Roy Bayfield, who co-curated the exhibition, writes about a process that took inspiration from failure and made friendship its driving force.
“It is perverse to make more work than is necessary”- Peter Buse, 40,000 Roses – or, the Perversity of the Polaroid in The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation (Vassar College, 2013)
What could have been simply a beautiful exhibition of illustrations from a highly-acclaimed children’s book has, in the process of its creation, become something altogether more strange and wonderful. A recreation of home rendered unhomely; images receding through layers of time; an analogue magic lantern show inverting a digital world, with no end in sight. Some Polaroid snaps on a wall.
To try and get some bearings: The Unforgotten Coat is a children’s book written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It was written for a charity – the Liverpool-based Reader Organisation – and went on to win both the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2011, and more recently the German Children’s Literature Award at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013. In the story, based on real events, two Mongolian refugee brothers, Chingis and Nergui Tuul, arrive at a Liverpool primary school. Julie, the book’s narrator, is assigned to look after them as their ‘Good Guide’, a nomadic tradition. The brothers’ Polaroid photos of ‘Mongolia’ are a feature of the narrative, and were created as illustrations for the book by filmmakers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney. Frank Cotrell Boyce describes the process: ‘I came up with a story about a set of Polaroid photographs. Some more neighbours, Carl Hunter and Clare Heney, took the photos. A lot of photos! A bin bag full of Polaroids. We sorted through them all and sometimes the story took a swerve just to include a really good one. Other times bits were cut because we couldn’t get the picture right’ (Blog on My Red House website, Dec 2012).
The illustrations in the book are digital photographs, created to look like Polaroids, complete with aged textured frames:
Edge Hill University, Carl and Clare’s academic home, wanted to run an event relating to The Unforgotten Coat; a reading with Q&A perhaps, maybe an exhibition. In the summer of 2013 some dates were agreed, so the exhibition, at least, was going to happen. So now Carl and Clare needed to decide how best to exhibit their images. I have a hazy recollection of saying ‘you could do them as actual Polaroids’ at some function or other, and Carl liking the idea. That, perhaps, is when it all went deliciously wrong.
Making digital images into analogue Polaroid-style photographs is, it turns out, not a trivial matter. For a start, film had to be acquired. There is a current brand of Polaroid film, but only at a size smaller than the classic format replicated in the book. Stock made by the ‘Impossible’ company still looks like the real deal, and works in the old cameras, albeit with a slower process of development. In the summer, concurrent with Carl and Clare’s mentoring students on a BBC project, various experiments were undertaken, including printing large-scale hard copies of the digital files and photographing them. This never quite worked – there were issues of focus and framing, and a kind of inescapable flatness. They were bad, but not in the ‘bad=good’ way. Alternative approaches were mooted; recreating the images at the original sites (difficult given the extensive use of props) or going to the locations and holding up hard copies of the images, sliced from the book with a scalpel and photographing them, hand and all. I began to envisage some kind of mad road trip around Merseyside, fake Polaroids (or where they the real ones?) flapping in the wind, hourly-paid hand model getting anxious, images snatched in the seconds before the authorities arrived…
Impossible were poised to bring out a new device, the ‘Instant Lab’, which promised to convert images from an iPhone to their Polaroid-style film. As time went on this began to seem like the best solution. We bought one on the first day it came out, together with several packs of their PX-70 film, ‘FOR YOU TO SHOOT 8 COLOR PHOTOS WITH A POLAROID TYPE SX 70 CAMERA’.
As well as a practical solution to a production problem, a device designed to turn digital images, the modern successor to analogue, ‘back’ into ‘real’ photos offered an appealing bizarreness. It was as if the technology had come full circle, or at least formed a strange, possibly infinite loop.
Of course, it still wasn’t simple. The creation of a one-shot, this-is-it image that develops itself, in the dark, in a kind of built-in chemistry lab would never be simple. First myself (as I had an iPhone), then Carl (as a new departmental iTouch for future use as a marketing social media generator, when it will doubtless spawn thousands of Instagram images in the carefree world of total digital profligacy without consequences, had been acquired and loaned to him) burned through packets of high-end 8 COLOR PHOTOS Impossible film like 60s-era chain-smokers working through packs of Guards. Still the discard pile grew vast and unwieldy, while the ‘OK to exhibit’ pile remained stubbornly small.
Scan of an exhibited image:
Then there are all the discards. Everyone loves the broken images, the unexpected chemical swirls, bizarre over- or underexposures, ghosts in the machine, love letters from the goddess of chance. None are failures – even a black panel is a photograph of the inside of the camera. Yet somehow these were not right for the main sequence – an interesting aspect of this particular bit of creative research. One can love accident, rough edges, unintended outcomes, imperfection, arbitrariness – but there is still a boundary of acceptability, a judgement to be made. Nevertheless it was always intended that the discards should be exhibited as well, which led to a whole set of further questions.
My suggestion that a school old desk could house them elicited the Facebook-response from Carl that this was ‘the best idea since Spiral Scratch’, which I took as assent to the approach, and bought a desk. In the final days Carl simply invited me to use the desk and discards to make my own ‘creative response’ to the main sequence, which I did, working with University Curator Joan Steele to deliver a workable artefact. The Carl/Clare process is like that, an inversion of the auteur approach – somewhere along the line, you end up being trusted as part of the gang, a sort of autonomous collaborator within a structure that has been agreed through intuition alone. Perhaps like being in a band.
Somehow, on the day of the exhibition opening, it came to an end. There is an exhibition, inhabiting as its first outing a peculiarly-shaped corner of Edge Hill’s new Creative Edge building. Vaguely gallery-like without being a gallery, the chosen exhibition space has, among other things, a toilet entrance within it, and a drinking fountain that appeared unheralded after the exhibition was mounted, but nevertheless it seems right. The building, so recently-occupied that it still has a provisional feel (Carl and Clare’s office immured by soap dispenser refills when we met to plan the final stages) makes an Ideal Home for a set of ambiguous pictures, swimming against the digital tide.
So now we have photos on a wall to look at. The process of producing them has involved so many layers of substitution, multiplication and transformation that it is hard to firmly locate any actual subject of these images. Try to retrace the steps: at a minimum they have travelled from ideas in the text of The Unforgotten Coat, to digital jpegs made by Carl and Clare, to images designed on to book pages. Then (restart!) from jpegs to Impossible PX 70 prints, via the screens of Apple devices, through the lens of the Instant Laboratory. Each stage adding or subtracting a layer of process, of rendition into pixels and pigment… the final selection seems to hold all of that history in the white frames.
A compass points towards Bootle, a map title says Mongolia, but the images are somewhere else. Where are the subjects of these photos? Lost, inaccessible, glimpsed through the distorting lens of perverse process but out there somewhere…in the psychogeography of Merseyside, and shared by the characters in the book, the readers of the book, and its creators; in the cat’s cradle of friendship that brought them into being. Impossible, yet unforgotten.