They rifle through boxes sitting perched atop precarious tables at New York City's Chelsea Flea Market, searching for clues like investigative reporters with a day pass and a public-records request. Their eyes are fixed in stares, as their fingers flip and move on, flip and move on, flip and move on.
There's nothing like capturing an obsession in a bottle. Because at first glance, as we saw in Roger Nygard's Trekkies or even Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida, those who at first seem like nut-jobs of the "get a life!" variety end up being a little more familiar, and a lot more sympathetic, than we think. And rarely does one get to watch others try to earn such a mundanely vicarious thrill through the lives of others as do the collectors of Other People's Pictures, directed by Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick and screening next Sunday at the Prytania. Whether it's an Israeli immigrant and son of Holocaust survivors, an erotica-hunting gay man, or a man whose mother destroyed their family's photo album after joining a cult, the collectors all seem to be missing, and trying to recapture, the human touch. They're in a desperate search to either construct or reconstruct a past to make more sense of their present.
Dan Lenchner, for example, searches for snapshots of Nazis in variously frozen frames of ordinary life -- smiling with relatives or even spending a day at the beach. It's his "banality of evil" collection, he says, pointing to the irony of such happy-looking people who are, whether consciously or unconsciously, conspirators in humanity's most notorious genocide.
Shepperd and Philbrick do a deft job of preventing the hour-long documentary from sinking into a well of redundancy, for there are moments when you're about to say, "OK, I get it. They collect snaps. Next?" Perhaps they could have eliminated any sense of narrative limitations by providing more of a dramatic arc -- say, following one particular collector on a particular quest and using that as the bookend for the entire film. Instead, they have chosen to provide their own snapshots of the collectors, the lone narrative thread being frequent pauses to provide multiple examples of some collectors' fascinations: people at the beach, square Kodak snapshots, snaps with the photographer's shadow creeping into the frame, nudes, mutilated snaps and so on.
One of the most surprising aspects of the photos is their quality. Regardless of the type of film used -- Kodak, Polaroid, photo-booth, etc. -- a vast majority of the shots have their own sense of composition, tone, contrast, lighting and tone. And almost everyone, naturally, is in some kind of a pose; there's almost no one captured in a state of motion, and if there's a "natural" pose, you wouldn't immediately notice it. They are models of the everyday, performing their own little session for the camera. They are, as a collector named Leone so eloquently puts it, "these strange, magical, frozen people."
Throughout, there is this undeniable feeling that collecting other people's pictures is a little bit of replacement therapy, as a collector named Drew clearly shows as he explains the departure of his mother to a cult and the subsequent destruction of the family photo album. As he talks wistfully inside his disheveled apartment, he recalls the abandonment and even presents one of the movie's few images that actually should belong to its rightful owner: There he is, as a child, on the day of his mother's departure, clearly disappointed at the prospects of his familiar future as he prepares to live with his father. As his obsession grew, he notes, his collection was placed inside a notebook. "I began to realize that I was creating my own family photo album," he says, with maybe a hint of regret. The process itself looks mind-numbing, hence the constant flip, flip, flip of the fingers. They seem to be negotiating with the subjects in the snapshots -- "Do you belong to me?" They even ponder the ethics of pulling photographed members from their original family albums, as if it's a form of memorabilia kidnapping. And more than a few of them are well aware of how weird it all sounds. "What do I search for?" one collector asks, repeating the interviewer's question. "I guess it's sort of like a million monkeys with a typewriter typing out the Shakespearean sonnets. A million people with snapshot cameras have to take some truly transcendent images along the way."