Trash or Treasure: DIA exhibits “Lost & Found” photos

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Anyone who has happened upon a sepia-toned or grainy Polaroid photograph at an estate sale or antique shop (or in their family attic) and wondered at the unidentified people and places captured in the image will appreciate “Lost & Found: Photographs from the DIA’s Collection,” a small but fascinating exhibition on view through March 3.

“Untitled (Solider and Companion),” around 1861–65, Unknown Photographer,” tintype. Detroit Institute of Arts

“Old snapshots, family and photo booth portraits and vacation pictures are just some of the photographs included,” an exhibition booklet explains, adding that it “brings together over 200 works from around 1865 to 1980 by unidentified and lesser-known amateur photographers of subjects inspired by Detroit, the automobile and the rising 20th-century middle class. Formerly kept in attics, shoe boxes, family albums and even the DIA’s own art storage rooms, these “found” photographs were discarded by their original owners and rediscovered by collectors, artists and photographers who gifted them to the DIA in recent years.”   

The exhibition includes works from the early days of the medium, including turn- of-the-century works such as “Untitled (Two Women with a Dog)” a gelatin silver print by an unknown photographer from approximately 1900, through images from the 1940s and into the Polaroid and snapshot days of the 1960s and 70s.

Divided into categories, it covers themes such as Detroit, the automobile and portraits of Americans from the 1860s to the 1970s. “Do you see anyone you recognize?” a placard at the entrance asks, asking for visitors to contact a museum curator if anyone looks familiar. “As you explore, consider your own experiences with snapshots – and the power of these photographs to define histories, memories and identities by connecting you to the past.”

Highlights include “Motor City Drive Time,” snapshots of Detroit by James Pearson Duffy. The local business owner, native Detroiter and art collector took a variety of images of his eastside neighborhood and donated more than 400 images of a changing city to the museum in 2010. Others by Detroiter Allen Stross from the 1960s and 70s show the city in vibrant color, “like a time travel portal back to the city circa 1970,” the catalog asserts. There’s even a space dedicated to images sent in by visitors and a request to “Look through your albums and shoeboxes of photographs” and post on social media.


“Are we There Yet?” explores snapshots from the highway and freeways, including roadside attractions, people with their cars and images of the open road.

Whether you recognize anyone or not, the exhibition will have you looking at vintage photographs – in your attic, at an estate sale or wherever you find them– in a new light.  (For more information, visit


Antiques Roadshow Features Detroit Finds in January  

Set the DVR. PBS’s most-watched ongoing series – now in its 23rd season -- returns for a new 26-episode season this month, starting in our very own Rochester at the Meadow Brook Hall estate of Matilda Dodge Wilson.  

The show visited metro Detroit last summer and devotes three upcoming episodes to what they found.  The first aired on Jan. 7; others will air Jan. 14 and 21. Among the treasures are a Keith Haring archive, Henry Bertoia brooches and civil rights posters. Other cities include Sarasota, Florida, San Diego, California, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Louisville, Kentucky.