Sunday, 25 September 2016

My first proto-Instagram feed - the books

Let me take you back to 1996. I was finishing up my art degree and putting on the end of year show. The main part of this was a self contained documentary photo project, but throughout my course I'd been taking photos of things that interested me, like I always had done in the years before. I wanted to include these too, so I made a book and showed it as 'supporting work'. 

There was a company called Tripleprint back then, you'd send them your films in the post, and they'd come back as one large print and two smaller ones.

I would slice out one of these smaller ones, about business card sized, and glue it into an off the shelf hardback sketchbook, together with a catalogue number, location, date and the film it was from.

As well as showing the images; it's clear that this book was also for my own future reference, so I could find the negative for that image again, and also recall where and when it was taken. The book was never intended as a piece of work in itself, just as an index and to show the examiners what else I'd been up to over those 3 years. I certainly didn't imagine it would be first in a line of books over 20 years chronicling thousands of images.

Off the back of that degree show there followed a handful of exhibitions, and after that I stopped showing for a while. But I continued the books. Glue, paper, a nice pen, locations noted on scraps of paper in a box. Somewhere along the way I moved over to digital, making it much easier to produce and control my own tiny prints for the books - I was still chopping them up and putting them in. 

I did find it immensely pleasing to collate the work in this way, and whilst I was under no illusions that every picture was a world-beater, it was good to have this complete index of when and where the picture was shot, and which film or folder it could be found in.

But it took time. Cutting up the prints, gluing them carefully in and writing the details is quite a process, and one that seems far removed from the freedom of the loose, creative mindset that I'm in when I take the pictures. The process started to fall behind a few years ago, probably around the time I started a family and other things became more important. Besides, all the pictures that hadn't entered the books were still there, I still had notes on where they were taken - I could catch up whenever I found the time.

Well, I'm ready to confess that time never came, and the last shot put in as I write was number 4765 from early 2012.

The good thing is that that backlog is still there, and that's exciting to me in some ways, as it's been long enough now for me to forget the images. I like to think I'll get back on it sometime and slowly get up to date, rediscovering my work along the way.

The bad thing? I think that daunting backlog might have been stopping me take new photographs. When there's already a big queue, why add to it?

There may be an argument for creating the books on screen then sending them to print, especially as I now shoot exclusively on digital. But, perversely, though I don't particularly cherish the book creation process, I do enjoy the space and time it gives me with the images, each one getting its due in my fingertips and on my eyes. After all, I am my own target audience, I only ever took pictures to please myself, to remember a bit of visual beauty and take it home to look at later.

Looking at it that way, my books are a set of coffee table photo books tailored just for me, and I love looking through them. Of course, the various destinations and even changing styles down the years also interest me on a very personal level.

The situation I find myself in now is very different to the one I was in when I inadvertently started the series. As I write, in 2016, I am now primarily a phone photographer feeding Instagram @paulcliffordartist, rather than an SLR one feeding the books. Thinking about this, it's easy see the books as my own private primitive Instagram feed in analogue form. The pictures are in a constant stream way back to 1993. They even come in sets of three! The only thing missing is the Likes.

In the years after 2010 when I was showing my pictures a lot, I did find another way to create a kind of Instagram feed in the real world - and this one did allow for Likes - it was the first time the pictures had been subjected to judgement by a large audience that could essentially 'vote' for their favourites. More about that next time!