For every Cartier-Bresson snapping away in search of the “decisive moment” and every Beaton creating artfully posed portraits, there are a dozen, a hundred, a thousand, even a million anonymous photographers recording indecisive moments and creating poorly composed portraits replete with satanic red-eye. Every one of them has a name, of course; “anonymous” in this context really means “not a professional”, the sort of people whose photography never gets a printed byline. This is not to say that only big-name photographers are able to create pictures of any worth: for instance, the definitive image of 1969 (perhaps even, some might say, of the 20th century) was taken by an amateur lensman – a character by the name of Neil Armstrong, who snapped his pressure-suited colleague Buzz Aldrin in the midst of a lunar stroll.

While he is by no means a professional photographer, Armstrong’s name is nevertheless fairly well-known; by contrast, the names of those whose work is collected in this book are not known at all. The pictures have been found in flea markets and junk shops, divorced from their creators, the stories behind them lost. Because it generally takes time for treasured possessions such as photographs to become unwanted pieces of tat and, then, saleable curios, the images collected here all strike an archaic, sepia-tinted tone. Yet, although they are distinctly old-fashioned, this is no exercise in wistful nostalgia. If anything, the mood is more akin to the touring freakshows and circuses of the time, those lingering remnants of the 19th century that staggered on well into what we like to think of as the modern age. In the pages of Anonymous one can, for example, stare at a tattooed lady, a pinhead, a long-faced drag queen, a troupe of performing dogs, a monkeys’ tea party, a contortionist, giants, midgets and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, resplendently hirsute in his mariachi costume. This, evidently, is not just a collection of family snaps that got mislaid at Boots.

Such photographs encourage a kind of doublethink on the part of we 21st-century readers. We can tut with censorious disdain at the voyeurism of those freakshows whilst still finding that the pictures hold an eerie fascination. We can wonder what sort of a society would see fit to photograph young girls with cigarettes in their mouths (albeit with unconvincing smoke added in afterwards) as we flick through a book containing a large amount of full-frontal nudity, decapitations and the corpse of a Prohibition-era gangster. Yet it is fitting that Anonymous has not been sanitised. The depiction of life in all its bizarre grotesquerie proves that unknown snappers can hold their own alongside the most famous of photographic names.

First published in World of Interiors issue 266. Reproduced with permission.

Anonymous: Enigmatic Images from Unknown Photographers

by Robert Flynn Johnson  (Thames & Hudson)

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