New uses for old media memories

11 August 2014
Time-lapse macro-photography: promo video for the after | image project

Imagine a photo from your childhood, a treasured memory, a moment in time. It is fraying at the edges, fragile with age, but safely preserved in a photo album.

Now pour some sulphuric acid on it, and watch it burn away…

This may seem like a strange thing to do, to destroy one’s photographic memories. But as an artist, doing strange things comes naturally to me.

I am a media artist. In my art project, after | image, I explore how it feels to watch my memories disappear. Not my actual memories, of course – they are all still there in my head, same as ever. But my ‘external’ memories, the memories I have given photographic form to.

These days, our memories are likely to be stored on digital media. They will be shot on digital cameras or smartphones, and stored on hard drives or on cloud services and shared via social media.

But before the digital revolution, our external memories were stored on celluloid.

Sulphuric Acid and Photographic Film - a mix made in heaven. Photo: Grayson Cooke.


Celluloid negatives and slide film were the medium of memory for the 20th century. On our bookshelves and in our attics, sit folder after folder, box after box, of silently mouldering images.

They hold the faces of our families and friends, and they let us remember the joy, grief or wonder we felt when the photograph was taken.

And that’s why we keep them: they are material reminders of the people and places that are important to us, and which make us who we are today.

Of course, whether we will ever DO anything with these material memories, - especially now that digital media has superseded celluloid - is an entirely different question.

Printing from film is now a niche market, serviced by only a few photo labs in the major cities. Yes, you can buy a slide scanner and spend three weeks scanning your grandparents’ slides from their trip to Europe in 1953. But let’s be honest - are you really going to do that?

It is this complex situation that my art-science project, after | image, is designed to reflect on.

The project reflects on the accumulation and obsolescence of celluloid media, and is made up of time-lapse macro-photography of my photographic negatives being chemically and physically destroyed.

This project is produced in collaboration with environmental scientist and artist Dr Amanda Reichelt-Brushett.

The photographs I am using were taken when I studied photography at high school. They contain the images of my friends and myself at the time, and record my youthful and naïve obsessions with Gothic imagery, with graveyards and abandoned churches.

The negatives had been sitting in a ringbinder in my parents’ attic for 20 years, and when I started thinking about this project, I realized that this was the perfect ‘object’ for my enquiry.

Here was a collection of photos that had been kept around for mainly nostalgic reasons, but which in all likelihood would sit rotting in the attic for another 20 years if I didn’t do something with it.

So I decided to destroy it. Or rather – I decided to chemically ‘enhance’ its natural and inevitable decay, and digitally record this process using time-lapse photography, such that what we are left with is a digital record of the disappearance of my personal archive, my material memories.

Dr Reichelt-Brushett is also a chemist, and she concocted an incredible range of strong acids and oxidising agents, each of which would work on the celluloid acetate film in different ways.

We experimented with different concentrations of each material, and with different timescales, seeking the most dynamic effects over time, looking for that sweet spot where the resonance and significance of this dissolution of celluloid memory would be most apparent.

And the results pretty much speak for themselves; watching celluloid dissolve is incredible.

This project has now been screened and exhibited at film and media art festivals internationally. It won an award at the VIDEOFORMES digital art festival in France, and the latest output from the project, entitled AgX, has been accepted into the 2014 Taiwan International Video Art Exhibition, a biennial exhibition whose 2014 theme is The Return of Ghosts.

This theme is highly appropriate: the ghosts of the 20th century are stored on celluloid media. Should we just forget about them, because our new iPhones are just so much more fun? Or should we continue to store them, in their boxes and drawers, for a future moment of remembrance that will never come?

after | image suggests a different approach is possible.

Why destroy the photographic archive, why release the ghosts from the drawer?

Because in doing so, we can make them live again.

AgX - Promo Clip from Grayson Cooke on Vimeo.