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'Coca Cola Sign'
"Coca Cola Sign," c. 1945, gelatin silver print (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)
Photography Review

Oh, snap!

In a Peabody Essex exhibit, pictures shot by anonymous photographers beautifully evoke and embody the past

SALEM -- For the past 25 years or so the ruling principle in consumer electronics has been the black box: a rectangular monochrome exterior concealing wonders within. (Think of your desktop computer or DVD player.) Yet the first such black box might be said to date back more than a century. That's when Kodak introduced its Brownie camera. The Brownie was simple, yes; that was the source of its appeal. But even though it may not have had microchips or flat-panel screens, it was black and a box, and for its time, the technology was state of the art.

Certainly, the Brownie had an impact on people's lives far greater than any home electronics product currently on sale at Circuit City or Best Buy. So long as you had $1 (yes, that was the original price), you not only could record your experiences but share them, too. In giving the world what we now know as the snapshot, the Brownie made seeing social , and memory democratic.

It also gave photography collectors something to covet, though that would take a while. Vernacular photographs, the term for snapshots and other pictures taken by non-professional photographers, have come to be highly prized.

The past few years have seen several memorable local exhibitions de voted to vernacular photography: "Photobooth," at the Griffin Museum of Photography, in 2003; "In the Vernacular," at the Boston University Art Gallery, in 2004; and now "Accidental Mysteries," which runs at the Peabody Essex Museum through Jan. 27.

There are at least three reasons for this upsurge in interest. As the price of art photographs has exploded, vernacular photographs -- picked up at junk shops, estate auctions, wherever -- have remained quite affordable. The law of averages dictates that out of the untold number of photographs that people have taken over the years, at least some would have aesthetic value -- and many do. Finally, so much of the appeal of photography has to do with the medium's unrivaled capacity both to evoke and embody the past. Pastness is one realm where amateur photographers surpass their professional counterparts.

The 70 black-and-white images in "Accidental Mysteries" range in date from the turn of the last century to the mid-1960s. They're drawn from the thousands of vernacular photographs John and Teenuh Foster have collected since the early '80s. "I am interested only in the rare accidental art that was left behind," John Foster writes in a collector's statement accompanying the show. Art, after all, is at best an ancillary concern in the making of vernacular photography. The scrapbook, not the gallery or museum, is the intended home of such images. It's a given that any snapshot can count on the intense interest of at least a few viewers ("Hey, look, that's Uncle Fred!"). That interest is extrinsic, however. The question becomes: How much intrinsic interest does the image have, once those who might recognize the subjects -- who were perhaps themselves the subjects -- are no more?

The answer in the case of "Accidental Mysteries" is a good deal. That old saw about giving a bunch of monkeys enough time at enough typewriters and they'd come up with the works of Shakespeare has yet to pan out. "Accidental Mysteries" demonstrates that if you give enough people enough cameras -- and have a pair of collectors with keen enough eyes -- you'll come up with anonymous images that could be mistaken for the work of William Wegman ("Dog With Toys" ), Walker Evans ("Coca Cola Sign" ), Jacques-Henri Lartigue ("Surreal Diver") , Edward Weston ("Gas Mask Man") , Henri-Cartier Bresson ("Bresson Bike") , and Diane Arbus ("Man and Woman with Pointy Glasses" and "Twins & Boy in Window" ). Of course, it's the rare photo album that doesn't harbor the occasional Arbus-like image, but that's a matter more for pathology than aesthetics.

None of those pictures started out with titles. Foster provided them, and they give a good indication of his collecting sensibility: smart and direct, uninflected and amused. Titles like "Look Happy or Else, " "Zoom Car, " and "Bureau Boogie-Woogie " are as winning as the images that bear them.

Foster also clearly delights in the surreal. The show is divided into three broad categories: "Posing " (a nod to what one might call the "say cheese" factor), "Chance " (the serendipity that can come of an unsteady hand or inadequate light source), and "The Fantastic" (the conscious darkroom manipulation of an image). The categories are by no means exclusive, and to varying degrees surrealism informs them all. The philosopher Henri Bergson famously defined humor as the encrustation of the mechanical on the organic. For Foster, vernacular photography is more often than not the eruption of the unexpected within the familiar.

The most unexpected thing about these images is that they should exert such a hold on the viewer. The people in them are now unknown. So many of the settings and situations and subjects are distant now not just in time but in style and sensibility. Yet in the windows they provide on the lives of others -- of others not all that different from you and me in their hopes and dreams and fears -- they retain a power to surprise and move that is a small miracle. It's as miraculous, in its way, as a small black box being able to digest light and produce a piece of paper capable of no less than defeating time.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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Accidental Mysteries

At: the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through Jan. 27. 866-745-1876, pem.org

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