Self-portraits from "To Perform, To Conceal"
Self-portraits from "To Perform, To Conceal" Credit: Courtesy Paul-David Young

Update: The photographer whose work is featured in “To Perform, To
Conceal” is anonymous no longer—she’s been identified as the digital
artist Molly Soda.

Sometime last summer, someone in Humboldt Park packed up more than 100 photos and slides into a few Epson photo paper boxes, slipped them into a plastic bag, and left them on top of a Dumpster near the corner of Chicago and Washtenaw. A neighborhood resident found the stash and passed it on to a friend named Paul-David Young, an occasional curator who works in the imaging department at the Art Institute. Young was fascinated.

The photos looked like the standard portfolio created by an art student: a mix of black-and-white and color, digital and analog, basic portraits and more experimental projects. Based on the portrait subjects’ clothes, Young deduced that they’d been taken within the past five years, possibly in New York. “Some are trash, some have merit,” he says. “There are moments of brilliance and bravery and moments of youthful narcissism. They’re very earnest and sincere.”

It’s hard to talk about a cache of found photos without mentioning Vivian Maier, the Chicago nanny whose body of work, spanning more than 50 years, was discovered in a storage locker in 2007. “This is like the opposite of Vivian Maier,” says Young. Not only did this photographer lack Maier’s talent, her photos lack historical interest: “They’re very current. They’re not shots of Chicago the way it used to be.”

Still, the more Young pored over the collection, the more he felt that something ought to be done with it. Coincidentally, Crowded House, a new gallery in Lincoln Square, had reached out to him about curating a show. He took it as a challenge.

As he began to sort through the photos, the two themes of the title became apparent to him. There was something performative, he thought, in the photographer’s self-portraits, of which there were many. The concealment came from her impulse to throw the whole collection away—albeit in a place where it could readily be found.

Young has made a few unsuccessful attempts to find the photographer. But in the end, he wants the 30 photos he chose for the show to stand on their own. “I want them to be taken seriously,” he says, “even if they are unremarkable.”