Take Your Pick: Collecting Found Photographs, currently on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, is no ordinary art exhibit. Consisting of 1,000 found photographs from the private collection of Peter J. Cohen, it challenges viewers’ own definitions of what is art and what is not.
The photographs on display are distinctly human in that they capture the ordinary moments, places, and milestones in the lives of the people shown, or the person behind the camera. Since the images have no context, I felt a bit like I was looking into the photo albums of a stranger, and it was almost like I shouldn’t be there. Who knows what the personal significance of each of the photographs were to those who captured them or kept them, and what right do I have to be looking at them on a museum wall? While some depict weddings or similarly obvious events, others capture moments whose importance is unknown to museum-goers, provoking the imagination. Many have people in them, while others show landscapes without anyone in sight, though the presence of the photographer can be sensed on the other side of the camera. A select few have captions scrawled in the margins or even across the photograph, documenting the images’ contents. Probably most strikingly, none of the photographs in the exhibition were ever intended to hang in a museum, but visitors can vote on their favorites to join the UMMA permanent collection.
On another note, the photographs are, as the exhibition description points out, a byproduct of an era that has now passed, and I found it quite interesting to consider this while I looked at them. Fifty years from now, what will the footprints of normal lives from today look like? Most photographs only ever exist in the digital sphere, after all, and so they will not be sitting out at flea markets in dusty old boxes. In this respect, Take Your Pick has an almost history museum-like quality.
I especially enjoyed the opportunity to vote on my favorite photographs, and this opened a whole new question: how is one photograph more deserving than another? Since I had no answer to this, I selected the images that I found most interesting, or evocative, or beautiful. I’ve included a few of my favorites in this review. Perhaps the point is not to judge or appraise each image, but to simply be in the moment, surrounded by the photographs’ humanity.
It’s not too late to cast your own vote, since Take Your Pick: Collecting Found Photographs since voting continues through January 12, 2020. You could also get a snazzy “I voted at UMMA” sticker! After that, the final selections to join the museum’s permanent collection, based on the voting tally, will be on view from January 14 through February 23, 2020.