The incipit of The lover of the volcano, the novel by Susan Sontag from 1992, shows the author hesitating, both skeptical and anxious at the entrance to an outdoor flea market in Manhattan. “Why enter?” He asks himself. “Is there enough?” I may find it’s not here. Whatever it is, I’m often not sure, I could put it back on the counter. Desire guides me … Within ». Sontag defines the flea market as a “degraded experience of pure possibility”, which he cannot resist. I understand exactly what that means. When that of Chelsea, a New York, most likely the same one that haunted the Sontag in the 90s, reopened in the midst of the pandemic last September, it was not just one more step in the gradual rebirth of the city after months of anguish lockdown. It was the return of possibility, pure and in any case. Aside from its (questionable) bargains at a good price, the main attraction of a flea market is its unpredictability. You never know what may turn up: a week you find a stack of Esquire vintage, the following week an expanse of butter-colored Californian ceramics. But to make me happy it is enough to have someone with a box of old photographs. My favorite retailer always has a chaotic assortment of postcards, showcase cards, business cards, party snapshots, class photos. Polaroid and stereoscopic views ranging from the turn of the century to the summer of 1988. All for less than a dollar, so I never leave his desk empty-handed.
A Polaroid found by the author in the Chelsea flea market in New York.
Well before the market for “vernacular” images expanded, the most experienced collectors (in particular Sam Wagstaff, the mentor of Mapplethorpe) knew how to recognize the artistry even of apparently anonymous and naive photographs. Thomas Walther, whose extraordinary collection of European avant-garde photography from the first half of the 20th century was acquired by the MoMA in New York, sought out photos in the flea markets with the same striking, altered, bizarre or expressive characteristics that he appreciated in André Kertész, Aleksandr Rodchenko e Man Ray. In 2000, when the Other Pictures Walther’s vernacular paintings were framed and put on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was evident to all that eccentric and experimental modernism was in the eye of the beholder, and that true connoisseurs have no boundaries. For collectors of all levels, from amateurs to professionals, flea markets have always been the ideal place to educate the eye. While you don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone but yourself, you learn to do it better, with more focus, with more care. In recent times, with this column already in mind, I have looked much more carefully at the images of women who have dressed to go to work or to church, or to go shopping with friends. Inevitably, they are fashion images, and they are even more interesting as they were not made for an audience. The woman in the photograph above, with her pearls and petaled hat, is charmingly formal in an environment that is not at all. Whether she’s leaving the house for morning errands or to lunch at her club, she looks composed and anxious, as if she were ready for this close-up but also anxious to venture out into the world.
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Vince Aletti is a photographic critic and curator. Lives and works in New York since 1967. Collaborator of “Aperture”, “Artforum”, “Apartamento” and “Photograph”, he was co-author of “Avedon Fashion 1944-2000”, published by Harry N. Abrams in 2009, and signed “Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines”, published by Phaidon in 2019.