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Found images shed light on a curious past

Jonah Samson eBay collection examines life's 'mistaken moments' at Presentation House Gallery
Presentation House Gallery
Presentation House Gallery’s Another Happy Day brings together an exhibition and publication of anonymous photographs found on eBay from the private collection of Canadian artist and collector, Jonah Samson. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Another Happy Day: Found Photographs Collected by Jonah Samson and Collected Shadows: Photographs from the Archive of Modern Conflict at Presentation House Gallery through Oct. 27.

If the Presentation House Gallery were the only structure to survive nuclear annihilation, future anthropologists would likely respond to humanity with absolute befuddlement.

A man in a minstrel show costume is paralyzed with fear in the presence of a ghost with a smile stitched beneath its black eyes. Acrobats fall from each other. A young woman is cleaved in twain by a pillar of light. There's a man with a fake trombone and a woman with a real handgun.

Walking through the exhibit two days before the opening, artist and collector Jonah Samson seems both pleasantly puzzled and absolutely enthralled by his collection.

"Some of them are overtly bizarre," he says, referring to a photo of a circus clown biting the tale of a dozing lion. "Some have a more subtle strangeness."

Samson is well acquainted with strangeness, both subtle and otherwise.

"Somebody said to me the other day, 'You have very eclectic taste,' and I said 'Really? I think they're all the same picture,'" he says, laughing. "I have a dark sensibility - I think a lot of the pictures are funny and some people may find them kind of disturbing, but I actually think that they have a sense of humour."

The exhibit is largely the product of Samson's eBay obsession.

He regularly spends an hour each day watching stamp-sized images fly through his screen, looking for a reason to stop.

"Something will catch my eye and I'll stop and go in and take a closer look," he says. "It is this super-fast processing of images; and why something catches my eye in that nanosecond, who knows? In some cases it's a magical flaw.

A cloud of light obscures the centre of one photograph, but because of a coincidental gesture, the picture looks like something from a fairy tale.

"It's just an amazing little moment where it looks like she's throwing fairy dust over them," Samson says. "It's just a light leak that just happened perfectly with the way she was posed, because you know, without that light leak that photo is nothing. I mean it really is nothing, there's nothing interesting about it, but this fortuitous moment happened by accident and it changes the whole picture."

As Samson stops to examine a picture dominated by a floating brightness that could be an oncoming train rushing toward an oblivious child, he wonders at the photographer's motivation.

"I don't know why they would've taken the photo, even if this egg wasn't there, why would the photo be framed like that?. .. It's just this magic of film and light and the mistaken moment."

The mistaken moment is precious to Samson as the imprecise methods of traditional photography give way to intangible and frequently flawless digital photos.

"I'm always fascinated by the materiality of film," he says. "The materiality of photography, so if you talk about chemicals and negatives and light, things that you don't talk about anymore when people are taking pictures. You're not going to get this kind of effect with a digital camera ever."

But even in the photos without mistakes, there is usually something out of place in Samson's selections.

One picture shows two men with outstanding sideburns assuming bare knuckle boxing stances. One of them is wearing a watch.

Samson's exhibit documents a tradition of ridiculousness.

"People screwed around and goofed around as much as they do now. We just don't see it a lot because photos of the time were very formal," he says. "It's just this completely silly moment, so you do get glimpses into the period that are really unexpected which is probably part of their charm."

Discussing the age of the photos, Samson references a quote from writer Susan Sontag: "Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art."

While the pictures may offer an insight into the age they were taken, Samson is adamant that historical curiosity not replace quality.

"I always try to make sure it's a good picture and not just an old picture," he says. "This is all about the history of photography."

Samson's exhibit is complemented by Collected Shadows, which chronicles technology, isolation, astronomy and the banality of war through photos taken by Germany's solders in the Second World War.

For Samson, the exhibition is a chance for gallery-goers to question what makes a picture beautiful.

"I'm super-excited about these pictures, I'm really obsessive about eBay and so to bring them all together and to go, 'Look, look lookit what I found,' it's amazing."

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