Mark Kologi, “The Photo Man,” finds and sells other people’s snapshots at L.A.’s Melrose Trading Post, a weekly antiques and collectibles market. In the process of looking through the images he purveys, shoppers immerse themselves in depictions of someone else's personal history.
There are black-and-white classroom shots, fading color photos of brothers and sisters chasing one another and Polaroids of aunts and uncles vacationing in not-very-spectacular places. These are the everyday people captured in Kologi's stock-in-trade. If the scenes seem mundane it is perhaps their very ordinariness that others find so captivating. Kologi has sold millions of these pictures and his customers come back to buy, again and again.
The photographs he sells come from all over the country — from other dealers, markets and collectors. He selects those that, he says, “work really well for the creative community in the Hollywood area.” He likens the people in these shots to the passers-by he observes in front of the crammed garage where he works. “These people and I are living each others’ lives,” he says. “They’re coming from their beginning and going toward their end. We kind of flit by each other for a moment.”
(MORE: Why Nostalgia Is Good for You)
Kologi’s motivations go far beyond making a living. He watches the faces of his customers as they comb through his stock. “My satisfaction comes when I see a person whose creative instincts may have been a little crushed get some kind of reignition or a charge,” he says. They smile, they cry. They talk about their own memories and how they can preserve them. Some share their longing to frame and shoot the sort of picture they're looking at, to distill emotion in the same way as this off-the-cuff relic.
Kologi's feelings threaten to overwhelm him as he describes what he witnesses while his customers scrutinize his wares. One can’t help but think that his own artistic inclinations have been sparked by the images he has found.
At the bustling market, the dealer’s photos spill over the edges of plastic bins stacked two-deep on long wooden tables surrounded by probing throngs. “People are all standing around these buckets together," he says. "There’s this common experience that’s very individual and private but yet, because we all have it, we’re sharing some kind of an emotional bond."
Some people, he says, have no connection to the photos as art, but they totally connect to them as “lost remnants of peoples’ lives and families.”
Kologi worries that he takes too many liberties with these lives — by thinking that just because he buys a picture the moment it depicts now somehow belongs to him. “But what else can I do?” he asks. “I think it’s better than having it thrown in the garbage.” His "rescue mission" is particularly important, he says, because "the photo allows you to look into the eyes of someone who lived 100 years ago and see yourself.”
There’s a popular collecting category called “ephemera.” It contains printed matter, like old postcards and tickets that seem to have no lasting significance. Some collectors think old family snapshots belong in that category. But Kologi has recognized a deeper truth: The images that so many of us throw away may surely have lasting value for someone else.