It began in March 2015, when David Yates, a client of photographer and fine art printer Mike Crawford, turned up at his print studio, Lighthouse Darkroom, with a “shopping trolleyful” of old boxes of expired photographic paper. The next day, he brought another. The two loads were what was left of a mass clear-out of Bret Sampson’s darkroom – he was Yates’s late grandfather. The British photographer’s London studio was his first port of call, given that Crawford was already working with Yates on another of his personal projects.
“My initial reaction was, I don’t know if I need more stuff!” Crawford laughs. “But then I thought it very interesting. The trolley contained boxes of papers that photographers loved in the 1960s and ’70s: Agfa Brovira, Agfa Record Rapid, Kodak Bromesko – classic photographic emulsions that have long since been discontinued.”
As someone who admits he spends half of his life in the darkroom and half of it in front of the computer, Crawford set about carefully testing the papers for the “potential” of the folios, some outdated by up to 50 years. “Ilford will tell you that it’s not advisable to use film much after the expiry date, but we were using it well over,” he says.
“In most cases it showed that the papers all had some degree of degradation – from minor to almost unusable. I then experimented with some alternative methods of printmaking, like using the lith process using high-contrast developers, which can produce prints on papers that would otherwise be unusable.”
The darkroom from which all this material was salvaged belonged to artist and photographer Bret Sampson, who had passed away six years previously, although he hadn’t used his creative cave in over a decade. After the Second World War, Sampson’s grandfather had acquired a collection of 150 large format glass-plate negatives that originally belonged to Birmingham-born portrait photographer Emma Barton. Arguably one of the most published female photographers at the time, she eventually retired to the Isle of Wight in 1932 and died six years later, leaving her photographic possessions to her son.
The story goes that one day Sampson’s grandfather was alarmed by the sound of smashing glass coming from the house next door. His neighbour, Barton’s son, was throwing out his mother’s negative plates. Given the shortage of glass after the war, Sampson’s grandfather rescued them, thinking he could repurpose them for his damaged greenhouse. The plates have been passed down through the family ever since, eventually ending up in the hands of David Yates and subsequently in Crawford’s darkroom to be processed. “So that’s the vague background,” he says of how the two came to meet.
After acquiring the contents of the two trolleys, Crawford was intrigued to find out whether it would appeal to others as much as it did to him. He was closely connected with the London Alternative Photography Collective at the time and presented his findings and ideas about the expired papers to them and others, asking people to get involved in a collaborative project. Participants were given the opportunity to request the stocks, and after three months, the results began to flood in.
“There was a process of giving people a choice of material they thought they could work with, but also a few people chose to work with things outside of their comfort zone,” says Crawford.
“Angela Easterling, who worked with the lumen process, produced a remarkable triptych. It involved taking an impression directly from the face and using a barrier cream.” Each artist was asked to produce a single piece of work, given the limitations of not having an endless supply.
Contacting people that worked and understood analogue photography was “a definite consideration” but “wasn’t a total rule. We embraced all possibilities,” says Crawford. Using the papers in varying ways, and at different stages of their creative process, 50 collaborators in total produced work for the project, “and they were imaginative and intuitive”, he says, giving a special mention to Tanja Verlak, a Slovenian photographer who produced four 10×10-inch prints from a packet of Agfa Brovira Grade 6 paper, which had been discontinued in the late 1970s.
“As most of my own work is based on silver photography, I can imagine what ‘expired’ photographic can mean, and I was naturally curious about the result,” she says. “The paper I used was well kept through the years, so I could control the process fully.”
Many photographers worked directly onto the paper, while others used it as a paper negative to make pinhole cameras or photograms. Other techniques attempted were wet collodion, collage, chemical toning and more. The one condition was that the material used was exclusively from Yates’s batch. “It was very much about the idea that it came from one source, and a source that was going to be disposed of,” says Crawford. “It would be too easy to make it an open project that everyone can use whatever materials. I wanted it to be about showing the potential that’s there.”
Nevertheless, the brief was open, with no dictation of subject matter or theme. This allowed Crawford to extract unpredictable motives and ephemeral narratives that brought the body of work together in the two public exhibitions it has had thus far: the first in May 2016 at Revela’T festival in Vilassar de Dalt, in Catalonia, Spain, and then at Schaelpic Photokunstbar in Cologne, Germany, in November of the same year.
Obsolete & Discontinued, as it has been titled, will be displayed in a central London exhibition, at Waterstones Bookshop Gallery, from 30 September. Alongside the works themselves, a glossary also features, delineating the different processes used on the papers – although the technical details here serve merely as an undercurrent to the aesthetic qualities that have been made possible.
With the expired papers all used up and less of it hiding in darkrooms and studios, new materials and surfaces have overtaken in an industry of tech-thirsty production houses and image-making brands. But with this project, Crawford hopes to reach out to a wider audience and inspire onlookers and photography-lovers like himself to “look at what they already have” and “think of new ideas”.
He adds: “What was exciting was that this material was destined to be thrown out. Seeing the potential that was there from a darkroom of material that, sadly, the photographer himself never lived to see, the potential in material that, as the title says, is considered both obsolete and had been discontinued – yes, I was surprised and very pleased.”
Obsolete & Discontinued is on display at Waterstones Book Shop Gallery, Gower Street, London from 30 September to 27 October. The photo-book is published by Brovira Press, edited by Mike Crawford, designed by Paul McKenzie, with an introductory essay by Brigitte Lardinois. Support the project here.