See something of yours? Why this artist takes photos of Toronto's lost and founds

3 months. 7 locations. Thousands of photographs. Take a peek inside Julia Nemfield's Lost and Found.

3 months. 7 locations. Thousands of photographs. Take a peek inside Julia Nemfield's Lost and Found

Julia Nemfield. Umbrellas from October 13, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

First, the good news: If you misplaced an umbrella, water bottle or VHS copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas last summer, there's a very small chance that it's featured in one of this year's Contact Photography Festival shows.

The bad news: you're probably never getting that baby back again. Some well-meaning lost and found attendant chucked it many months ago, because such is the way of lost and founds — but sometime between August and October last year, Julia Nemfield managed to snap it for posterity before it was binned.

Nemfield is the research artist behind Lost and Found, on at Toronto's Alliance Francaise Gallery to May 30, and per the title, the show hinges on what she discovered at seven lost and founds around the GTA.

We have objects and we rely on them, but if we lost them, there's also a piece of ourselves that's lost along with them.- Julia Nemfield, artist

"I really wanted to stumble across objects that I'd never seen before and I had no idea what they were," says Nemfield, who started her artful rummaging as part of a thesis project. (She's graduating from Ryerson's BFA photography program this spring.)

But apart from a few antique cameras and off-brand stuffed animals, Nemfield says she didn't exactly unearth the trove of crazy crap she dreamed of. "There wasn't something that really shocked me," she says. Instead, the biggest discovery was just how ordinary everything was.

Nemfield combed through lost and founds at a high school, a karate studio, a farm, a curling rink, Ryerson (obvs.), a church and even the city's ultimate stash of misplaced stuff, the TTC's Lost Articles Office. Everywhere, she found herself seeing the same stuff and things: more umbrellas, more mittens, more hats.

Boring, everyday items — but nevertheless, they're the boring, everyday items that most people can't live without: purses, passports, house keys.

As a result, there's a whiff of the tragicomic to the photos she's assembled. (I mean, seriously, who loses their pants?) After capturing thousands of individual items on-site, Nemfield grouped some of the lost and found items by theme, arranging them into grids, as a nod to the repetitive nature of her finds. (About 360 objects appear in the show.) There's also a series of self portraits, shot at each lost and found location — pics which weigh more on the side of jokes, with Nemfield dressed in some of the more choice booty.

But there was more to her journey into the heart of hoarding. Lost and Found, she explains, began because she was stuck on the idea of what makes an object valuable, and why it's often about so much more than the price tag.

She remembers what one lost and found staffer told her: "People often cared more about finding a lost glove, like a missing piece to a pair, than they would about a cell phone or an iPad or a computer." And as part of the project, Nemfield says she researched the psychological theories behind why people bond with the things they acquire — why we might consider a favourite black T-shirt priceless, even though there are hundreds of the exact same shirt selling for under 10 bucks at H&M. People are prone to giving more value to stuff  — whatever it is — if they own it, and so, our things are always a little bit bound up with our sense of identity.

Says Nemfield: "We have objects and we rely on them, but if we lost them, there's also a piece of ourselves that's lost along with them."

See it that way, and Lost and Found is a photo project involving a cast of hundreds. Nemfield's self-portraits, she says, are her way of giving a shoutout to all the unknown folks who lost a tiny bit of themselves when they forgot a jacket or a toque at the curling rink — and because there's probably nothing especially tragic about losing a jacket or a toque at the curling rink, they are, appropriately, tongue in cheek.

The project is ongoing, says Nemfield, and the next step is to explore lost and founds in disparately rich and poor neighbourhoods. 

Until then, lose yourself in these photos...

Julia Nemfield. Bags, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Cellphones, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Portrait at Bay Station, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Mittens and Gloves (Pairs), 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Portrait at a Curling Rink, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Hats, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Identification, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Portrait in a Church, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Coats, Jackets and Sweaters, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Water bottles, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Julia Nemfield. Portrait in a Karate Studio, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

Julia Nemfield. To May 30 at Alliance Francaise Gallery, Toronto. Part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. www.scotiabankcontactphoto.com

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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