Ron Radue is a third generation antiques collector and dealer. Recently, I spoke to Ron about his vernacular photography collection. He provided some great insight into this often misunderstood area of ephemera.
ephemera: How did your vernacular photography collection get started?
Radue: I have been an antiques collector and dealer for almost 30 years, and during that time, I have handled many old photographs without much thought. To me, they were simply old photos of people I didn’t know.
All that changed in the fall of 2003, when I acquired a collection consisting of approximately 10,000 negatives. The collection was wide ranging, but the majority of the negatives detailed the life of one family from the 1930s to the 1960s. The exciting thing is that the majority of the photos were taken in the city of my birth--Detroit, Michigan.
The collection acted as a virtual time machine; I was able to visit places that no longer exist. I was able to see what the contemporaries of my parents and grandparents looked like on an average day...not dressed up for a wedding or other special occasion. I could see what kind of cars they drove; bikes they rode; toys they played with; stores they visited; streets they walked; factories they worked in; schools they attended; and, much more! It is an amazing trip that I can now take whenever I want.
ephemera: That's the magic of vernacular images. Tell me more about the collection you found.
Radue: I was fortunate that I was able to find a lifetime collection all at once. To acquire a similar collection would indeed take a lifetime.
However, a good collection of vintage photographs can be easily assembled. The first and foremost place to go is the Internet, namely eBay. Vintage photographs of every description are readily available there. Other good sources of old photos are garage sales, flea markets, thrift shops, antique stores, etc.
It's usually a good idea to inquire about old photos whenever you see vintage photographic equipment for sale. The proprietors of the sale usually place little or no value on the photographs themselves, and they are often in the pile to be thrown away or given to charity. If you are looking for more specialized photos, you can always attend a show dedicated to ephemera or photography.
ephemera: That's great advice, Ron. What are some of your favorite photographs?
Radue: As one who is interested in history, I was pleased to find that many images in the collection were of Detroit's buildings and landmarks. Today, when you hear Detroit, it usually conjures ups images of blight and ugliness; however, the images contained on the negatives are anything but, as the city is truly resplendent in all its mid-century glory.
I also enjoy pictures of vintage automobiles, especially those that were products of the Motor City.
I recently acquired a vintage photograph that has special meaning. The photo depicts ducks traversing a snowy landscape. The photo, taken in 1934, reminds me of the children’s book, Make Way for Ducklings. A copy of the book was given to me as a child by my late grandfather. I was delighted to find the photo--just as I was thrilled to receive the book all those years ago. I still have the book and it is now on display in my office along side the photograph.
ephemera: These images certainly convey a sense of romanticism and nostalgia. What’s your advice for those seeking to collect vernacular photographs?
Radue: To begin building a collection of vernacular photographs, first decide what type to collect. This is usually broken down by subject. Once you decided on the type of photograph you wish to collect, purchase a large group of random photographs. These lots are continually available on eBay, and you can usually get several hundred photographs between $20 and $30 dollars. Search through the photographs to develop your eye. You may find the subject you chose no longer appeals to you or other subjects that are of more interest.
Subjects can range from little girls with bows in their hair to people with their back turned to the camera. Some people even collect blurred photographs; photographs where the photographer inadvertently placed a finger over the lens; or photographs where the shot was missed, such as the subject’s head got cut off, etc.eBay; you can quickly sort through hundreds of photographs that match your criteria. I know of a fine collection of vintage photographs put together by a collector who only purchased photos online! As with all collections, buy the best you can afford and pay attention to condition. A photo in excellent condition is usually far more desirable than one in poor condition.
ephemera: What other resources do you recommend?
Radue: The collecting of vernacular photography has gone from a little-known hobby to mainstream in a very short time. Most antique and hobby magazines usually have an article about vintage photographs. Smithsonian Magazine has a monthly feature called Indelible Images. In the January, 2007, issue there is an article, Interesting Faces, that deals with a collection of vintage mug shots. Many books have been published on vernacular photography and you can check these out at your local library for free.
In regard to storage and display of your vintage photographs, the rules that apply to almost any paper collectible apply to photographs as well. Keep any photo--even those that you do not wish to display--away from direct sunlight. If you wish to display your photos, use acid free matting. Acid free/UV resistant glass is a good idea as well. Acid-free storage boxes are available and are good for storing large groups of photos.
ephemera: I really enjoy seeing these of vernacular photographs, Ron. It was a lot of fun discussing your collection. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and images.