When London design studio Why Not Associates were approached to produce the 2010 Tokyo Type Directors Club exhibition poster, they knew immediately they wanted to approach the prestigious commission differently. “It was usually big, beautiful Japanese calligraphy so we had to do something a bit weird,” founder Andy Altmann said. The resulting piece is extraordinary – three middle-aged male performers (maybe singers or dancers) wearing jaunty boaters and striking red lip-stick, the sashes on their hats photoshopped to read “TDC Club.”
The bizarre image around which the whole design is built wasn’t the result of some carefully-staged ironic photoshoot, but rather plucked directly from the studio’s huge collection of old slides. It first started when former employee Chris Curran randomly bought a box of them from Spitalfields market and Andy was blown away by the wonderfully saturated colours, quirky compositions, weird subject matter and bizarre juxtapositions. He soon started buying up boxes of 200 slides from eBay, and bitten by the same bug, his colleagues Sam Wiliams and Gustavo Fernandez became similarly obsessed (occasionally they would find they were engaged in a bidding war with each other).
Buying as they do in bulk, they all enjoy never really knowing what they are going to get – and even when a box seems to contain one thing they are used to being wrongfooted – “Sometimes the weirdest stuff comes in the middle of a stack of a family from Ontario or something,” says Gustavo.
Andy describes his selection process as “brutal” as he sits with new boxes over a bin jettisoning around 98 per cent of those he’s just bought (his colleagues have been known to salvage unfair rejects from the rubbish and both Gustavo and Sam resell the ones they don’t need to feed their ongoing habit). They are not selected to potentially be used in client work, they’re simply kept or chucked away on their own merits as photographs and between them they now have thousands, ranging from the turn of the century through to the 1970s and 80s.
“It’s just something about it,” Andy says. “The subjects might be quite odd but also the way they are shot, without a photographic eye. You get these weird juxtapositions of things but there are moments when the composition is like a Renaissance painting. Some have deteriorated with time but that can actually be really beautiful as well.” Gustavo agrees. “Because the people who made them aren’t artists or designers they feel fresh and authentic.”
That, Sam explains, leads visual research in really unexpected new directions, injecting an element of happenstance deliberately removed in the algorythms of the online world. But sometimes they use the slides more directly – as the image which greets visitors to their homepage, for a series of catalogues for the London College of Fashion (2010) and their recent rebrand for the Belgian TV channel Vier. “The feeling we wanted we couldn’t get anywhere else,‘ Gustavo explains.
“I think great graphics often comes from looking at something backwards but it’s a very hard thing to do, to think in the opposite way,” Andy says. “We’re so well-trained with imagery these days that there’s a real joy in the naivety of these slides.”
But it’s impossible to completely detach yourself from the personal nature of these photographs, these memories of holidays or parties or sometimes bafflingly unphotogenic situations that someone, somewhere at some time wanted to capture.
Flicking through a collection of a middle-aged woman surrounded by her poodles, first in the garden, next in front of the TV – this same lady and her dogs posing proudly for an unseen photographer – Andy articulates these thoughts. “It can be quite sad sometimes. You have someone’s whole life in your hands that someone’s decided they don’t want anymore.” Here’s to a second life for some of these slides then.