Found in flea markets or online auction sites in the US and the UK, these photos of intimate moments and family gatherings from the 1940s to the 1980s are removed from their context. We don’t know the names of the people shown, or the places they inhabit. Yet that doesn’t stop us making our own connections.
“I realised that once you take away the details… a lot of people see themselves in the images,” says Lee Shulman, the founder of The Anonymous Project, which since January 2017 has accrued 800,000 slides – making it what’s believed to be the largest collection of its kind in the world. “We can relate to them more once you remove that information.”
Colour is a large part of that relatability. Just as colourisation is bringing historical photos to life, the images collected here take us directly into the lives of strangers. “Colour photography brings you closer to the subject, it breaks down a barrier,” Shulman tells BBC Culture. “I wanted people to project themselves into the images and think ‘that could have been me’. Some of the images are from the 1940s – they’re extraordinary.”
Many of the slides were taken on Kodachrome, a film first introduced in 1935. “It’s strange to think colour photography was that early on – it was really ahead of its time,” says Shulman. “The images are quite old but the quality of them is so beautiful, modern in some respects, that the timing of them gets lost.”
In the foreword of Midcentury Memories, Richard B Woodward writes: “The Anonymous Project is singular for what it reveals about how we have chosen to portray ourselves across years and cultures – a secret history… that has been lying in plain sight for 75 years.” By rescuing thousands of slides from the oblivion of the attic or the garage, the collection “has liberated these fragments of history from their consigned darkness, and the tyranny of the linear slide show, allowing the rituals of family outings in the 1950s and ’60s to stimulate our imaginations, much as Proust’s was by medieval legends”.
The project has allowed these images to be saved: while the technology was cutting-edge when it first came out, the chemicals used to create the slides fade over time. As Woodward writes: “The technology that created and animated these images is now defunct. Kodachrome 64 film was discontinued in 2009. The last Kodak slide projector was manufactured in 2004… orphaned memories are being salvaged here as well.”
In some ways, Shulman believes he is preserving a record of shared human experience. “When I look at these images – I’m a father now – I see exactly the same instances of life today as it was then. I think there’s a common collective memory that is beautiful,” he says. “We all have family stories and family issues in everyone’s family, but we are part of a larger family – and that’s something that stands out for me in the project.”
The way slides were originally viewed was another way of coming together. Despite being superseded by new forms of photography, the slide had an appeal that chimes with how images are circulated today. “I think this was the first social media of its time,” says Shulman. “It was just a way of sharing images – you’d get the images back, and you’d invite all your friends and your family over, and you’d do these evening projections. It was the first kind of home cinema – you’d watch them together. There’s a sharing experience and a cinematic experience in that.”
It tied in with the idea of the ‘magic lantern’; the thrill of collectively viewing a projected image. “I remember when my dad used to get out the projector, and I thought it was mad and magic and beautiful. It’s a meeting of photography and cinema together – when the lights go down, and an image appears; it is a magical moment.”
While many images are posed, an equal number remain frozen in an off-kilter moment, their subjects caught napping in an armchair with a party hat fixed to their head or enthusiastically performing the Conga, arms forever held aloft. The vibrant colours and incongruous settings lend some of them a surreal air: an angler lying next to his herbaceous border alongside nine freshly caught fish; a reveller sitting in front of a wall plastered with posters of Hawaii, wearing a hangdog expression and a bedraggled garland.
There is an unexpected composition to many that was the result of the technology used. “The fact that they’re slides is important to me, because each piece is unique,” says Shulman. “For me, it’s the most honest type of photography – today you can recrop and everything, but you couldn’t do that at the time – you’d take your slide, and you’d get it back and it would be framed as you took it. So there’s the beauty and the imperfection of that, which I love.”