Sets of encyclopaedia used to be customary part of everyone’s home library. Doing my homework as I child, I would reach for the children’s encyclopaedia, and rifle through its pages to find the answers to my questions. The internet has, however, in recent years largely replaced the printed encyclopaedia as the first point of reference for people’s queries.
On a recent visit to Warsaw, a relative, Wojtek, showed me his prized set of encyclopaedias. They had never been used by his children for their homework—over 70 years old, the information they contained was largely out of date. As a resource of information, this set of encyclopaedias was obsolete; however, looking at the books’ burnt spines and opening them up to find the edges of their pages were singed, I discovered they were kept for quite different reasons.
This set of encyclopaedias was one of the few survivors of the flames that engulfed his grandparents’ home when it was set alight during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. These books, symbolic of a pre-war cultural and intellectual heritage, had become objects, not to be read, but to be looked at. These books, Wojtek told me, spoke of something more than the information they contained. Their burnt spines told us something not only of the unspeakable physical destruction that Warsaw underwent, but of the intellectual life and systems of knowledge that occupation had sought to dismantle. As usable books to be read and rifled through, this set of encyclopaedias died in 1944, however they speak from beyond the grave as historical artefacts able to evoke both a national and a family history devastated by war.
I went to the Frieze Art Fair yesterday, and was astonished to find that the majority of artists working with moving images today were using 16mm films. Wandering down the aisles, I was systematically drawn into a gallery’s booth by the sound of old projectors. However, the most surprising were the multitude of different kinds of old projectors that were used to exhibit the works. I found myself looking at all the different ways the projectors were being used. While some used the standard two reels, other projectors had the films twisted and turned in some very intricate mechanism before its passage in front of the lens. As the photo above shows, the work of the artist Alexandra Leykauf uses the latter, single-reel projector where the film is wound around a series of rollers on a horizontal platter. Her work is entitled ‘Installation view (Kunstverein Nürnberg)’, and is exhibited by Sassa Trülzsch gallery. Rather than being hidden, the way the three projectors were placed in the very small space allocated to the gallery meant that the projectors were the centre of attention. The projectors, with their wonderful clickety sound, have become an object just as important to artists, as what the medium itself is projecting. The old projectors are part of the works of art themselves. Artists exhibited by the galleries in the fair have a taste for old objects that link back to the history of film. While some used the now very old 16mm films, one artist piled up miniature towers of VHS tapes, and another artist had a pile of VCRs. The Frieze Art Fair is on all this weekend, 15-19 October 2009, at Regent’s Park: http://www.friezeartfair.com/ -Sheena Scott
Our fridge is covered with a curious collection of reject passport photos. Some of the sitters have their eyes closed as they blinked with the flash, others are frowning, and some of the photos are overexposed or the image is washed out. Although at the time the subjects probably winced at the pictures, I never tire of looking at them as I open the fridge door. None of the photos are more than ten or fifteen years old yet they look so different to the passport photos today. Some are printed in richly coloured hues, others in a lush, velvety black and white.
Old photo booths took four photographs in succession, and each was exposed in sequence onto a strip of photographic paper. During the last decade almost all automatic photo booths have been replaced with digital successors, coinciding with new stricter regulations of passport photo standards. These machines usually have a computer screen allowing you to view the identity photograph taken, and have the choice to reject or accept it. On completion of the sitting, a single photo is reproduced three or four times, or sometimes four photos are taken at the same time by four lenses, resulting in minute differences in the final product.
If the technology of the digital machines differs from the traditional designs so has the experience of having your photo taken in a new booth. These brightly lit cases with automated voices piping out instructions are so impersonal and daunting that it is hardly surprising that the resulting pictures are as hideous as they are dismally pale in colour. Gone is the choice of coloured curtain from the old machines (blue, brown, orange), the disconcerting reflective pane of the camera, and the blinding flashbulb. While new machines quickly produce an often poor image with a quality rarely being better than a domestic ink-jet printer, the old booths churned out shimmering strips still damp from the processing chemicals.
The hit-and-miss character of the old photo booths seems to be well and truly a thing of the past, as is the joy of being able to deliberately mess up a couple of the four photos with a silly face, or a special message to a loved one. In the world of digital photography, mistakes, mess and unpredictability no longer just happen but have to be meticulously planned.
In response to a yearning for the old machines, and the warmth of a grainy image, a few restored 'analogue' booths have made a comeback in a number of European countries, in trendy arts venues, theatres and cafes. In Paris, three machines are in use in Palais de Tokyo, Espace Ephemère, and Le Centquatre, where Photomaton devotees can have their fix, and a new generation can discover the lost marvel that was once found in every train station.
Digital photo machines are now trying to put the fun back in back in the booths, offering sitters the chance to superimpose their face next to an image of the current favourite pop star or actor. But nothing can compensate for the loss of the creative possibilities of the four flashes of old passport photos, and the richness of quality and depth of the image.
Here is a link to a company that restores and hires old-style photo booths in France: http://www.lajoyeusedephotographie.com
At this years silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm/
), attendees were treated to an audience with silent cinema child star Jean Darling. Between reminiscences of her days in Hal Roach’s Our Gang series and the occasional song, Jean Darling recounted her days working in the soundies. In my ignorance, I thought she was talking about the transition to ‘talkies’, but no, the soundies were a predecessor to the Scopitone detailed by Sheena Scott on our obituaries page. Soundies were three-minute black-and-white films with an optical sound track shown on coin operated 16mm rear projection machines called Panorams that could be found in bars and cafes across the USA between 1941 and 1947 (www.1940.co.uk/history/article/soundie/soundie.htm
) . After a career as a child film star, Jean Darling worked on stage, radio and television, but was also one of the singing featured artists in the soundies. Soundies would often show dancing and novelty acts, but the musical act was by by far the most popular. Although I haven’t found any Darling soundies to show, here is the Glen Miller ‘Juke Box Saturday Night Soundie’ to enjoy.
There was once a time in Britain when mineral water was a luxury product sold in 'Continental' delicatessens or health food shops. The water was likely to be a French or Italian brand and stored in shapely green glass bottles. It would also be fizzy, and expensive.
Things could not be more different today with bottled water available everywhere, in sizes, shapes and standards of quality to suit the needs of all. The explosion in bottled water, now sold almost exclusively in plastic bottles has led to a serious waste problem: water bottles contribute a significant proportion of the 13 billion plastic bottles sold annually in the UK.
Contrary to the general tone of this blog, I cannot but hope for the death of certain objects, not least the plastic drinks bottle. The Observer reports how the installation of new water fountains in London may mark the first step to a serious reduction or indeed ban of plastic water bottles.
In recent years dairy suppliers and a number of supermarkets in Britain have been experimenting with new types of packaging milk, following initiatives in other countries to reduce the use of plastic liquid containers.
The milk industry's flagship scheme to replace plastic milk bottles and plastic coated cardboard is JugIt, a reusable jug and refill pouches. Although this is hardly a return to the almost dead and iconic glass pint milk bottle (please rinse and return), it is a step in the right direction to reduce packaging and lorry journeys.
The mineral water lobby seems more reluctant to rethink the plastic bottle. As the Observer report on London water fountains suggests, bottled water companies will resort to any tactic to ensure consumption of their lucrative liquid does not decline.
The introduction of new water fountains in a bid to discourage the purchase of bottled water should be applauded, however, it is unfortunate that the thirsty will be charged for the privilege to drink from one of these new machines. This fits into the terrible logic of a certain international beverage conglomerate that sees clean water not as a fundamental right, but a product to be marketed and sold.
For some time drinking fountains have been disappearing from streets and parks, and charges will only further hasten their decline. While I look forward to writing the obituary for the plastic bottle, I fear that of the drinking fountain will come first.