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Scattered Memories

Posted on July 07, 2015

Peter J. Cohen CollectionA new exhibit is taking family snapshots, usually squirreled away in storage or buried in drawers, and giving them the gallery treatment. “Unfinished Stories: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, showcases dozens of funny, striking, and personal photos that look into the past through the surprisingly artistic eye of amateurs.

The approximately 300 photos in the show, which runs from July 11, 2015 to February 21, 2016, come from the collection of Cohen, who a quarter century ago found himself drawn to a set of eight quirky snapshots at a New York City flea market.

“I said, ‘I don’t know why I bought these, but I’m going back next weekend,’” he says.

He did return the next weekend, and most weekends after that for years, buying up loose pictures, then full albums, extending his hunt to antique shops, private dealers, then eBay. His collection now runs to about 50,000 photos by Cohen’s estimate, dating back to the earliest days of Kodak’s box camera in the late 19th century, up to the 1970s.

This volume required some organizing. With the help of an artistically inclined friend of his son’s, Cohen began to devise broad categories for the images, finding some surprising links. There were piles of photos with three women (though few with two or four), and a significant number of people standing in cornfields, or climbing up poles. They made categories for people standing on one leg and women holding weapons. Cohen estimates the collection now has around 75 of these idiosyncratic groupings, though he admits his system is “mainly for my own amusement if anything.”

Read the full story in Rhapsody.

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