Eclectic collections photographed in new book 'What Lies Within'

dale niles
“What Lies Within,” is a new book by photographer Dale Niles. (Courtesy of Dale Niles)

Decluttering has become a huge industry, and many even consider it a virtue. Collectors have a different take. Andrea M. Noel believes collectors are born, not made, and they can’t help it. The many objects she has collected while living in New York, Paris and Atlanta are the subject of “What Lies Within,” a new book by photographer Dale Niles. The author joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom and featured collector Andrea M. Noel to talk about her extraordinary collection, not to be mistaken for clutter. 

Andrea M. Noel’s style and philosophy of collecting:

“When I was a little girl, I collected bottle caps and match covers. That was the beginning,” said Noel. “I think the collecting thing is an interest in variations on a theme. I don’t think it’s really collecting old discarded things. I think it’s seeing the variety that exists in one item.”

“The stories that I find most interesting, basically, are the people who don’t know what the items are. I had a friend my age who didn’t know what a darning egg was. Now, he was a gentleman, but I was surprised at that. They usually don’t know what the wetters are, which were the little porcelain items that almost everybody had to wet the envelopes or the stamps with before … I’ve learned from the association with Dale that I collect a lot of very, very ordinary things.”

A meeting of photographer and treasure-keeper:

“In the beginning, I was a part of Slow Exposures, which is a photography festival down in Zebulon, Georgia, and I was a volunteer, and Andrea also was a volunteer. A friend of mine suggested that I might want to photograph her items. At that point, I had no idea how many things it was. When I asked her if I could do that, she presented me with a letter of a list of how many different items she had,” Niles recalled. “I went to her house soon after that, and I’m standing there, and I thought, ‘I have no idea what lies within.’”

“At first, I think that I was taking pictures, I felt, for documentation, but then it became more of an art form,” said Niles. “I snuck Andrea into some of the pictures, and then she was a willing subject for a little bit, and that was nice to have her be a part of it, to get that human element in there. But she does all the dollhouse arranging because all the dollhouses are set up by scale, and everything is perfect. But there are some things that I arranged, so it was a collaborative part on each of us.”

A whimsical side to Noel’s collections:

“The pressed aluminum items, when I got those out for Dale to photograph, I was so overcome by the amount of things that I had that I said, ‘Cover me up with these and take a picture,’ which she did. And it’s in the book; in fact, it’s on the front of the book,” said Noel.

“I had never liked, particularly, Barbie for my daughter, but I found these two Barbies thrown away … They were really shoddy looking, and somehow I took them and kept them. And that was the beginning of the Barbies and the Kens,” Noel recounted. “They are so difficult to dress. So generally, on the secondhand market, they come naked because they really are hard to get the clothes on the dolls, and I think the little girls just don’t always do it. And then the mothers sweep them off to the thrift shop, and I connect with them.”

Dale Niles’ book of photographs, “What Lies Within,” is available to order through