IT’S A curious person who collects other people’s photographs. Rifling through finds scored from rummage sales, antique stores, one imbues the faces with personalities, wit, backstories, interlacing the narratives among others, much in the same way that one tells small stories about other drivers met at intersections—people on their phones, people fussing with their hair, on their way to dates, appointments, any of those abstract, vaguely defined moments that lend life some semblance of structure.
Found photos, however, are of a different breed. Because whereas one may purchase old photos for the sake of novelty, or perhaps the unspoken hope of uncovering a secret cache of unmarked Disfarmers or Vivian Maiers, to find a set of photographs is to feel someone’s loss. Oftentimes, they are not photos of momentous occasions but of quiet moments that, despite their relative insignificance, still meant enough to someone somewhere to have been printed out and kept. Somehow that makes their loss, or abandonment, seem all the more significant—and perhaps that’s why to find lost photos is to feel charged with some sense of urgency, a need to see them returned, no matter how long it takes.
In the case of these photos, a patchwork collection taken across decades, it was nearly two and a half years between the moment that a reporter found them neatly stacked below a tree in downtown Little Rock, and the moment that they were finally reunited with their owner. With such a long interval between those two bookending events, it was impossible not to wonder about the young woman with dark hair and small dark eyes who appeared in so many of the photos, to speculate how they’d come to rest where they did.
Maybe they had fallen from her car as she was paying her bills? Maybe the people who appeared in the photos were no longer living? Or maybe, somewhere, she was glad they were gone, was glad to be rid of these photos and whatever emotional weight they might carry?
For a long time, it seemed as though none of those questions would be answered. So long a phantom, an avatar for the unknown, she didn’t seem real, this woman. But then all at once she was, realized in the span of a instant, her voice twanging softly on the other end of the telephone line. And in that moment, the person whom you’ve come to know so well in your mind—to whom you’ve only been able to relate in passing, to whom you’ve established an odd unilateral kinship—was fully formed, a person with a story that begins like this.
THE REPORTER does a double take and takes a step closer to the tree. What he sees isn’t something you throw away, isn’t something so easily discarded or dismissed. It’s early afternoon on a warm day in the spring of 2016. He’s just gotten off work, having spent his day from the hours before daybreak working for Arkansas Online, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s online desk.
Normally, there’s not much to look at as he returns to his car. A church bounded with blue hydrangeas. Parking meters. The Central Arkansas Water office. As he rounds a corner that day, however, his eyes fall on something quite far from ordinary: a stack of photos, a quarter-inch thick. Maybe two dozen. Edges flush. He looks around for a moment after stooping down to pick them up, thinking that someone must have set them there for just a moment. Even from the first few images, he can tell they’re not the sort someone just forgets and leaves behind.
Holding the stack in his left hand, careful not to smudge the edges, he flips through the photos. The life that appears there is, by most standards, an unremarkable one, and it sprawls in the many-vintaged photos. In the first, he sees a photograph of a long rectangular canvas, an abstract piece done with dark earth tones, its colors made darker by the light-colored plywood behind it. A few appear to have been taken on the same day, a blue sky, green sod as far as the eye can see, trophies topped with medallions and at least one little gold airplane. A third photo is black and white, with a smiling young woman who fills the left third of the frame. She’s in an otherwise empty trolley car, the wooden bench where she’s sitting rising to shoulder level. It’s not clear whether this is a selfie or if someone else in the next row had leaned back and taken it.
The reporter doesn’t recognize the woman. Aside from the preprinted “Epson” watermarks, which appear on the reverse of several photographs, there are no names to speak of, no phone numbers or sticky notes or business cards slotted in the stack, nothing that would immediately identify an owner. It’s funny, though. The photos aren’t from one roll, they weren’t recently printed, having fallen from a Walgreens envelope. Far from it. Given the lack of continuity between photos and the years that seemed to have elapsed between the oldest and the most recent, they seem to have been cherry-picked from several decades of a person’s life.
He decides to find the owner. As he walks the remaining few blocks back to his car, the photos in his hand, he keeps the images in the same order that he found them—with the photograph of the abstract canvas on top.
SHE’D ALWAYS been good at art. She’d always drawn. At Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, she took classes in calligraphy. After high school, her parents got her a Minolta Maxxum 700si camera, spurring an appreciation for photography. When she went off to college, though, she decided that it might not be the best route and had opted for the sciences.
Anxious to get away from home, go someplace far, she’d gone clear up to Missoula, Montana, where she decided to study wildlife biology. From the beginning, however, she realized that wasn’t for her. On the first day of orientation, when they’d grouped the incoming freshmen by major, circled them up on the lawn, and started giving them the rundown as to what their chosen major would entail—soon as she heard the words “statistical calculus”—she’d stood right up right there and then and asked where the art kids were at.
All told, she was there for just a year. That June, at the end of the semester, her parents had driven up to bring her back home. When she got back, she’d signed up to be a studio art major at UALR with an emphasis in drawing.
One of her professors was a local artist who did Rothko-esque works with layers upon layers of pastels. She had wild, white hair and was the first person whom the girl had ever recalled seeing with an aura. During class, they’d circle up and the professor would ask them about their dreams, and would then ask them to incorporate that imagery in their artwork. She told them to work big, challenged them to get away from what she called “sofa art.”
In the months that followed, the girl created a portfolio of work that did just that. Her canvases were large, they were dreamlike. In one, a nude woman with long brown hair sits in the palm of an enormous hand, her legs tucked beneath her, butterflies appearing from her stomach. In others, there were centaurs and angels and horned figures. Now the canvases are in an attic, propped up on pieces of furniture, and it all feels so long ago.
WHEN THE reporter gets home that afternoon, he looks through the rest of the photos, taking care not to make assumptions about the people who appear in the photographs—after all, that’s part of the mystery. Instead, the photos that get his attention are those with the most clear-cut clues. A Dallas Stars game. A trolley. An art gallery in Louisiana. All of these, because of their setting, provide something concrete and hint at what seems to be a rather peripatetic nature on the owner’s part.
Of all the photos, however, there are three that provide the hardest evidence. All from the same day, they were taken outside at what appears to have been a model-airplane competition. One shows two women in folding chairs. Another shows an older man who’s made several appearances in the other photos as he holds a trophy. Hat pushed slightly up on his head, he seems almost amazed to be holding the thing. In that photo, you can’t read what the trophy says—but in the third, you can.
Jimmy Allen FF Competition
SAM Contest 2005
Following that lead, he gets in touch with a handful of guys from the local flying scene and they tell him there’s an older gentleman living up in Jacksonville who’s been around for a while. If there’s anyone who’d recognize the folks in that photograph, it’d be him.
ODDLY ENOUGH, no one remembers that day from the photo.
The day everyone remembers happened three years before that photo was taken, albeit on the same field. On that day, her dad had gone out there with her uncle. Between the two of them, a gastroenterologist and a physicist who called themselves the “Wrong Brothers,” they had brain power aplenty, and they tested the little rubber-band-powered plane at half capacity. But to say that it was a toy would be selling the thing short. Unlike the little “peanut” planes he’d flown years before, this was a Sparky, the sports car of the rubber-band-airplane world, with eight loops of quarter-inch rubber that had to be wound with a modified hand mixer. Released, it flew up, up, up in a corkscrew trajectory into the cloudy October sky.
When it comes time for the competition, the brothers catch a lucky break: The wind is acting something fierce. While the older guys have got their planes set to slowly rise and slowly fall, hoping to get the longest time in the air, the brother’s little plane shoots above the ground winds and catches a thermal. It rises and rises, far outperforming the other planes. On the ground, as their plans hangs forever in the air, a friend says, “I think we got a win-ah.” Thanks to that fluke of Mother Nature, his three-flight total comes to 253 seconds, with the second-place finisher coming in over a minute behind at 189 seconds.
But again, this wasn’t the day from the photos. They just use it to talk about this one.
WHEN THE reporter told me that, given a recent job change, he didn’t think that he’d have time to track down the owners, I said that I’d be willing to give it a shot. He’s a friend, and we’d already been talking about the story for a few months. After a long delay, I was finally able to get the photos from him earlier this year. In truth, although my initial effort was enthusiastic—I’d reached out to the University of North Texas to check for local alumni associations, different model-airplane groups for leads—it wasn’t long before I got caught up in my own obligations.
Over time, the photos and the prospect of finding the owner came to be a comfort of sorts, a familiar piece of set-dressing—fodder for daydreams and procrastination alike, when more pressing, more real deadlines loomed. Ultimately, the answer came somewhat unexpectedly. A contact with the Society of Antique modelers recognized one of the gentlemen in the photograph: Paul Willenborg. A bit of Google searching retrieved an inactive email account, but Facebook revealed that he was living in North Little Rock. In late May, I sent a message to the account explaining the story.
Two weeks later, I finally heard back.
No, he didn’t know who those people were, but he was intrigued himself and offered to send an email out to the group’s listserv. Within a few days, he forwarded me an email: It was from the son of the man who appeared in those photos—the one holding the model airplane. He said the woman was his sister.
Her name was Liz.
IT WAS like a dream, that day in New Orleans, riding the St. Charles streetcar. But then, it was always a dream, always had been. If you’d asked her about that day on the trolley, nearly a week into their stay, she might’ve commented on the strange lack of birds in the sky, but probably not much else beyond that. Not because she didn’t recall the finer points, but because she didn’t quite know how to describe it. One day bled into another. They walked, endlessly, open to everything, knowing that the city would provide for them, throwing entertainment and curveballs alike. That was the way New Orleans was for her. That’s what it had come to stand for.
She’d always known that she wanted to be there.
She’d known when she was a little girl, when her dad, perhaps somewhat ill-advisedly, led the family on a walk down Bourbon Street. She’d known later, too, after she’d left Little Rock for Texas. There, she’d worked for Cartier, burning and blistering her fingers buffing trays of high-end jewelry belonging to the likes of Elton John and Pamela Lee Anderson, and later for a law firm, where the boss gave her tickets to Dallas Stars and Cowboys games. It was a good place to live, and these were good places to work, but she’d never let New Orleans stray far from her thoughts.
A few days after she got home from that trip when she rode the trolley, that trip that felt like a dream, she’d been in front of the television in her home in Dallas, and she watched in horror as the waters rose and took this city she’d been so desperate to call her own. In 2007, after nearly a decade in Dallas, she’d move there. The time she’d spend there, as she’ll later recall, would be a relationship of love and hate. Eventually, she’d leave the city, her dad having footed the bill for a Greyhound back home to Little Rock, and she’d watch as the city lights receded into the distance.
To hear her speak about New Orleans is to hear someone long for the past, for a life that they no longer have. And to see that image of her—a young woman, smiling, so thrilled to be where she is in that moment—is to understand one of the last pieces of the puzzle.
I WOULD’VE THOUGHT, having known her face for such a long time, having searched it for some clue as to who she was, having made the stack of photos less a project with a definite end and more an immovable object to be periodically shoved against, that I would know her when I saw her. But on that day, I didn’t. Not even after she’d waved at me from the register where she and her mother, Susan, stood paying at a local coffee shop. I didn’t recognize her, but in my defense she hardly seemed like the same person from the photographs. More time had gone by than I’d realized.
Where before her hair had been a dark brown, cut rather short just above the nape of her neck, now it was mostly silvered and fell below her shoulders. She wore glasses, circular rims that were slightly purple, the same style her mother wore. But while more years had passed than I’d realized—while she’d been 14 to 29 in the photos, she was now 42—it wasn’t surprising to see her speak and act with the same exuberance and vitality that had been evident even in the handful of photos that I’d come to know so well. Or that she ordered a raspberry slushie and ate it from the large paper cup with a spoon.
As we sat at the table, her mother giving an in-depth detailing of a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Liz looked through the photos, one by one, letting one fall onto the table, scattering them across the surface until the entire thing had been covered with them. They were all from her life, and as she looked through them, I wondered if they were as familiar, or unfamiliar, to her as they had been to me.
Now, the truth is, that could have been the end. Having returned them to Liz, the rightful owner, I’d fulfilled any outstanding obligation, perceived or otherwise, that I or the reporter had taken on in possessing the photos. But when her mother spoke about the family’s relationship to photography—about the stacks of photo albums, about the many cameras Liz had owned, how her brother, Chris, had worked in darkrooms, how her uncle was an accomplished photographer—it seemed as though there was something else there.
I asked if we could meet again.
IT COULD have been a picture. On the table are steaming mugs of coffee, cloth gingham napkins, an octagonal white tray with slices of lemon pound cake and pecan-filled pastries. Across the table, Liz sips her coffee, and her boyfriend, Robert, leans back in his chair, reading the Sports section of that day’s paper. On my right sits Liz’s dad, Hank, speaking animatedly about the day they launched the Sparky, demonstrating the lengths of rubber bands that propel the plane forward. Susan sits to my left, flipping through photo albums, periodically getting up for more. Over time, the table has become covered in them. It’s a surreal thing, being surrounded by so many of these images—because in effect, these images complete the fragmented picture cast by the photos Liz had lost.
As her mom reappears with more photo albums, Liz says, “We may just want to take him in there where all those photos are …”
“Oh, it’s just such a mess,” Susan says.
I tell them that I certainly wouldn’t mind the mess.
“Oh, you don’t want to see all that,” Hank says.
“They’ve got a hundred photo albums,” Liz says, turning to me.
Again, I say that I really wouldn’t mind the mess—but for the sake of context, I’d like to see the room if they wouldn’t mind.
“Well … yeah. All our photo albums, you wanna see them?” Susan asks.
LIZ’S PHOTOS were never able to tell their own stories. It was possible to guess at their meanings—to speculate what life events had propelled a young woman around the country, to wonder about the artwork, the cats, the people who appeared in the images. But in the end, they were limited in what they could say. One of the truly beautiful things about photographs, however, is their ability to transport people to another place when they speak about them.
Suddenly, old pets return and prowl the corridors, family trees take root, sprouting branches every which way, older adults, dressed in overhauls, their faces unlined, are made younger as the full story of a family begins to develop, image by image. Naturally, questions arise, yes—like, who was that party for?, and why is Uncle So-and-So wearing a towel?—but even the half-explainable and inexplicable images play their own part in building out a story that can only be completed if there’s someone there to tell the story.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that Liz and her family have more photos than anyone I’ve ever known. Shelves and cabinets are full of photo albums and slide carousels. Paper-cut silhouettes, paintings and photographs of every vintage fill the walls, their frames assuming so much space that, in many places, you would be hard-pressed to guess the color of the walls behind them. It is a place devoted to memories, a place where nothing could ever be forgotten—provided there’s someone to speak for them.
Jordan P. Hickey is senior editor of the magazine. Have your own story about lost/found photos, or just want to say hello? Email him at email@example.com.