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Ransom Riggs
Amazing Found Photos of Life During Wartime
by Ransom Riggs - July 4, 2010 - 12:40 AM

One of the stranger hobbies I’ve picked up over the years is collecting old snapshots. You can buy them at flea markets and swap meets, usually from guys with big unsorted tubs — thousands upon thousands of curling yellowed pictures of people you never met. There are different kinds of snapshot collectors. Some just want pictures of old cars. Others like kids, or brides. I like photos with writing on them. It opens up a little window into the otherwise contextless mystery that is a found photo.

I have all kinds of snapshots with writing on them, but some of my favorites deal with life during wartime. They’re not as easy to find as shots of babies and vacations — especially photos from World War II, when film was harder to come by for a time — but they’re often powerful and worth searching out. I’ve been waiting for a special occasion to share these, and Independence Day seems like the perfect time.

Just to be clear, for the most part these are the fronts and backs of photos. (The good stuff’s usually on the back!) Gene seems ready to get out of there:

That greatest of equalizers: the buzzcut.

This one’s a little tough to read, but the first few lines give you an idea. They got married right before he joined up. She really must’ve missed him.

A lot of wartime photos with writing were included with letters home.

There’s a lot of long-distance taunting of the enemy that goes on in them. I wonder if this is Parris Island. Or if WWII soldiers in training learned how to subdue Hitler in case they happened upon him.

WWII soldiers tended to write home about happy things — or put a jokey face on the trials they went through, like this fellow who, randomly, served on an island in Vanuatu where I spent some time.

But they’re not all jokes. Things get real pretty fast — especially in Polaroids from soldiers in Vietnam.

But wars end, and people come home, and as soldiers get closer to the end of their rotations, they tend to talk more about returning, as if they had only just begun to allow themselves to fantasize about it.

It’s not exactly a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, but this man seems pretty happy about the end of the war.

Happy 4th, everyone.


Comments (9)
  1. I love the last one

  2. Thank you for sharing. These were great,and I would love to see more. What an interesting hobby.

  3. I agree with Lisa, Thank You for posting these! I would love to see more of your collection!

  4. I do love the wartime stuff. When I was a little girl I had a book that had a collection of civil war photos in it. Don’t think we have any real life WII photos but I do have a letter one of my grandfather’s cousins sent their grandmother while in training. It’s been partially edited and approved by the censor board.

  5. These were great!

  6. I’ve spent this weekend in Richmond thanks to a friend’s wedding and have had a chance to peruse Civil War memorabilia for the last few days. The pictures definitely make it more real and more saddening.

  7. These pictures are tangible evidence of a person’s life, a person who was someone’s loved one at one time or another. I find it hard to believe that they now have so little meaning to anyone that they end up, as you said, in a huge tub at a yard sale somewhere.

    While it’s nice that some of these pictures get saved from a landfill or an incinerator, in a way I still feel sorry for the fact that they end up in the hands of people like you — total strangers who have no clue about who these people were other than what you see in the single vignette you hold in your hands.

  8. Wonderful! I too collect old photos, although with less of a focus than you — I just collect them if they’re interesting in any way to me. Currently I am sorting out (oddly) photos of people wearing saddle shoes in their “natural habitat” and posting them on Flickr. A few are up now at:
    More to come.

    Going through old photos — my families, or those I find in garage sales, thrift stores, etc — makes me wonder where the boxes of photos for future generations will come from? Passing out CD’s, DVD’s, and portable hard drives full of photos 80 years from now just won’t be as much fun, or as simple. Even prints made today don’t seem to have the clarity and permanence of the old photos. I try to encourage people to still shoot SOME film now and then and tuck the photos away.

    Ever wonder why all those old black and whites from the 1930′s to 50′s still look so great! Because the negatives were HUGE, and most of those prints are contact prints (no enlarging from negative size) so the detail is superb. Even a 5×7 from back then would usually be only a 2x enlargement! Remember, 120 film is still available and there are tons of 120 film cameras at garage sales waiting to be purchased and used!

  9. The one with the dates listed, the handwriting looks a lot like my grandmothers. And interestingly, my grandpa also left for the war right after they were married, only he was drafted…


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