So, an interesting thing happened recently. I made some curtains. Maybe you’ve seen them?
They’re made out of old Kodachrome slides I bought last fall from an antique store in Kansas City. I got a lot of maybe 400-500 slides, plus a few other things, like a crate and a slide projector, for about $25. When Travis and I got home, we sat down on the floor of our living room and went through them, seeing what we had. It was a lot of fun. I scanned in most of them, uploaded some to Flickr, and then put them back in the box. A few months later, I finally got around to trying something I had been wanting to make for a while – a pair of curtains for my front door made out of the old slides. I needed curtains for door. I had slides that I appreciated and liked to look at. It seemed like a perfect match.
The project went together quickly enough, and 3 days later, I was able to hang them up on the door. Hooray! I took some photos, added them to a few groups on Flickr, and did a Craftster post about it, because Craftster is awesome and I’ve been inspired by a lot of projects on there in the past. I figured that because I posted on Craftster, I’d get some more hits than usual on my photos on Flickr, but I didn’t think much about it.
I went to bed, and when I woke up the next morning Travis told me the views on my photo were in the thousands, which is crazily huge compared to the regular traffic. And that’s when things started to get a little weird. This is going to be a long post, people, so head on over the jump with me…It turns out Craft featured the curtains, and then Make did, too. Then Lifehacker and and several other sites did as well. Last time I looked, the photo had over 22,000 views on Flickr, which is absolutely nuts. The whole time Travis and I were working on the curtains, I kept saying, “Surely somebody has done something like this before.” And it turns out yes, people have (here’s one example). But for whatever reason, my curtains wound up going viral. I have the most famous curtains on the intertubes!
So, I started getting a lot of comments from people on my picture – most are really nice. Some people say they’re going to try making a similar project of their own out of slides they have, which is cool. And there were a few comments from people who seemed absolutely horrified that I was doing this to Kodachrome slides oh my god, don’t you know the sunlight will fade the slides, you’re destroying history, what kind of a monster are you??!! All right, I’m exaggerating a little bit there. A little bit.
I patiently explained that I appreciated discovering found film quite a bit, and have gone out of my way to do so and archive it to the best of my ability. I explained that the most of the slides used in the curtain have been scanned in and saved, and that some have even been uploaded to Flickr, where other people can view them.
One of the guys in the comments got a bit belligerent (I’m not sure if my favorite part was when he asked if I could read, or when he condescendingly offered to take any found slides off my hand to “relieve me of the burden” – the burden of enjoying something I paid for and own, I guess). Apparently, after I refused to just give him stuff I’ve spent money on, he stole the picture posted above and put it on his own website to illustrate a blog post about how I’m destroying history (also, he again failed to mention that I had digitally archived the slides). After someone let me know that he took the photo, I sent him a few cease and desist letters which he seems to have received, read, and ignored. He may be trying to get some traffic to his site through this. I don’t know. That’s not really why I’m writing this.
I’m writing this post, and let the conversation in the comments to the above photo continue even after this one guy started to get all worked up, because I think there’s an interesting, and hopefully respectful, conversation to be had about all this – What, exactly, should be considered history? What should be preserved, and how should it be preserved? Is there some sort of obligation for a private citizen to act as a museum?
I started getting seriously into photography in the spring of 2008. I had always wanted to learn to develop film, and eventually, finding myself with some free time on my hands, decided to bite the bullet and get a book and some chemicals and teach myself how to do it. At about the same time, Travis and I started going to antique stores. The first time I can remember seeing, really seeing, a box camera, I didn’t even know what it was. I’m 33 years old. I had owned a 110 camera, a 35 mm camera, and a few digital cameras at that point.
On a whim, I bought that box camera. Then, a few days later, I picked up a Brownie Twin 20 from the 60s. It was the first, but not the last, camera I bought that had a roll of film in it, an old roll of Kodak Verichrome Pan 620. The struggle to get that roll competently developed was what really pushed me towards developing my own film.
Like a lot of found film that’s still stuck in cameras, whatever pictures had been taken on them didn’t turn out, although 4 or 5 that Travis and I took actually did. Still, the seed was planted – out there in the world are rolls of undeveloped film that have been lost, forgotten about, or neglected. I potentially had the power to collect some of this film, develop it, and bring it to life again! How freaking awesome is that? It’s like having super powers! I am PhotoSaver!
The first roll of found film I ever successfully developed was in September of 2008. I had bought a lot of film and negatives off of ebay. I think I bought it because the lot featured a bunch of the old metal film canisters, like these. I had never seen them before, thought they looked neat, and to my surprise, were loaded up with old spent film cartridges and rolled up negatives. One of the rolls was actually exposed and undeveloped, so I took a deep breath and developed it myself. To my delight, I got an entire roll of images from a 40-50 year old roll of Kodak Plus X Pan. Every image was vignette of the past. I was thrilled, scanned them in, and uploaded them to Flickr.
I also painstakingly went through the other negatives in the package and scanned all of them in as well. I use the word “painstakingly” intentionally – some of the film was so old and brittle, it flaked to tiny shrapnel at a touch. Some of the film stunk, and I did a little research and discovered that it was because it was film pre-safety film – meaning that it was exuding gases and highly combustible. I did the best I could recovering the images.
I got all the negatives scanned, uploaded a good cross section of them to Flickr, created a set for any found film I would come across, and added a few of the pictures to Found Film groups on Flickr, sharing them with others, hoping that maybe I could get more info about them.
And that’s what I continued to do – search out cameras in antique shops with film in them, buy them, take them home and develop the film. I’ve spent way too many hours on ebay (although not recently) peering at blurry pictures of cameras, seeing if the red window on the back has a frame number peeking through, indicating it’s loaded with a roll of film. Sometimes I’ll run across collections of slides or negatives that are already processed, and if they’re not too much, I’ll buy those too. I think it’s neat. I scan in the images, digitally archiving them and protecting the image from future degradation, and then upload them to Flickr, giving them a wider audience.
So, the question is, apparently, is that enough? What obligation do I have to the actual, physical object? Or, if you’d prefer, what obligation do I have to future generations?
In one sense, it’s simple – absolutely none. I bought an item, I own it, it belongs to me, and I can do whatever I want with it. With a few exceptions (and I’m thinking of things like zoned land, or a house in a historic district), once you buy an item, the property is yours to do whatever with it. I can go into an antique store, buy a carousel full of slides, walk outside, and systematically tear them up and throw them away (in a garbage can, of course, not on the street, because littering is wrong). That’s perfectly legal. A bit dickish, perhaps, but hey! It’s my property!
On the other hand, there are people, like this guy who stole my photo and called me an idiot, that seems to think that if I’ve purchased an item that he, or some arbitrary person somewhere, thinks might possibly have historical interest, I am obligated to take that item, store it in a shoebox, and not alter it in any way. And if I can’t or am unwilling to do this, I should not buy the item in the first place, leaving it sitting in a dusty, dark corner in an antique store for however many more years before someone else comes across it, or, if I’ve already purchased the item, just give it to someone else who will care for it more than I, obviously a colossal asshole, ever would.
I have a few slight problems with that. First off, I’m not just going to give stuff I’ve paid for to some random guy on the internet who has proved how much he cares by being insulting and a thief. People, even though it’s the internet, you are interacting with other human beings behind computers. There’s no need to be a jerk.
Secondly, I stand by the “I paid for it, I own it” theory. I may not like it when somebody buys an acre of woods and plows over it to build a McMansion, but unless that person is breaking a law by doing so, there’s no reason for me to believe that standing on their front lawn and yelling “Hey! You’re a jackass! Give me your land instead!” is actually going to accomplish anything besides, well, just making me look like a jerk.
Thirdly, buying a set of found slides and keeping them in aforementioned and recommended shoebox is no guarantee of archival protection for the slides. Really, it’s not. Is it better protection than making a curtain out of them and hanging that where it received a few hours of sunlight a day? Probably, yes. However, things happen. Fires happen. Floods happen. If you had to evacuate your home in an emergency, would that shoebox of someone else’s old slides be one of the things you grab to save? Maybe, but probably not. I know my priority would be people and pets first, and then to grab our portable computers and hard drives. And, if I had an extra hand and 15 seconds, I’d grab the Nikon D40 to take pictures of our home in flames. Maybe I’d grab the curtains, too, on my way out, since they’re hanging right on my front door.
The thing is, I care very much about recovering lost images. I scan them in. I archive them digitally. Those images from the slides that I used to make the curtains? They’re on that hard drive I grabbed running out the door. And if I didn’t have time to get the hard drive, well, at least a good representation of them are still backed up online on Flickr, available for anyone in the world to view if they want.
The person who seems to have the biggest problem with what I’ve done with these slides claims to have similar troves of old slides as well, presumably stored in shoeboxes. Which is great! The more saved images, the better! However, I have no idea if this guy has backed these images up on a computer, or placed them online for public viewing. It doesn’t appear so, just by looking at his Flickr account, but he may have them available elsewhere. Who knows? But if he doesn’t, he might want to consider doing so, especially since he cares so much about history. By placing some of the images I’ve saved online, I’ve had people I don’t know from across the internet give me more information about them.
Flickr user exp_resso examined images from a set of slides from 1974 that I scanned in and determined that they were pictures of an Electro-motive Diesel engine testing facility in LaGrange, Illinois.
I received confirmation from multiple Flickr peeps that this and other pictures from the same batch were taken at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. How cool is that? I was able to tag the photos with that information, and now anyone on the internet that is looking for vintage pictures of the Audubon Zoo has a chance to come across these.
So, in sharing these lost photos with others, have I fulfilled any obligation I might have with future generations? I think so. I think I’m good. I dug up photos, in some cases, processed them myself, spent time and money doing so, archived them digitally, and made them available to the world.
What, then, to do with the actual, physical thing? For me, that depends. Most of the negatives I have are either stored in those clear, archival sleeves, or, if they’re too fragile to be laid flat, stored in the little metal film canisters. The slides are in boxes (not shoeboxes, I’m afraid). Some of the slides are now a curtain. Some of them are a lamp. Some of them are in a wallhanging thing I just finished making for my mom (Happy birthday!). They’re on display, to be viewed by my family or visitors, until I want to redecorate or they fade on their own. I go to my front door to let the dog out, and stand and look at all the tiny pictures of people riding horses, and am captivated by it. And if they fade, that’s okay, because I know the image has been preserved. And if I think of alternate uses for any of the other slides or negatives I have, I’ll go ahead right ahead and use them, because I know the image has already been preserved.
It was suggested to me, and others doing similar projects, that instead of using old, found slides, that we should shoot slide film ourselves and use those slides for a project. Which is great, and something I’ve already been working on (I shoot a lot of slide film). I totally encourage people to buy a few rolls of film, and if they don’t have a 35mm camera, just go down to a thrift store and pick one up. I see them for 50 cents to a dollar all of the time. Most of the ones you’ll find there don’t even need batteries! You can shoot some goofy pics and get it developed, and you’ll not only wind up with slides, but you may wind up with a new hobby, too. Of course, using your own film to make a project leads one to this thought, expressed so eloquently by my friend Carly: “But…if you took pictures yourself and made a curtain out of your own slides, wouldn’t you be destroying history, IN THE FUTURE?!?” If you need me, I’ll be stuck in a time loop on a mysterious island in 1977.
One of the points the angry guy was making in his argument that the slides should be kept in a box, in the dark, forever, was that you never know when old slides can “simply give inspiration in my daily work as a designer.” I’m assuming that when he says “my,” he actually means any one, or any designer, at least. Either way, it struck me as kind of funny – the curtains I made out of old, forgotten slides seem to have given a lot of people inspiration – inspiration to try making something like this when they may have thought it was too difficult, inspiration to find new uses for old objects, or just plain inspiration to think (and forgive me for using this phrase) “outside the [shoe]box” in terms of how they could decorate or enhance their space. That. Is. Awesome. I admittedly spend way too much time on the internet, in part because I am constantly inspired and amazed by what other people do. To be amongst those doing the inspiring is, frankly, amazing.
I apologize for the length of this post, but it’s something I believe passionately. Be creative. Be resourceful. Care about the past, and rethink things for the future. Don’t be a jerk. If you make a similar project as the curtains, check out what’s on your slides first. Maybe, as the guy who stole my photo said, “you might be the owner of an important clue that would solve a mystery” or “end a controversy.” In that case, I don’t know, alert the media? Contact a professor at a local college? Call the History Channel? Something along those lines. You can always share the images on Flickr, to the delight of internet sleuths. These are things I encourage. What’s funny is that the curtain post may have just sparked new interest in something that has been otherwise considered, well, archaic. I don’t know anyone who uses slide projectors anymore, although there are probably some people who still do. I do know people who will hook their camera or computer up to their TV and look at pictures that way. Now it looks like there might be a fleet of fresh eyes inspecting carousels of dusty slides found in a relative’s attic. Maybe something incredible will be discovered now just because there are more people looking.
Ultimately, though, the slides are in your hands, and their fate belongs to you. Choose wisely, young Skywalker! I’ll end this by posting some images from the slides used in my recent craft projects. As always, any information anyone could give me about what’s in the pictures is welcome and appreciated.
The slides were purchased by me in Kansas City, Missouri in October of last year. They were in a crate with an Ansco slide projector. A good amount of the slides had some mold damage on them. The slides that were date stamped ranged from 1961 to 1967, although there were many slides that looked as if they predated that (probably about half were not date stamped and looked older). They shot primarily Kodachrome, although there were a handful of Anscochrome slides mixed in.
They liked horses.
They had a dog.
The dog is featured in many pictures, like this one of a fire…
…and this one where they’re on vacation, in the Headwaters of the Mississippi State Park in Minnesota.
They also took a trip to the Badlands in South Dakota.
They had friends, or relatives that they hung out with called Laura and Frank. I think this is them.
One of the Anscochrome slides had writing on it that read, “To Laura + Dick, Xmas 1959, From Laura + Frank.” So, I’m assuming the lot of slides I have belonged to Laura and Dick.
This is Laura or Dick’s mother. She apparently liked roses, and had a sweet spot for the dog, too.
It’s easy to share these pics with you because they’re online, available for everyone to see. It would be hard to invite the internet over to my house to take turns looking through a box of slides. My carpet would get even dirtier than it already is, and it would freak out my dog. But, you would be able to see the curtains in person!