For many photography and archive enthusiasts, the Beijing Silvermine will be old news. For those who don’t know, in short, this immense archive is an ongoing archival project from the French artist Thomas Sauvin who has been collecting film negatives from Beijing since May 2009. The archive now features 850,000 negatives from around 14,000 rolls, totalling at close to one million images including its digital counterparts. For the past ten years, Thomas has been working full time on this project, forming an integral piece of Chinese history, documenting life from the 1990s through to the early 2000s.
The photographs capture the daily lives of Chinese people, providing a glimpse into Chinese history that is little known in the West. Thomas tells It’s Nice That, “When we think about the 80s and 90s, it’s a time in Chinese history where people started to consume more, while opening their culture to the rest of the world. These are the kinds of things that you would quite naturally document through photography”, and so the archive details the unseen minutiae of China’s cultural revolution through the passing snapshots of its ordinary citizens.
In the past ten years, Thomas has exhibited the archive around the world and produced photo-books with the found imagery. In a new turn of events, he is now collecting images from Chinese people from all over the world who’ve found old images of their families and sent Thomas digitised versions to add to his archive. With an increasing following on various social media sites, The Beijing Silvermine has extended into “love, work and obsession” for Thomas. For the archivist, he explains: “Perhaps what’s most important to me, is that people are quite surprised that an entire piece of history can be told by everyday people through photography, when generally speaking, it’s widely understood that history is written by the communications department.”
In short, the project began while Thomas was living in Beijing from 2002 to 2005. “I’ve always been interested in negatives because it’s a weird object in-between the camera and photo album”. While looking for negatives to buy online, Thomas came across a man collecting negatives, not to document, but to recycle. Thomas resultantly went to visit him, discovering that he “specialised in collecting trash and negatives with silver nitrate”. He would collect negatives to then throw into a pool of acid for the chemicals to break down. “As soon as I saw that, I started buying the negatives from him by the kilo” says Thomas, “and I’ve been doing this for ten years now.”
Though he doesn’t know who is behind the camera or in front of the lens, as the collection grew, Thomas became more interested in the huge quantities of “raw material.” As the piles of negatives grew ever-higher, Thomas explains, “I decided to use all the raw material to try and build a portrait of a place and time.” The photos show all kinds of phenomenon. Daily exchanges and silly poses are dust-speckled as the result of their age and forgotten mistreatment. As the negatives are scanned, nothing is cleaned or retouched. The vintage films are scanned in their found state, impregnated with whatever substance they have collected over time which adds to the mystery of the photograph’s subject and the unique story behind each image.
And as the project has grown in size and age, it has garnered quite a bit of international attention. As the Beijing Silvermine’s visual identity has established itself as a photographic representation of China’s history, more and more Chinese people also want to become a part of the project. “Increasing amounts of Chinese people from all over the world have been sending me digital files of their family photos when they go back to China to see their relatives”, says Thomas. In this new development, many people who rely on the archive as a source of history, can now also contribute their family photos to the collection that houses around one million photographs. Thomas surmises, “The more I was posting photos online, the more I was receiving photos, so the archive is taking on more of an intense digital life”.
All in all, Thomas hopes that the archive can “grow naturally”, to carry on “surprising people” – as well as him – in its photographic composition and relationship to historical context. “I hope it can allow people to have a better understanding of China and Chinese people”, and just as significantly, “further understand the relationship that human beings at large have with photography”.
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