Every now and then I like to scroll through my defunct Photobucket account to remind myself of what an asshole I was. Highlights of my first vanity-driven foray into image-making include snaps of my Converse-adorned feet inverted, toe-to-toe, and really crappy selfies used to get into Livejournal rating communities (RIP). Most were taken on my Canon Powershot S230 3.2 MP while I was bored on weekends or after school. Around the time of my last upload in 2008, I was onto embarrassing high school photo series involving tattooed girls in gas masks and nightgowns, along with the occasional macro image of a flower.
I reflect on these horrifying photos because that type of "bad" personal photography is exactly what I love looking at now. Doug Battenhausen has been trolling dead image-hosting accounts, rotted links, and maybe your tweenage MySpace for the past five years, amassing these types of gloriously depressing snapshots. I got the chance to speak with Doug about what draws him to these images and how the quality shift in personal photography has made it more difficult to find the gems that show up on his blog.
All photos via internethistory.tumblr.com
VICE: Why did you start Internet History?
Doug: I started posting found photos to my blog in late 2010. At the time, I felt like there wasn't much I wanted to see on the internet that I wasn't finding myself. A friend and I used to send each other links to the weird and/or depressing things we'd find on the internet while we were bored at work and I was like, "This is the kind of content I would like to see on a blog." So I made it.
Where do you primarily find the photos?
Thousands of the pictures I found came from a site called Webshots, which is now defunct and was something like a photo graveyard. Nobody who posted to that site had touched it in years and I think a bunch of teens used it as image hosting for their MySpaces, so it was a great place to find abandoned photo accounts. Since that site got deleted, I've been finding photos primarily on Photobucket and Flickr. Occasionally I'll find photos on other image hosting sites and blogs that haven't been updated in years.
Are all of the photos from America?
The photos are from all over. Sometimes I find accounts from Europe and Japan, but I hope it's difficult to tell they are from abroad. I found a photo site from the Czech Republic that is sometimes weirdly interesting, but the photos are typically and primarily American.
Most seem to be kind of trashy… is that intentional? You curate sections like "white girls dancing," which lead me to believe it may be.
When I first started out, the majority of photos I posted were pretty trashy: keggers in gross basements, sharpie doodles on passed out college kids… that kind of stuff. I got bored of those kinds of pictures pretty quickly. In 2011, I put out a 32-page zine called Strangers Playing Beer Pong, which was a booklet of 70 images of exactly what the title said, and that finished whatever interest I had in pictures of people drinking in public.
The Americana came out of what was left when I got tired of party pictures. Turns out, most of the people who threw parties in their basements, had internet connections, and could afford $300 compact digital cameras were white middle class Americans. I was left with photos of cars, fast food, proms, sleepovers, freshman years in college, strip malls, and backyards. What middle class white kids in America take pictures of when they are bored is infinitely more interesting to me than what they take pictures of when they're drunk.
How do you decide which photos to post?
In all seriousness, an underlying sense of sadness. These pictures depress me, but in a good way and I'm not sure if that makes sense. Maybe something about nostalgia and abandonment and the fact that, to me, a lot of the pictures are bleak as hell.
I like to imagine the ideal viewer of Internet History is scrolling through it on a smartphone, alone and drunk at a bar. Those are certainly the only times I feel like I'm consuming it properly.
What do you think about the shift in the quality of personal photos now as opposed to the early 2000s?
It seems to me that as the quality of cell phone cameras gets better, the pictures themselves become more sterile and less intimate. I think this also has a lot to do with in-phone picture editing where you can fix a lot of your mistakes before uploading the picture (with sepia filter) to your Instagram, which is linked to your Facebook, where your mother is friends with you and doesn't like to see you and your friends smoking.
Now your pictures look better, but you try to make them look old, and you care a lot more about who is going to see them, like your parents or potential employers. I don't think this was nearly as much of an issue back then, when your camera sucked, your parents didn't know how to use the internet, and you were only known on the internet as "xoxo_torn_paper_hearts."
A lot of the images you find have this sense of nihilism and absurdity that we apply to them. Do you wonder who took them and how they would feel about finding them again through your blog?
Typically, I don't know anything about the people who took these pictures outside of what their photos tell me, but I wonder all the time about who they are and what they are doing now. If there is ever a chance I can find out more about the photographer, I'll put what information I can into google and see what I can discover. Two interesting cases off the top of my head: I found the Flickr account of a man who was murdered in an abandoned warehouse in some West Virginia town and another Flickr account of a woman who is currently in jail for burglarizing and burning down her neighbor's house. Usually, though, the only interesting things I can find is that they wrote an article in their college newspaper and then the trail gets cold and boring at Facebook or sometimes even Linkedin.
This whole project reminds me of Penelope Umbrico's Sunset Portraits and Eric Oglander's Craigslist Mirrors. What do you think about those and finding the zeitgeists in personal imagery the more you collect?
The closest I've ever gotten to doing something like Sunset Portraits or Craigslist Mirrors was when I put out that zine I mentioned earlier, Strangers Playing Beer Pong, which was 32 photocopied pages of pictures of strangers playing beer pong. I sent one to a friend of mine who had no idea the title was completely literal. She wrote back to me and gave me the answer to why I think projects like Sunset and Craigslist Mirrors and (hopefully) the archive of Internet History are so appealing: "there is something useful about seeing a whole lot of one thing."
How long do you think you'll keep the blog running?
I had no idea Internet History would still be running this long, so who knows? As long as I'm still bored at work probably.