you see that there were ways of taking pictures that were fashionable at certain times, kind of like selfies are now. There was a time in the 19th century when people were taking a lot of snapshots through their legs, and sitting in foliage was also very popular. I’ve seen a lot of photos, usually of women, where it’s an image bush but then you see that there is someone in the bush smiling. That was very popular.” Nigel even said that he could tell when a snapshot was European or American.
“The American snapshots are more interesting, I think, they are more playful. Right after World War I Europe was trying to recover and their snapshots reflect that. The American shots reflect a certain lifestyle, a different lifestyle. I do think you can generalize in this way.”
I asked him what he thought about South African snapshots. He sighed. “I have some of course, but I don’t know. I don’t think they are very interesting. They are much more like European snapshots.”
Nigel’s struggle now is that he has so many photographs its becoming difficult to archive them. The photos exist both online and as physical objects. I asked where he stores them. He said in boxes in his house. After we talked he went looking for the photo of the man reading that he talks about in the video voiceover (see above) and couldn’t find it. The site has hundreds of photos, but its outdated and Nigel has many more that he hasn’t converted to digital.
In the 1970s and 1980s Martha Cooper was working as a photojournalist for the New York Post and became famous for her documentation of the the graffiti scene. When I was looking for found photo collections online I came across KodakGirl.com. It’s a collection made up almost entirely of photographs of women holding cameras. There are even very specific, wonderfully curious subcategories like “Bears:” images of people and cameras and bears, together. The site looked like it may have been constructed at the advent of the internet, and I wasn’t sure if the email address was still functional. But, it was. And Cooper was on the other end.
I crossed Berry Street to where a line of yellow police tape was strung over the road. It wasn’t blocking the sidewalk and people walked past it as if it were just another mild inconvenience of urban living. There was another line of tape about forty feet past the first. It was blocking the sidewalk but people simply lifted it above their heads. Some attempted the flair of stepping sideways over the tape. Straight ahead, about a block away, the building was still burning. It was a CitiStorage warehouse that held thousands of medical and legal documents. A mixture of white smoke and steam spilled out the top of the structure like a dry heave. A fire trick blasted water at the exposed skeleton. It looked like they were torturing the warehouse. I thought about sitting in the backseat of my dad’s truck when I was a kid, a winding mountain highway, a bull moose flailing in the road. Both of its antlers had broken off and it was lying on its side kicking, a totaled car was parked nearby. Two police officers were standing next to the moose with their hands on their hips, one holding a black hunting rifle. They were just staring at the moose, like they didn’t know when the right time was to shoot it because there were so many people around.
I walked toward a large cop standing at the end of the block, maybe the largest cop I’ve ever seen. There was a tiny cafe on the block that was getting a lot of business because people wanted an excuse to walk closer to the burning building. The cop was staring at me. I had a camera around my neck.
“Who are you?” The cop said.
“I’m a person,” I replied.
“You’re not supposed to be over here. There’s two lines of police tape.”
I said everyone else was walking past it and left to walk down an adjacent street where there wasn’t any tape. The Empire State Building’s lightning rod was protruding through the smoke, making a mockery from across the river. You could still have this…It’s all here…A few people had gathered at a corner where two cops were pulling tape across an intersection and twisting it around a pole with an endearing lack of fineness that made it seem like they had never done it before. Maybe they hadn’t.
I stood around for a long time. Fire trucks came and left. Firefighters with tired eyes shook hands and watched while others continued to blast water into the warehouse. More people walked up to the tape. Parents gripping the tiny hands of toddlers, couples leaning on each other, a cluster of Hasidic men. A child picked up singed medical document bleeding ink into the snow. He ran to his mother yelling.
“Mom! Mom! This says urine on it!”
A page from another urine test, or maybe the same one, was in a snow bank next to me. I hadn’t seen it earlier, but once I leaned down to pick up one, I began to notice all the others. There was a syphilis test for an inmate at Rutgers, drug test, medical evaluation, corner of a document signed by Dr. Smoke. I picked them up. I felt guilty leaving them there. I felt guilty taking them. The next day there was an article in the New York Times with a photograph of the water front covered in paper and photographs. I man with his shirt unbuttoned revealing a large tattoo of Jesus on his chest.
This whole project was going to be about one place. A place that houses a business which sells objects that once belonged to other people who have, for the most part, died. But, the more you spend time at a place the more you realize that the place itself, its eccentricities, its flaws and triumphs are really an externalization of the inner life of a group of people or one person. For that reason, I don’t feel that it’s a good idea to disclose the name of the place, though the details may give it away. I didn’t have permission from the owner to write about it. I was going to ask for permission, but got a tip that the owner would be very angry if I approached them about anything other than purchasing an item. I’m going to call the owner Cody. Cody is prone to extreme mood swings and verbally attacking and insulting customers at the store. I’ve never actually met Cody, just heard about them from acquaintances and through Yelp reviews. But, I feel like I know them.
I’ve been coming to this store for a long time, years before ever writing about it. I used to really enjoy being there – walking through the isles of stuff, sifting through the bins of old photographs. Everything, especially the photographs, were uncanny. But now that I know, or I feel like I know why the store is the way it is or why it exists at all, it makes me sad. I don’t like being there any more. And this is all funny because here I am researching the way that people feel connected to other people through objects and photographs, people who are dead or who they simply don’t know, and I’m acting out that exact behavior in regards to Cody. I feel Cody’s presence in the store and I want to tread lightly, as if every object could explode at any moment.
An employee told me that once someone came in and spent a long time sifting through the photographs. Right before leaving they came up to the counter with a photo and showed it to him. They said the young man in the photo was their friend – a friend who had passed away recently in a freak accident. For a while there was a photo displayed of three teenage girls sitting on a bed. A woman told the employee that that was a photograph of her and her friends that they had taken right after dying their hair.
There was another story of a man who found a photograph of his young, much blonder self in the store. The man’s first boyfriend was German. They lived in the city together, and when the German boy left for good he stopped paying the rental fee on his storage unit. The unit was auctioned off and the content, including photos, were purchased by someone who sold them in another auction. Cody bought the photographs.