When Syracuse native Lorca Shepperd and her husband/collaborator Cabot Philbrick set out to make Other People's Pictures, they expected their documentary would focus on the trade in vernacular snapshots and albums that goes on at flea markets, auctions, antique and second-hand shops.
"We thought it would be about the economics and mechanics of that market," she said by phone recently from New York City, where the couple both work in television documentary. "But the emotions that collectors had about these photographs were really the whole point. We realized that after we started -- that this film transcends the niche."
A casual, sometime collector of the odd "snap" herself, Shepperd was sent to Manhattan's Chelsea Flea Market by a friend. There she discovered multiple dealers with bins and tables full of cast-off snapshots and regular, sometimes impassioned customers. She was struck by seeming contradictions -- that people fleeing sudden disasters like fires can emerge with little more than pets and family albums, yet there's a flood of recycled snapshots for sale.
Their buyers in turn wonder aloud about their hobby in un-hobby-like terms that recall early superstitions about photography's eerie capacity to capture frozen likenesses. "Are they stealing a stranger's past?" wonders one, while another says she's the "foster parent of ghosts."
Shot on weekends between November 2001 and the summer of 2004, Other People's Pictures had a brief theatrical run that brought the filmmakers National Public Radio coverage and good reviews. It's done well at festivals and won some awards. At 53 minutes -- really sized for television -- the film has screened on the Documentary Channel. Now it's available on DVD, which may bring it the wider film audience it deserves, even though its commercial distributor, Cinema Guild, seems not to have been particularly energetic about getting it out there to some obvious outlets like Netflix.