When I was 17 I walked into the art room at school one day to find a rubbish bag full of old black and white prints sat on my desk. My teacher had salvaged it from a skip on the side of a residential street full of the belongings of a man who had recently passed away. ‘See what you can do with them,’ she suggested. She was unable to give any context to them and so, elbows deep in prints, I began to familiarise myself with this abandoned archive. Eager to see what was inside, I took no interest in trying to organise them into any sort of order. I dug prints out at random and threw them back in again. Despite this, a pattern emerged and my hands began bringing up the same picture of an old man or of a church steeple. Their maker had printed the same negatives over and over again, unhappy with his previous efforts that had produced blurred crop lines and over exposed areas. He had been determined to get it just right.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about the photographs, nor did I have any context to them which might have made them more interesting. However, I was not a natural painter and I didn’t have a lot of talent for drawing, so I was glad to have been given this base material from which to work. Gathering inspiration from artists using ‘found’ photographs like John Stezaker, I used every last print to experiment with techniques I would end up using for the next two years. Having multiple copies of the same photo gave me the opportunity to test out ideas and perfect them if they didn’t work out. I cut into them and out of them, turning previously inoffensive images into confusing and distorted versions of themselves. I sewed into them like the artist Maurizio Anzeri, and in one example, I pierced through prints and used lights and mirrors to create new images.
All of these experiments resulted in a huge body of work produced during my late teens. Developing from my work with the found prints, I began to apply the analogue techniques I’d used to alter my own photographs. I bleached, scratched, and layered my images with paint, tape, newspaper, and old photographs I bought in markets. After physically changing the prints, I would scan them and continue to work on them in Photoshop, manipulating them digitally in various ways. Nothing was left in its original form and every version of each photo I took had the potential to turn into something far beyond its starting point. I eventually abandoned this style of work when I began university. Years later however, I have found myself unexpectedly returning to it. This time I’m using found photographs of a different nature.
Working in museums and libraries on digitisation projects has exposed me to a wide variety of online collections. Their potential for artistic use has always been immediate to me. Although the process of ‘finding’ them is less exciting than its physical counterpart, the huge amount of material available at any given time provides a much higher probability of finding something inspiring. Online collections working with relaxed copyright laws or Creative Commons licenses allows for this potential to flourish by providing clear guidelines on how individuals can use them. Digitisation simultaneously preserves and allows for freedom and creativity. With the option to print out or download the images I source, the opportunity is now there for me to experiment as I did with the bag of prints.
The work I’ve found myself producing now is not the same as it was when I was a teenager. I haven’t scratched or bleached anything (yet) and the work is much simpler. With an increasing interest in protest art, I have been working with juxtaposition. As a result, I have begun producing work in the form of zines. Typically self-published and using appropriated texts and images, they have proven to be a perfect way to work with online collections.
The images below are examples from some of the zines I have created. I have used various online collections to produce this work including the Qatar Digital Library and the Flickr account of the National Archives. This work shows the creative possibilities when using archives as source material. However, more needs to be done to encourage this kind of work. I’ve heard multiple times in different meetings and across different institutions, the desire for online collections to be used creatively. However, any real action to engage artists is small and does not reflect the vast size and accessibility that digitisation provides.
One important aspect is making the interface of collections online more accessible for those with something more creative in mind. The Flickr accounts of archives and libraries, including the National Archives and the British Library, are the easiest to use for this kind of work. The focus is on the visual with a simple tile layout of hundreds of images on each page. Once you click on an individual image it’s easy to see the copyright status. Of course, this interface doesn’t suit everything on these accounts. Any digitised documents often get lost in the stream and it would obviously fail to impress academics or researchers if archives were presented in this way. However, it does suggest the importance of making an ‘image only’ viewing option available. In addition, funded off-site residencies, teaching resources for art teachers and documenting and publicising creative uses of online collections through blog posts and social media platforms are all examples of how to better engage the creative community.