Interview with Billy Parrott
First I would love to ask, how did your love for photography and visuals come about? Was it something you were always interested and drawn to?
I’ve been drawn to visuals for as long as I can remember. I collected comic books and baseball cards growing up and I read a lot. One of my first memories of something related specifically to photography was a book that my grandmother had called The Instant It Happened. I was maybe six years old at the time. The book was a collection of Associated Press news photographs with recollections from the photographers and I remember being fascinated by the luck and coincidence of a photographer being at the “right place at the right time” and their ability to tell a story with pictures. I spent hours with that book.
I also remember looking at baseball cards and being drawn to photographic techniques. The 1975 Topps Brooks Robinson baseball card was thumbtacked to my bedroom wall because I loved the blurred colors of the background. I didn’t know about brokah at the time or depth of field, I just knew what I liked from a visual standpoint.
For about five years you oversaw The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection. The Collection has hundreds of thousands of images from books, publications, magazines and more. For me visiting the collection was like stepping in to a time machine, going back in time to visuals that are no longer a part of our visual culture in the same way. What was your experience working in such a magical place?
Working in the Picture Collection was an amazing experience. The Collection began in 1915 and for over a century librarians have been collecting visual information as times were changing and as history was happening. These images have been organized into over 12,000 different subject headings, from Abacus to Zoology, so artists, designers, researchers, or the curious can easily dive into any subject. Picture Collection materials have informed and inspired the work of countless artists, including Joseph Cornell, Diego Rivera, Andy Warhol, and Taryn Simon. Today, despite this digital age where you can find immediately find countless images online, the Picture Collection remains a unique and important resource. The majority of the Collection is not digitized, so from an access standpoint you have to be in room 100 of the main library to look at the materials, but once you’re there I promise you’ll find images that you won’t see or find anywhere else. It’s a rabbit hole unlike any other in New York City’s creative community.
How do you think, from looking at all these pictures, that our visual and photographic culture has changed over the years?
It’s fascinating to see the change over time in the Picture Collection within a specific subject such as Advertising, and the way the Collection is organized allows you to easily browse subjects within advertising (cosmetics, food, cigarettes, etc…) by decade. There are obvious changes, such as the transition from illustration to the use of photography, but by looking at ads throughout the decades of the 20th century you notice how products were marketed, who the target audiences were, and which populations were all but ignored. As times became more progressive it allowed creativity to play a bigger part in the creation of visual culture.
Was there a specific binder / photo subject that was your favorite?
Most of the Picture Collection subject headings are relatively straightforward, such as specific places and things, but there are a few that represent ideas, like Curiosity. This folder was a favorite because it had a wide variety of visual representations of a single idea and allowed the librarians some playful leeway when deciding what an image represented and where it should be filed. It’s hard to pick a favorite though because almost every folder contains some kind of amazing and unexpected treasure.
You personally also have a very large collection of visuals yourself. You post images from this archive on social media. Can you tell us when you started collecting and why? How do you choose which images go in to your collection?
I started collecting photographs about 20 years ago as source material for my own artwork. I would go to flea markets every weekend and spend hours looking through boxes of discarded snapshots and I would often come across photographs that were too amazing to repurpose in my own work. Eventually this collection of compelling photographs far outnumbered my collection of photographic source material.
As for how I choose images, the long and the short of it is I know it when I see it. I’m drawn to mysterious mistakes but I just as easily fall for beautifully composed pictorial photographs.
Many people see these types of old, discarded photos as something of the past, almost useless or unnecessary. Yet you decided not only to collect but also to share. What is the importance, for you, in these images? Why do you, and actually so many more in the photo world, hold so tightly to these snapshots?
We all have associations with family photographs and the documentation of everyday activities and events. Take for instance the basic obligatory snapshot taken on someone’s front lawn. The photographer usually followed the universal rule of photography by having their back to the sun so that the subject was properly lit. Now all these years later, the subject and photographer are long gone and the original reason for the photograph is unknown, and we’re left with only a snapshot of a dark and ominous shadow looming towards the subject. The original context no longer remains and is no longer relevant. The snapshot has taken on a new narrative.
Artists spend their entire careers manufacturing narratives with paint, light, etc...and in found photography we have images that are just as compelling, but more often than not they were done accidentally without artistic intent. Regardless of your views on art without intent, in found photography you can find some of the most compelling art that’s available. I think people in the photo world are drawn to great photographs in general, and with all of the countless anonymous snapshots out there, there are masterpieces waiting to be found.
Is there specific subject matter you look for? Are there “themes” you are interested in?
I think most collectors can describe the feeling they get when they find something special -- their heart skips a beat, they get goosebumps -- so in regards collecting I’m always looking for photos that take my breath away.
There are a number of themes I collect: people with their backs to the camera, photos of large crowds, CDVs and cabinet cards of children with trundling hoops, children in Halloween costumes, press photos that have been heavily painted, abstract, off-center, or badly cropped compositions, minimal landscapes. I don’t set out to find anonymous examples that are similar to the work of established artists (Magritte’s rear views of people, Weegee’s Coney Island crowd...) but these associations are inevitable.
One of the things I’m also drawn to is the visible history of the photograph as an object. A snapshot of a loved one that was carried in someone’s wallet for years will have creases and taped repairs. It speaks to our connections with one another. It speaks to loss. We might not know the specific details of who is in the photo and who lovingly carried it with them, but the anonymous and worn document we’re left with can still have a powerful impact.
If you can choose from all of these images, could you share one that you particularly love? And tell us the story of how you found it and what it means to you.
I recently acquired this snapshot from dealer and collector Stacy Waldman. She posted it on Facebook and by the time I contacted her it was still available. I love everything about it: the tonal range, the soft focus of the background and figure juxtaposed against the sharpness of hands and painterly details of the fish. It came from a batch of Navy-related photographs from the 1940s and there were a number of images from a fishing trip to the Philippines. The other images were unremarkable, but this one is the perfect example of how an anonymous photographer can capture a magical image.