To relieve the boredom of his day job, Doug Battenhausen has been mining defunct websites for years – harvesting long-discarded gems from the bottom of the web.
Doug Battenhausen spends much of his working hours searching for pictures no one else cares about.
They’re the kind taken by people would never be considered ‘photographers’, the kind that no one has even thought about for years, where any sense of artistry is purely accidental.
Instead they’re pictures of drunk friends at grotty house parties or silly sleepovers, landscapes snapped from car windows on boring drives, and assorted images that Doug can only describe as “strangely mundane”.
For the last eight years, the best ones have found a home on Doug’s tumblr, Internet History, which has become a home for ‘abandoned’ photos mined from forgotten accounts on old photo-sharing websites. And it has lasted that long, the 35-year-old explains, mainly for two reasons.
“One, I still have a day job that bores me to tears – I’m a record clerk at a nonprofit in New York City, sorting and organising data for a professional society, which is about as interesting as it sounds.
“And two, I find looking through photos on the internet to be strangely relaxing. There’s something zen about scrolling through hundreds of old pictures, looking for something that catches your attention.”
Operating almost entirely on gut instinct, Doug is drawn to pictures that make him a little sad or elicit a vague sense of loss, which ends up giving his curation a voyeuristic feel that’s hard to resist.
“There is a logic at work with my selection process,” he says. “I like pictures that are taken from cars, ones that have something strange or unusual about them that remind me of a picture I’d take and send to a friend – like a messed-up sign or a weird architectural detail.
“I’m into it when autofocus doesn’t work and you get an image that’s blurred in an appealing way. I think it’s cool when body parts are cut off by the frame of a photo. I used to be really into portraits of people where I’d look at them and think, ‘This might be the best picture that will ever be taken of this person, so I should share it.’”
Doug says his selection of images says more about him at the time of posting than anything broader about society, but if he had to posit something, it’s that they show just how differently people treated the web not so long ago.
These pictures have a way of eliciting nostalgia for simpler times – specifically the early 2000s, when the idea of uploading your time-stamped photos felt so novel that their quality didn’t matter. Back then, the internet still offered the kind of anonymity where you didn’t care who saw them or what they might think.
“The internet has always been a tool of capitalism, but I think the veil has been completely lifted recently and now we’re all left staring into the face of this terrible creature made of pure greed,” he says.
“I’m constantly being sold something, whether I’m logged into my email, looking at Twitter or reading an article; I’m under ‘voluntary’ 24-hour surveillance by Facebook and Amazon. Everyone’s on a hustle, even when they’re not… because who knows what a potential future employer will think about your Instagram?”
Even as digital photography has advanced, the way we use it hasn’t necessarily translated to better image-making. Today the average picture shared online looks far better in quality, but has often been heavily processed or curated to fit a sterile identity. There’s less space to be raw, embarrassing or downright weird.
“I miss the honesty of an early 2000s blog post,” Doug adds. “I appreciate the limitations of a point-and-shoot camera or the way an actual film photograph looks or the pictures people would take with cell phones back when cell phone cameras were shitty.
“I’ve found photos taken with a 3 megapixel Kodak EasyShare with a bright yellow date stamp that have haunted me for years, and I’ve seen plenty of high resolution DSLR pictures that I’ve forgotten the instant I moved on to the next one.”
At some point during Doug’s journey through online photo cemeteries, he took up photography himself – which he shares at Something Like a Visual Diary – partly to emulate the kind of pictures being posted to Internet History, partly to chase the feeling of having consciously taken a good image.
Doug’s sold just one print in 10 years, he says, and after the gallery took their cut, only $20 was left. “I spent it all at a bar to celebrate the sale,” he says. “I’m not sure if this makes me one of the most loosely defined ‘professionals’ in the history of the medium or simply a rank amateur.”
Once, he had the opportunity to take some time off from work to help out at a fashion shoot in lower Manhattan, just for experience. “I spent the day cleaning up goat shit and goat piss in front of the most beautiful women I had ever seen and watched as the photographer took thousands of pictures of these models with a camera that would probably pay for several months of my rent,” he says. “And looked on as his assistant retouched them in Photoshop.”
Still, there are ways to stay creatively fulfilled even if you’re stuck in a job that doesn’t challenge you and ‘success’ seems impossibly out of reach. It was the humdrum existence of Doug’s work that forced him to seek stimulation elsewhere.
He’s continually surprised by how therapeutic digging through old photo accounts can be, he says, and it’s strange to think that the thing he’s best known for is posting strangers’ photographs to a blogging platform used primarily by disaffected teenagers.
“If there’s any advice I could give, it would be this: don’t be afraid to steal productive time away from your employers to make the world a more interesting place.
“If there’s something that you wish existed and it doesn’t exist, make it yourself; and if you’re interested in something that you’re bad at, do it anyway because you never know who or what you’re going to inspire.”