Public Email Portraits

Maybe they're a sign of an increasingly homogenous global culture, or maybe they reveal universal responses to contemporary life. Either way, the similarities between the snapshots in Finnish artist Kristofer Paetau's monthly email project, Picturepeople, are nothing short of uncanny. Posting each new message online, Paetau groups together found images from diverse sources that have remarkably similar subjects, from proud fishermen posing with their catches or smoking teenagers smiling for the camera, to kids throwing rocks at tanks and really elaborate fake fingernails. Why do people from different eras, locations, and cultures think such similar moments are worth capturing? The photos give each action a sense of sweeping social, political, or even ritual gravity, but beyond suggesting that an ultimate significance might be there, Paetau is playfully ambiguous about the implications of each set. His investigations are definitely timely though. Just browse a few snapshots on Flickr, and not only do the actions people document start to look similar, but the images also catalog contemporary values, desires, and fears--even if they are a little vague and sometimes ridiculous. - Bill Hanley