John Foster | Accidental Mysteries

Embellishing the Past

The Mediator, 2015

There has been an explosion of artists today who are reinterpreting and recontextualizing objects from the past. The idea is not so new—the Surrealists did it first in the 1920s and '30s, and throughout the remainder of the century other artists have used the found object as fodder from which to hang new meanings. Some exhibit these obscure objects in new settings, such as a museum.  Often these objects are part of a larger installation to the point that found versus. made is blurred. Others rework these found objects, and transform them into other things with entirely new, and often confounding meanings. 

In this new century, the entire idea of photography has been challenged and certainly enriched by scores of new artists and collectors who (as we speak) are sifting through a sea of abandoned twentieth-century vernacular photographs. Connecting with an image is very personal, and choosing one depends on the collector’s eye. The top images are hard to find, and even harder to identify, as most vernacular photos that you may find are as banal and boring as dust. Museums and galleries have been exhibiting the collections in increasing numbers, and top collections can easily take a decade or more to build.

One area that is gaining great popularity is the hand-altered photograph. These artists transform found photographs by cutting, painting, sewing—you name it—to give new life to orphaned photographs that have lost their familial attachment. All photographs were once loved and cherished by someone, but time has a way of breaking those bonds. Finally abandoned and sold at estate sales, only the best ones go further for a shot at survival. 

British artist Julie Cockburn is one who breathes new life into these photographs, some so ordinary that could only have been appreciated by the owner or immediate family. She uses a wide variety of painting, drawing, collage, and embroidery techniques to make her art.

Cockburn searches garage sales and the Internet for high school yearbook portraits, Hollywood headshots, family mementos and landscapes. The artist then methodically “embellishes, manipulates, tortures, and caresses” the surface of the found photograph, adding her quirky authorship to the object. As Cockburn says, she is “negating the archetypal ordinariness” of the original photograph.

Most of these images were found at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, from an exhibition entitled Slight Exposure, which took place in 2014. The exhibition was Cockburn’s first showing in the United States.


 Holiday House, 2013

Untitled, 2013
 Landscape with Mountain, 2013

 The Favourite Child, 2013

 Love at First Sight, 2013

 The Merry Widow 1, 2013

 The Merry Widow 2, 2013

 The Party House, 2013

 Bubble Hill, 2013

 Girl in a Pearl Necklace, 2013

 My Ex Best Friend, 2013

 Doodle Face 2, 2013

 An Inkling, 2013

Untitled, 2013

Posted in: Accidental Mysteries, Arts + Culture

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