Portland Gallery Exhibits Vintage Rejected Santa Photos

By John Strieder (OPB)
Dec. 30, 2015 12:39 a.m.

Souvenir pictures with Santa always seem to be memorable, whether they're adorable or they're awkward. (Say the child is squirming, or the person sitting in poor Santa’s lap isn’t a child.)

The good ones go in the family photo album, of course. But many of the misfits go unclaimed. Then they're just thrown away ... right?


A Coquille photographeractually saved a whole box of rejected Santa negatives from the 1950s and 1960s. And now the best (and worst) of the bunch are hanging on the wall of Portland's Newspace Center for Photography in an exhibit called “Santa photos not picked up.”


Oregon Historical Society archivist Matthew Cowan assembled the show with Newspace curator Yaelle Amir. Cowan found them mixed in with 20-some boxes of photos donated by the photographer.

“In one box there was another box, kind of like a shoebox, and on top of that was scrawled, in black marker, ‘Santa pictures not picked up,'” Cowan said.

Inside were hundreds of negatives of Kennedy-era Christmas awkwardness. "The kids are crying, they’re kind of out of frame; somebody has their hand in the picture; Santa looks like he wants to kill himself. All these sorts of things come up," Cowan said. "A few of the photos would seem to be of older gentlemen who are possibly intoxicated. One in particular is smoking a cigarette, and he is just fully taking up Santa’s lap. And then you get into other ones where there’s a young woman of about 20 or 30, and Santa looks a lot happier in those photos.”

The curators didn’t just gravitate toward camp. They also picked photos that show raw emotion. “We chose a lot of photographs that are more conventional, traditional, and they show that intimate moment," Amir said. "You see him engaging on a one-on-one conversation with kids on the same eye level. It’s an equalizer that I find very charming.”

Newspace enlisted St. Nick’s help to open the exhibit of Santa photos at a Christmas party, and yes, attendees could sit with the man in the suit on an authentic vintage department-store Santa throne. Amir, who is Jewish, took full advantage of her opportunity. “It was like nothing in the world was around me other than this man sitting next to me and asking what I want,” she reported.

Not coincidentally, her favorite photo in the exhibit depicts a roly-poly child basking in Santa’s attention. “It’s a girl, maybe 5 or 6, she’s very pristinely dressed with knee-high socks and Mary Jane shoes, splayed on Santa’s lap, clearly having a ball, and he’s listening to what she has to say. Big smile on her face.”

Different people see different things in these discarded old photos. Cowan thinks part of the appeal is the medium, not just the content. “The idea of analog and the idea of negatives and working with your hands really appeals to a lot of people, especially younger people, I find. These were printed, these were physically in a box, there’s physically a negative that still exists at OHS.”

Amir, for her part, simply enjoyed programming a lighter piece for the holidays. “People want to feel kid-like in a way and loosen up a little,” she said, “and it’s been especially heavy in the last few weeks, and I think that this is kind of a release for a lot of people. It definitely was for me.”