Arthur Lyem Jr. loved to take pictures and left behind a whole shoebox full of them when he died. The shoebox turned up in a pile of free stuff at ReCycle North. Jason Cooley found them and took them home. A Burlington musician, Cooley was looking for a cheap couch, but says the box of snapshots was a more exciting find -- "better than finding money, almost," he says as he digs through the box to show off his favorites.
Don't be surprised if you've never heard of Arthur Lyem Jr. He's not a famous photographer. Cooley didn't snag some multi-million-dollar lost archive; it's just a box of pictures that no one else wanted. The pictures aren't even that great -- mostly they memorialize covered bridges, provincial country music singers and Lyem's living room. But it's their unpolished and unprofessional quality that attracts Cooley -- it's what compels him to collect other people's snapshots, notes and quirky lost-pet fliers. In other words, junk. In an age of vast cultural manipulation, from digitally altered news photos to heavily edited "reality" TV, found objects like Lyem's photos offer a rare dose of authenticity.
Found stuff is hip. Take, for example, last year's French film Amelie, in which the heroine's love interest collects discarded headshots from beneath photo booths, or the popular NPR segment "Lost and Found Sound." Better yet, witness the response to writer Davy Rothbart's DIY creation, Found Magazine, a delightfully unslick collection of insightful American ephemera. Rothbart has only printed two issues and already he and his "trashy" rag have been profiled in GQ, Spin, The Washington Post, and U.S. News & World Report.
The 26-year-old Ann Arbor, Michigan, native is currently touring the country, hosting Found parties where local finders get a chance to show and tell. Next Tuesday, November 5, he'll be at Radio Bean in Burlington, gathering material and promoting his Found philosophy.
Rothbart started collecting found stuff after plucking a note from his windshield in Chicago that was obviously meant for someone else. The note appears in Found Magazine #1. "Mario, I fucking hate you," writes "Amber." "You said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place?? You're a fucking LIAR...I hate you...PS Page me later." It's Amber's "sweet coda, 'page me later,'" that makes this note so memorable, Rothbart writes.
In a phone interview before the start of his tour, Rothbart explains that this first bizarre find inspired him to begin noticing others. "Really, it's amazing how fully you can get a sense of someone from a note," he says. "A note could be three-fourths of a page long, and you can still get a feel for someone, what's in their minds, what's in their hearts."
After visiting some friends and observing their fascination with self-published zines, Rothbart decided to try displaying his finds in his own magazine. Using cash he had stashed away during his career as a Chicago Bulls ticket scalper -- you may have heard him recount his exploits on this week's edition of "This American Life" on public radio -- Rothbart printed 800 copies of Found. He quickly sold out. Sixteen thousand copies later, he admits he stumbled onto something he hadn't anticipated: a community of finders eager to share their treasures.
"A lot of people have been collecting in isolation," Rothbart says of his contributors. "People get so excited to find out that there's a community of people like them. In cities it's not so wild or unheard of, but in more rural areas, people say, 'Everyone thinks I'm a total freak. I walk around my town picking up trash, and it's so cool to know I'm not alone.'"
Some of Found's most fascinating finds include "Cheeseburger in Paradise," a Hawaiian vacation diary some hapless woman left on an airplane; "None of Us Are Gay," a page from a UC Berkeley fraternity pledge journal; and "The Ypsilanti All-Starz" a demo tape made by a group of wannabe rappers that features songs like "Wave Yo' Booty in the Air" and "Yo' Shit Be Up In My Face." The tape is available for your listening pleasure on the Found Web site, http://www.foundmagazine.com.
Rothbart acknowledges the voyeuristic nature of his enterprise, but he also recognizes its value. "People think of voyeurism... there's a stigma attached to that. You're a peeping tom. But a certain degree of voyeurism is healthy. We're all curious about other people. That's why we listen in to conversations on the bus. We just want to know what other people's experience of being human is like. And these notes give us an idea of that."
Rothbart sounds more like an idealist than a shrewd businessman -- he's a little bit of both -- when he stresses the way found objects reveal our common humanity. "People who have different life circumstances are grappling with the same kinds of things," he says. "You begin to feel the connectedness between people. Maybe it's a pregnant teenage girl and a CEO of a company, and they're writing basically the same love note. It's cool."
So does anyone ever recognize their resurrected detritus? Rothbart says yes. "I was a little worried that they'd feel exploited, but actually there's this one girl whose e-mail was in there. She was a little mystified, but also honored that so many people would be interested in the minute details of her love life."
Cooley reports a similar experience with Arthur Lyem's photos. He used them in a collage that appeared in a show at the Firehouse Gallery. Lyem's niece happened by. This is, after all, a small town. Cooley didn't get to talk to her, but a friend told him she was happy to see the results of her uncle's lifelong passion on display.
He'll display the photos again at the Found party at Radio Bean, along with some of his other random gems. "I've always picked up stuff," he says. "Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's sad. It's like a peek into somebody's brain that you're not supposed to see." Cooley is looking forward to meeting Rothbart and can't wait to share his collection with others. In the meantime, watch what you drop around town. You never know who will find it.