out of the analogue past

Above: an image originally stored as a transparency, now transferred to digital. It’s of Carn Euny in Cornwall. I forgot to add details to the slide label, but judging from the style, I figure it was made in 1997. If so, then I haven’t seen this painting in the nearly twenty years since it was made, exhibited and sold.

Before digital, images of my work were recorded and stored as small transparencies. Peter took the photographs, and it was my job to check the contact-sheets when they returned from the laboratory, using a light-box and magnifier. The rejected images… out-of-focus, wonky or colour-imbalanced… were thrown away. The rest were snipped and inserted into plastic holders. Then began the arduous task of labelling before storing them in fat ring-binder files.

The information had to fit into a tiny space on each slide. Sometimes I wrote on slivers of gummed paper, and sometimes I wrote directly onto the plastic with a mapping pen and indian ink. Neither technique was foolproof. The paper labels could drop off, and the indian ink, even when set, would sometimes stick to the insides of the polyurethane slide-holder sleeves, and would require a wrestling-match to get them out.

Each tiny slide would have to contain:

my name, a unique studio ref number, title, date, measurements and media.

This for every painting, study, drawing, print and preliminary thumbnail that I produced. A red dot denoted that the work had been sold. Other colours denoted ‘out for exhibition’, or ‘on loan’. It was an unwieldy system, and time-consuming and difficult to keep up to date. But it was the only way.

Above: transparency transferred to digital. This one is of Tretower Castle, where I once worked.

It was boring and damnably fiddly work, and I hated it. But if I didn’t do it regularly, the backlogs became massive and disheartening. Occasionally I’d spend two or three days working non-stop to get everything up to date. I always resented the time spent on it, but Peter was insistent. (He was, of course, right.) The worst thing was when I’d get the top-copies ordered into the ‘archive’ ring-binders, and the duplicates for ‘sending off’ into even bigger ring-binders, before discovering that I’d missed a pile of slides. Then I’d have to move all the images in the transparency sleeves to get the missed ones into the right numerical places, which could mean moving on hundreds of slides.

Then the ring-binders had to be carefully stored. If they weren’t, and light got to them, then the colours of the slides would quickly fade or turn yellow.

There was also the inconvenience that nothing could be ‘touched-up’. Today, with everything digitally recorded and edited in i-photo, images can be ‘tidied’: trimmed and levelled, errant specks of dust or hair removed and the colour adjusted to better represent the original works. It was not so back in the days of slides. Daylight could colour-cast images too blue, and electric light too yellow. It was a constant struggle to accurately record, and the results were often too ‘approximate’ for comfort. Black and white were hell to get right. Blacks, no matter how dense in reality, would look grey in the slides, and white could just look… well, not white. If I added up the hours, I think I’d find that Peter and I have very likely spent months of our lives trying to generate and then store good images of my work.


The duplicates were the slides for sending to galleries, publications, competitions etc. I always put in stamped SAEs for them to be returned, which meant a fiddle at the post-office getting the SAEs weighed with the slides in, before packaging the entire thing in another envelope to the recipient. My trips to the post-office always included taking packaging-tape and scissors with me. Every part of the process was time-consuming. At the end of all this, I probably got one set of slides returned in every fifty that I sent. Somewhere in the world there’s a landfill-site where my transparencies went to die. But the ones I kept are still with me, filling a chest of drawers in the studio.

Very few have been transferred to digital. To do all of them would be weeks or more likely months of work. But this week Peter did a little clutch, and I shall shortly make some posts of them for the Artlog. The fact is that there are hundreds of images of work made, sold and gone from my life so long ago that I look at them now with wonder, barely remembering having made them.

Above: the detritus of a defunct system, piled higgledy-piggledy into studio chests of drawers.

Below: analogue to digital transfer of an image. The painting is of Carn Euny, and probably dates back to 1997.