Because film is cheap, nearly all of us take more pictures than we need, and when we die, we leave behind piles of snapshots that no longer have any clear significance. So the junkshop scavengers in the documentary Other People's Pictures supply their own. Filmmakers Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick interviewed a handful of hobbyists who collect old photos for a variety of reasons. Some look for photo-booth photos, or ones taken with certain kinds of cameras, while others look for certain subjects (tourists in Hawaii, Nazis at home), or significant flaws (blurred faces, snaps with people cut out, photographer's shadows, and the like). As one collector puts it, "If it catches my eye, there must be something about it."
Unlike some recent documentaries that treat unusual interests with gentle mockery, Other People's Pictures is square-dealing and respectful. All of the interviewees articulate why they dig through flea-market piles for specific images: mainly to fill a unique nostalgic need. One woman looks for old pictures in which women look defiant and free-spirited; one gay man looks for hints of homoeroticism in snaps of bare-chested sailors. Nearly all of them look at found pictures as a form of accidental art, but they don't condescend to the people whose lives they haggle over. The collectors feel a responsibility to safeguard lost memories, to the extent that they debate whether it's okay to break up family albums for the sake of one favorite shot.
Other People's Pictures works on two levels: as a study of the collectors, and as a compendium of images from their collections. Shepperd and Philbrick could've held some of the pictures onscreen longer, and they could've been more explicit about how the market works and how prices are set. But where the movie seems too breezy, it's only because the subject matter contains enough material for a dozen films of the likes of Los Angeles Plays Itself or Rock Hudson's Home Movies. As the meaning of a suburban swing-set or a day at the beach gets transferred, a ritualistic process occurs that's both intimate and profound. In an era of digital cameraswith immediate deletion of "mistakes"and the instant gratification of online shopping, snapshot-collecting may be the last hobby that takes enough time and effort to transform those who do it.