The Stolen Souls: Finding Ourselves in Vintage Photography

Photos and Story by Kristen Van Uden

As the Twilight Zone proclaimed, “People are alike all over.” Nothing captures the truth of this statement – across time as well as space – so uniquely as vernacular photography.

With the rising availability of affordable cameras in the early twentieth century, photography provided a new means of self-expression, and captured daily life – in all its messiness and glory – in an unprecedented way not possible in the traditional portrait. Suddenly, anyone could become a storyteller, a personal archivist, and an artist. Hundreds of daily emotions and inspirations could now be memorialized in pictures that reveal what these early photographers valued. As I discovered in developing a collection of the photographs of yesterday, these inspirations are truly timeless.

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Portrait, c. 1900s, from an Edwardian family album, kept by a devoted husband who populated it with reams of photographs he took of his beloved wife. Such a lovely expression of affection warms the heart of any modern romantic. (c. 1900s)
We all have this friend. (c. 1900s)

At antique stores and flea markets, I find myself inevitably entranced by the photography booths. While antique objects share their story in their own abstract way, the immediacy of photographs showcases the universal humanity of the people of the past. The bare honesty of these photographs resonates in an age when we often feel pressure to use photography as a means of manipulation, most prominently in curating our online identities. While less-than-perfect photos could certainly be destroyed, it was not as simple as pressing the delete button. One could choose to embrace the imperfections. Vernacular vintage photography is an antidote to perfectionism: the most interesting photos are often the blurry snaps: out of focus but true to life.

Photographic “mistakes” often produce the most artistic results. Photos like this remind me to try and embrace the mistakes I inevitably make in the same spirit. (c. 1910s)

Throughout my studies in history, I am always most drawn to the personal stories that emerge from the thicket of statistical data and analysis of trends. These found photographs represent these personal moments, devoid of any analytic context, blurring the line between history and art.

So, who are the stolen souls? While we may never know their names or their fates, we look at them and say: “I know them.” They are our family, our friends, our neighbors, our ancestors. They are us: seeing the world through a lens of wonder and capturing this wonder through the lens of the camera.

Then as now – who doesn’t love a day at the beach? Note that there are at least two cameras present! (C. 1900s).

Kristen Van Uden loves sharing her favorite photographic finds with fellow old souls. Follow along with her collection on Instagram @thestolensouls.

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