Thierry Struvay's sprawling collection of found photographs runs the gamut from sexy snaps in jockstraps to all-American family portraits
Thierry Struvay is an avid collector of photography, and one with an unusual trajectory: where most collectors start small and work their way up to the big leagues, Struvay has travelled in the opposite direction. “I had always loved photographs,” he tells AnOther, “but originally I loved those by important artists from the 19th and 20th century. But it was a little bit – I don’t want to say boring – but there are no surprises. It’s always ‘The price must be between this and that,’ or ‘It’s an edition of six or ten.’” So when, in the early 1980s, he began rummaging through the boxes of discarded images for sale at flea markets, he found himself a new – and at the time, relatively unusual – niche. “If you like images, you can be surprised by all those little things with absolutely no value, but which sometimes have the same power inside them.”
His obsession with found photography began in the well-stocked markets of Paris and Brussels, to whom old photography was of no value whatsoever. “I remember them saying, ‘Take it with you, because if you don't take it we’ll throw it away.’ At that time, 30 or 35 years ago, there was absolutely no interest in photographic archives. A lot of magazines and museums even destroyed their archives – imagine that today!”
“I started to keep an eye on those photographs because I was looking for jewellery and things in boxes, and I found wallets with personal pictures. I thought, all of those little pieces of paper were so beloved. Imagine, all of that life under the rain and the snow, you know, with nobody to save it.” So when, a couple of years later, Struvay moved to New York, his interest tied in with a new one – in Americana. “When I arrived in New York everything was new for me – people there live the moment, because many of them know that they are there just for a few years. Europe is much more bourgeois; it’s so comfortable and things are so slow, and nothing really happens. You can leave one place to come back ten years later, and things are exactly the same. In New York you go on vacation for two weeks, you come back and the whole city looks different.”
"All of those little pieces of paper were so beloved. Imagine, all of that life under the rain and the snow, you know, with nobody to save it” – Thierry Struvay
Stopping by New York’s Chelsea Flea Market first thing every morning, Struvay had soon amassed an admirable collection of anonymous photographs of gloriously archetypal American scenes, ranging from dirty snaps and family portraits to distorted landscapes and bizarre situations. “I have a great nostalgia for that time, and photography was very expensive,” he continues. “The camera was cheap, and the film was cheap, but to develop it, that was a lot of money. And very often you’d get your 20, or 24, or 36 pictures – I don’t remember exactly – and most of them were totally uninteresting. But it was too late. You paid for that! That was big, big business, I think, for Kodak. Frankly, I don’t know how they went bankrupt.”
Now, 35 years on, he’s finally sharing his collection with the world in a new exhibition at Sébastien Janssen’s gallery Sorry We’re Closed. Opening next week and running until the end of March, the exhibition will showcase about 116 photographs from his sprawling collection, which, to all intents and purposes, is still growing.
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Thierry Struvay: Vernacular Photography will run from January 28 until March 26, 2016, at Sorry We’re Closed gallery, Brussels.