Using images, The Public Domain Review’s new book takes us on a journey through time and space

For its latest anniversary, The Public Domain Review has gathered over 500 images in a brand-new book. Co-founder and editor Adam Green tells us it has been “ten years in the making”.

21 May 2021
Reading Time
4 minute read


The online journal and non-profit project The Public Domain Review (PDR) is celebrating its tenth year in style with a brand-new book, Affinities. Edited by co-founder and editor of the PDR, Adam Green, and currently being crowdfunded by publisher Volume, Affinities: A Book of Images uses over 500 images from 2,000 years of image-making to craft a new visual landscape of what connects the array of wonders found in the public domain.

Affinities is essentially “the fruit of a decade of archival immersion and hundreds of images folders,” Adam explains to It’s Nice That. “There’s an immense amount of hours gone into research.” Adam’s expansive research definitely shines through in the book, as the reader is guided gently on an epic journey “through holes, ghosts, oceans, music, moons, dreams and much more in between”. What starts with Robert Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi ... historia (1617) – a “remarkable depiction of the nothingness before the creation of the universe” – ultimately ends with Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts’s The Reverse of a Framed Painting (ca. 1670), “a trompe l’oeil of a canvas back”. It’s noticeable that Adam’s intention with Affinities is to take a great sweep through time and history, but place emphasis on the cyclical nature of all things. For Adam, “there’s no end to the sequence as such, just a cycling back round to the beginning again,” which remains central to the book’s curation. He’s proud of the fact the book is one “that you can jump into at any point and then jump out perhaps many pages behind,” and encourages the reader to “find and mark out their own trails” outside of the standard left-to-right linear sequence the book initially presents itself in.


The Public Domain Review: Affinities (Copyright © The Public Domain Review, 2021)

In building the “pairings, clusters, and sequences” of images, Adam more often than not lets “the images themselves demand the next move”. So much so, that Affinities does not rely on one channel of connection between the images, but rather opens up the idea of what connects them to a multitude of possibilities that go beyond just their aesthetic value. “The images are brought together (across a spread and between spreads) through various means,” Adam clarifies. “Sometimes purely visual, sometimes thematic, and often a mix of both is somehow at play.” He points out a few examples of this, specifically highlighting the spread of a “19th Century diagram showing how white light is deconstructed into separate colours through a prism,” which sits next to “one of the many beautiful maps made by a 16th-century Ottoman Admiral named Piri Reis”. Of course, what immediately catches is “a resonance between the undulating shapes” of the images, but upon further inspection Adam tells us they are also “united by the themes which unfold around them,” such as hinging together two sections on colour charts and mountains/volcanoes. The spread effectively resolves into “optical effects produced by volcanic plumes, and then on into night and dreams,” he explains.

Textual pairings, within the captions, are also key to Affinities. Adam details another example, where “on the left is a marbled endpaper [and] on the right [is] a tattooed man (with excellent centre-parting)”. The images are aesthetically complimentary, but what Adam draws attention to is the caption of either image, where “we learn the man is a German stowaway photographed on Ellis island before being deported,” and across the page we find that the marbled endpapers “are for a 1640 play called The Noble Stranger, a title which plays off the immigration history of Ellis Island.” It’s these kinds of hidden treasures that make Affinities and Adam’s work so special. Finding links between images are not mandatory for the experience of the book, but Adam essentially believes these kinds of connections are “about creating a space alive and teeming with such possibilities,” much like the original PDR. In fact, with Affinities, Adam hopes to open “an imaginative space into which readers might bring connections I’ve never considered – new ways of seeing and creating meaning”.

It’s this inspiration for creativity that Adam attributes to the success of the PDR in the first place: “I’d say a big part of our readership is creatives looking for inspiration, and even for material to incorporate into their own work (given that all our content is public domain)”. And although there is an overlap of the kind of effect Affinities and the PDR gives its readers, Adam hopes to ultimately do something different with Affinities. “If we can talk of the general ‘tide of history’, then the PDR is about the ripples, swirling eddies, chance swells, the strange quirks of submarine topography,” Adam explains on the unique popularity of the PDR. However, Affinities works to “solely focus on celebrating the images which form such a key part of what we are about – and to explore exciting new ways to explore these images”. The broad scope of culture and history that the PDR has become so well-known for is certainly not lost in Affinities, but instead all the more concentrated and highlighted.

GalleryThe Public Domain Review: Affinities (Copyright © The Public Domain Review, 2021)

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The Public Domain Review: Affinities (Copyright © The Public Domain Review, 2021)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in May 2020 after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

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