When someone dies and professional house clearers empty a property, they sell off all the larger, more expensive items for which they know they have a market at auction, while the smaller, cheaper items – ornaments, books, cheap trinkets, etc – are collected together in to ‘lot boxes’. These lot boxes are also sold at auction, split up by buyers in to what they can and cannot sell; any remaining items are then collected together in further lot boxes and sold again at auction. And so on. This is how albums normally arrive at The Family Museum, with almost every trace of provenance obliterated. Once parted from the hands of their original owners, these images rapidly disperse across the country, across the globe and across the Internet.
One link in this chain is E-Bay seller Jenskittens, who has been selling found photographs online for 18 years – a business she took over from her father. When I spoke to her she was a new mother, so making money from home in this way suited her situation. The albums come to her, more or less, as I have described above. She takes the photographs out the albums and collects them together in to groups of 100, or sometimes smaller numbers. If there is any notation underneath a photo, written on the album page, she will jot it down on the back of the photo. Although this is a business venture, she still feels a sense of custodianship. On Ebay, these job lots are arranged so that each image among the 100 photographs can be seen. One can spend time scanning over her arrangements. They present the viewer with puzzles to ponder, trying to make connections of resemblances, reasons and meaning. In just one job lot, the photos can date from the 1890s to the 1970s, presenting a potted history of formats in the genre of photography, and changing styles and values.
As an example of just how far these photos get disseminated, Jenskittens, who is based in Halifax in the UK, currently has around 1,000 Japanese family photos for sale.