Spanning the 20th century, the almost 300 found photographs in “Unfinished Stories” depict a century of image-making by private photographers. “A quick shot fired by a hunter without deliberate aim,” reads the original definition of a snapshot from the early 19th century. The term “snapshot,” popularized shortly after the invention of Kodak’s box camera in the 1880s, came to describe photographs of everyday life using a handheld camera. Speedy new technology boosted the ability to create a visual diary, commemorating events and personal moments, road trips and holidays. Now, more than a century later, these once ubiquitous and now historic, silver gelatin photographs are rapidly being replaced by Instagram and other digital forms of photography, hence a new appreciation for such photographs.

“Unfinished Stories” celebrates a century of snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection of amateur photographs. An avid collector, Cohen rescued more than 50,000 lost, discarded, or disowned personal photographs, culled from flea markets, antique shops, galleries, eBay, and private dealers. As he sifted and sorted through his finds, Cohen discovered mesmerizing, often humorous, shots removed from their original context: People at Play, Photographers’ Shadows, Double Exposure, Couples, Oddities, and Hula Madness. These pictures reveal the lives of strangers through intimate exposures, telling a story, or as Cohen puts it, “a teeny part of a story that remains unfinished.”

“Unfinished Stories” celebrates unexpected discoveries in these compelling visual objects, each representative of what makes photography such a rich form of expression and a deep cultural symbol for everyone who’s had to stand still and say, “Cheese!”

Above: Unidentified photographer, American, about 1950s. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Peter J. Cohen.


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Presented with support from the Bruce and Laura Monrad Fund for Exhibitions.