What We Remember
Photography changes what we’re curious about
Jennifer Sharpe, writer and contributor to National Public Radio, explains what happened when she posted some mysterious headshots on the Internet.
My father started taking me to junk stores when I was five years old, to help him forage for images to add to his collection of old photographs. He was looking for a particular aesthetic. Photos that had been created with the intention to glorify someone or something, but had, over time, distorted into inadvertent artifacts of absurdity: ventriloquists and their dolls; women in bikinis holding up the Southern California's largest hamburgers; a beautifully lit photograph of an elaborate hairdo from behind.
To this day, adding to the collection—now so big, it's spilled over into my house—remains an active compulsion between us, even though the photos take up "too much" space. Over the years, we've often asked each other, isn't there something we should be doing with all these? Aren't they worth something?
But the collection isn't thematic or "important" enough to justify a book or exhibition. And the thought of how little the photos would sell for on eBay is depressing. Nonetheless, I've always felt that despite their unmarketability—or perhaps even because of their unmarketability—their magnetic pull hints at some other "real value." If only I could decipher it…
In 2000, curious to see what kind of life of their own they'd take on, I posted parts of the collection on the web. Mostly headshots of long lost traveling performers and novelty acts from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Seeing the yellowing world of hypnotists and magicians lit from behind in pixels, elevated to the public status of "museum," the images suddenly possessed a heightened elegance and anachronistic curiosity, as if the newness of the web, as married to the archaeology of the photos, had spawned their own uniquely powerful spirit.
But over time, as the web became more popular, that spirit manifested as little more than a battery of snarky comments left for the photos, often written in the tone of bad stand up comedians. Comments like, "The guy in the center has cleavage" and "That woman's hair is a safety device". While I'd initially hoped the performers would Google themselves, and find their old headshots online, I now dreaded that they would.
By the time former lounge singer, Guy Zummo, found his old headshots in my collection, he'd been heavily commented on. Amidst it all, he'd written, "I am the Guy Zummo in these photographs…They were taken in the Kriegsmann studios in the late 60s…If you want to know how I look today you can look up a short movie that I produced and starred in last year called Two of a Kind…When I had these pictures made I was in my early 20s and was launching my singing and acting career…I was very surprised to see them again."
When Zummo and I began emailing, I realized that he lived only about fifteen minutes from my house, and only five minutes from the dumpster his headshots had been rescued from. Because I'd begun doing stories for National Public Radio, I suddenly had an excuse to set up an interview with him at his Marina Del Rey townhouse.
As I stood waiting for him to answer the door, microphone in hand, and dumpster photos tucked under my arm, I felt queasy. But when Zummo, now in his 60s, opened the door, I was immediately disarmed by his warmth and graciousness. Though he still had the same soft pompadour he'd had in the photos, there was none of the self-serious intensity—just openness, generosity, and humor.
We spent the afternoon talking about the hit single he'd had in high school that had lead to his doomed career as a Greenwich Village lounge singer. When I pulled out his old headshots—which even he'd thrown out years ago—he lit up, remembering that the photographer had seen star quality in him. Finding himself in my collection had inspired him to re-listen to his old demos and start writing music again.
He sat down to his grand piano and played some of his original compositions. As I listened to his music, I felt a sense of spaciousness open up. What an unexpected relief it was to let go of the preconceived notions I'd had about him, and just participate in a newly uncluttered way.
- Guy Zummo, c. 1960's
- James J. Kriegsmann