JW Headshot__0238_Credit Jon Pack_HBO[2].jpg

John Wilson, courtesy John Pack, HBO


In a New Book, Filmmaker John Wilson Spotlights the Many Curiosities of Craigslist

Published Friday, Feb 25, 2022

Filmmaker John Wilson, whose critically acclaimed HBO comedy docuseries How To with John Wilson was recently renewed for a third season, often finds inspiration in unexpected places. In addition to filming his explorations and conversations on the streets of New York, Wilson has, over the course of the past decade, scoured the free section of Craigslist for madcap images and stories posted from the five boroughs. One hundred of Wilson’s screenshots from this project are collected in a book titled Free Stuff, the first edition of which was (opens in a new window) released by Topos Press in December 2021. To complement Wilson’s recent conversation with artist and musician David Byrne at Pace in New York, the gallery interviewed the filmmaker about his book and locating humor in the everyday.

Claire Selvin: Can you tell me a bit about why you wanted to create a book of these images from Craigslist?

John Wilson: I didn't really have any ambitions to create a book when I started taking screenshots. I spent so much time on there that I naturally harvested a lot of material, as I do with any obsession. Any time anything seemed like it had a good story or an interesting image I would earmark it and set it aside. I had a big enough collection at one point, and I just wanted to put it into a single volume. I think it's actually illegal to make a book of this stuff, as per the terms and conditions when you use Craigslist. But I really wanted to do something, and I wanted to do it with a smaller press so it wouldn’t raise any red flags. My really good friends own this bookstore in Queens called Topos. When they asked me if I had any ideas this is the first thing that came to mind. I’m really happy with how it came out.


CS: What do you find compelling about the Craigslist free section?

JW: Much like New York as a city, the Craigslist of New York refreshes itself every few seconds. I liked going on free Craigslist at first because I was genuinely looking for ways to furnish and decorate my apartment, and I would also find interesting stuff on there that I couldn't really find anywhere else. Craigslist is filled with this one-of-a-kind imagery that sometimes disappears just as quickly as it surfaces. It’s a weird place for people to overshare at the same time. You see an object that seems pretty benign, but then the description will say that it needs to be removed as a result of some dramatic breakup. There’s one image of an adult film collection—there must be 200 adult movies in the picture—and the description says, “My girlfriend and I are expecting soon and I need to get rid of these before moving in together.” I like very short stories and a lot of these postings are just that.

CS: How did you go about selecting the images that would make it into the book?

JW: I think I probably whittled this book down from at least 1,000 or 1,500 images. In the same way that I organize my footage a lot of the time for my show, I put them into loose categories. You don’t really notice when you’re exiting one category and entering another in the book, but there are categories. A lot of people give away homemade dog toys and cat hotels and rodent hotels and they’re all really strange looking. There’s another section of people who bought the wrong sized condoms or are getting rid of dildos or whatever. There’s a section of items that have to be given away because of a breakup. Office liquidation is another one where sometimes they will be very descriptive.


I’ll sometimes see a posting of something and then the poster will modify it and kind of paint out part of the image because they realized it gave too much information. My favorite one in the book is this terrible picture in this posting for two solid wood doors. You’re looking at the picture and you don’t even see where the doors are. It’s so clearly just a picture of a very well-groomed poodle on a couch, and they ask us to “disregard the dog and see doors in the background.” But then, a week later, they post it again and have painted out the poodle. There’s no mention of the poodle anymore. But instead of taking a new photo of the doors, they just modified the original, terrible image and tried to be more descriptive.

There’s other really weird bodily stuff, like a free toenail clipper that comes with a full set of clipped toenails. I try to weed out the things that are clearly jokes, but I feel like a lot of this stuff is just very earnest.


CS: Are there other images that stand out as especially quirky?

JW: There’s a photo of an Eames chair that looks like it was attacked by a tiger. It’s in really, really bad shape and there’s a bunch of packing tape on it. But then the description says, “Don’t laugh these are very very expensive chairs judges and lawyers use them.” Some people are immediately on the defense when they post this stuff.

CS: I don’t think I’d be able to tell if that was a joke or not!

JW: I feel like I’ve developed this sense for the grammar and images that are used. I'm sure a couple kind of fell through the cracks, but even so, I think even if it is a joke on me, it's a funny joke.

A lot of the images are curb alerts, where people see something on the street and take a picture and post it on Craigslist. There’s one that says that there’s a full rack of ribs on the street in a wrapper from the supermarket. It was just on the sidewalk and the description said, “I just passed by this on the sidewalk if anyone is interested. I’m not the owner of these ribs, please do not contact me with questions about the ribs.”

I want to come out with another volume. I have so many images left over and so many I continue collect.


CS: You mentioned that the Craigslist free section can, in some ways, be understood as a reflection of New York City. Is the humor in these images distinct to New York?

JW: You have all of these people in this city, and Craigslist is both a first and last resort for a lot of them. I feel like it’s such a raw imprint of where the city’s at because people really need to get rid of this stuff urgently. So much humor in New York comes from what you overhear on the subway, the stuff you hear in passing, stuff you see just for a moment. I feel like these images have a similar quality to them—you will never get the full story. There’s a whole galaxy of possibilities of how this thing ended up here, which, for me, makes each image so fun to inspect.

Sometimes these postings end up in the show that I make. One of the images in the book is a big rug that’s covered in blood. I went to go pick it up from the guy and supposedly it was his blood—that’s what he told me. He fell on a table and then the carpet was covered in blood. It’s a really deep stain. I didn’t totally buy the story, but I also wasn’t about to Hardy Boys it.

I use free Craigslist myself. I try to give back when I have the opportunity. I did just get rid of some doors as well as my former landlord’s old chandelier that she had in her living room. I suffered the same kind of thing where people kept asking me questions about the chandelier, and I was like, “I have no answers for you. I have this really bad picture that I took and that’s it.” But it feels good to give back.

  • Essays — In a New Book, Filmmaker John Wilson Spotlights the Many Curiosities of Craigslist, Feb 25, 2022