Pick a slide, any slide…

The Visual Resources Centre at Manchester School of Art contains more than 300,000 photographic slides. This collection was once at the heart of the Art School’s teaching practices. Its contents document a century of art education. But times have changed. In the rush to embrace the digital and all it can do, the value of such ‘obsolete’ technologies is in danger of being lost.

Prompted by proposals to dispose of the collection, Adopt a Slide began as a collaborative student project. In May 2015, we invited people simply to browse the collection, pick a slide and respond to it. The response has been amazing – from students, staff, alumni and other friends of the art school; from academics, librarians, journalists, artists and other interested parties further afield. Some have been fascinated by analogue image-making processes. For others, it is the collection’s particular history of art and design. And for others still, it is the jolt of the familiar, the unexpected find of images that resonate with personal significance. Such responses have clearly demonstrated the collection’s ongoing relevance, both as historic artefact and source of creative inspiration. Our project, disseminated via the internet, demonstrates how digital technology complements rather than replaces the unique qualities of the analogue image.

In July 2015 the Art School announced its intention to transfer the entire collection to the University’s Special Collections. The collection will thus be preserved in its entirety as a historic archive document. However, its future accessibility, for students, staff, and anyone with an interest in the diverse histories and creative possibilities it contains, remains, for the moment, unresolved. We are hopeful, though, that the richness of responses such as those gathered here will continue to make the case for the future potential as well as historic significance of this collection. Our invitation to adopt a slide remains open, though the practicalities of doing so are now less straightforward. But we still invite you to pick a slide, any slide – write something about your choice – and post it to the blog. Here’s how.


Emma Graney DS11-003

I was born with congenital cataract in my right eye. Everything I see out of that eye is blurred and foggy, a bit like when you put eye ointment in but permanently. My left eye is my good eye and even though I am now long sighted in it and it has to work twice as hard to see, to have one working eye is good enough for me.

I chose photography as my profession and I never struggled with seeing until about five years ago when my eyes became significantly worse.

I have worn glasses since I was four and then decided in my teenage wisdom I wouldn’t be wearing them any more. I was finally told off at age 25 by the ophthalmologist and told to wear my super strength glasses all the time and to and start and take care of my eyes as you only get the two you have.

I remember sitting in the eye clinic waiting room after having many tests and there was an older gentleman sat opposite me, smartly dressed in a green suit. He was reading the paper and then he got called in and asked to take out his eye!

I haven’t got a very strong stomach and anything blood or eyeball based makes me feel a bit queasy and sometimes I faint.

I however became fascinated with this notion of the smart old man in his green suit reading the paper having just the one eye like me but also it was superior as it was glass. I wanted to ask him how it felt, what had happened to his eye before the new eye?

I controlled my thoughts as I felt it would have been incredibly rude to ask him such things. I sat back in my chair and said to myself ‘Fancy that, a glass eye’

I really like this slide as it’s from a time when prostheses were in their early stages, I like the selection altogether in their velvet lined compartments. Whose where they? My interest in glass eyes hasn’t gone unnoticed and it’s not something that you can bring up in conversation on a visit to the shops but to have adopted this slide is very special and my one seeing eye likes it very much.

Emma Graney
Photographer, Letter writer and Collector of things.

Sara Davies: TFS.1.BE.79

The Bergman slide, the image of Daniel and his mother is projected on my studio wall. The edges and corners of the room are dark. I am playing with size, height, distortion, angle, mirrors and spotlights. A camera is recording my movement. The shadow of my arm is sweeping across the picture. The image of the child slightly elongated, spreading into a narrow doorway. The meadow is broken by peeling plaster. There are tiny speckles of dust on Daniel’s hair. My eyes pause on the faded red skirt, sure that it once belonged to my mother. I think of Bergman, the most famous Swede, and how we meet in this film still. I think of Daniel and my son both stereotypical Swedish-looking children. I think of the meadow, in Sweden a mythical place associated with midsummer. I move the projector a centimetre to one side then I move the camera to a lower position. In the space between the camera and the wall, I am immersed in the projector light. I lower my head and see a cluster of meadow flowers on my hand. I want to move closer and join Daniel and his mother. I reach towards the image feeling the magic of midsummer. I let my fingertips touch Daniels cheek remembering the feeling of baby skin. I enter the picture, comforting my son, comforting me. I do it again. This time with a slightly different camera angle, and again with my body a step to the left, and again with the light from the projector on my neck and my forehead resting on the cool plaster wall.


Sara Davies

PhD Researcher and Associate Lecturer

Manchester School of Art

Liam John Rotheram: UK8.34

The images I had in mind when I entered the VRC were no more than a flurry in my head, made of a mishmash of information to do with homes and suburban buildings. I knew that I wanted some research into environments that could inform me on how to construct simple, beautiful scenes for projects like comics, but Google just wasn’t the way.

In only a few moments, John led me to images of these Handmade Houses, and they were the perfect representations of what I had in mind. The visual resource centre is stocked with an enormous wealth of serendipity like this.

The slide I selected represents mostly what really captured me, in looking at the Handmade Houses. It is at one with nature, made by and for nature. My personal practice will forever benefit from this experience.

Liam John Rotherham

Hazel Jones WE.20.01.3

I only popped into the VRC to arrange the first year project, but we got talking about the old textile machines MMU once owned..(watch this space for the schiffli machine). John found me two more wonderful slides…

I love the repetition of this one, and how parts of it are the same shape of some work I am making at the moment..that gives me an idea…..

Hazel Jones
Senior Lecturer, Interactive Arts
Manchester School of Art

Langley Brown: TP.11.9

The Head for the Hills mosaic mural (1986) was the culmination of a two year project in which users of Manchester mental health service, staff and artists (of whom I was one) made expeditions to the Derbyshire Peak District, and engaged in the campaigns led by veteran Kinder Scout Trespasser Benny Rothman to protect and extend public access to the wild places.

Although the slide does not reveal the rich colour, nor the scale, of the original mural, its faded and annotated image is poignant and especially saddening as the mosaic itself was destroyed during a hospital ‘refurbishment’ in the 2000s. In 1986 I had described the piece as a monument to the shared experiences of a disparate group of people, some of whom might in years to come show to their grandchildren. Well, that wasn’t to be, then.

In 2012, two students of Contemporary Art History worked with me to make a small scale replica of the mosaic. This project formed their end of course exhibition. The replica will be installed at a visitor centre in Hayfield, planned to commemorate the 1932 Kinder Trespass.

The abandonment and destruction of priceless objects and images is a terrible, shame-invoking thing. They are the building blocks of our evolving futures. A photographic slide, with its wide and annotated surround, is a luminous portal through which past, present and future flow freely. If we let them.

Dr Langley Brown
Arts for Health Visiting Research Fellow at the Manchester School of Art

Costanza Caraffa: AQF.30

When I saw slide AQF.30 for the first time (or actually its digital reproduction), I thought for a second: wow! this is the Loggiato degli Innocenti by Brunelleschi, the famous Florentine Renaissance foundling hospital with its portico and the characteristic glazed blue terracotta roundels in the spandrels of the arches. It would have been too nice if VRC Director John Davis, who I asked to send me a slide “to adopt” in the context of this commendable initiative, had by chance sent me a picture of the very building that I can see from the main windows of ‘my’ photo archive, the Photothek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, which is based in Palazzo Grifoni at Piazza Santissima Annunziata in Florence. However, my art historical gaze told me very quickly that the represented façade couldn’t belong to the Loggiato degli Innocenti: the obelisk and the surrounding buildings as well as details of the portico show that it is actually the so-called Leopoldine at Piazza Santa Maria Novella. The Leopoldine was originally also a hospice, the Ospedale di San Paolo, founded in the XIIIth century and completed in the XVth with the portico, which programmatically recalls Brunelleschi’s Loggiato.

According to the information kindly provided to me by John Davis, this slide is from the Architecture section of the slide collection, which is filed using an in-house classification system that was developed in an ad-hoc way over many years. The code “AQ” refers to Italian Renaissance architecture, and “AQF” means Italian Renaissance architecture in Florence.

But what do we actually see in this slide? The caption on the upper part of the slide frame tells it quite directly: “Florence: the flood of November 1966”. The ‘subject’ of the picture – to use the classical vocabulary of image archive classification – is therefore neither the Leopoldine nor this corner of the Piazza Santa Maria Novella during the flood, but the flood itself. So we are faced with contradictory statements given on the same slide frame: while the classmark AQF.30 refers to Renaissance architecture in Florence, the caption refers to the flood – and the photograph shows both. The VRC doesn’t have an individual catalogue record for this slide, but a closer examination shows that it has clearly been copied from a printed source. Thus, the fact that it exists within the VRC seems not to be accidental, but rather intentional: somebody wanted to have a representation of the Florentine flood of 1966 in the slide collection, probably because of its enormous echo in the media at that time (indeed the slide can be dated in the late 1960s or early 1970s). The slide had then to be classified within the existing classification system and so it ended up in the Renaissance Florentine architecture drawer because of the Leopoldine façade visible in the background. In the Florentine Photothek it would have been probably placed in the section “City views” in the folder dedicated to Piazza Santa Maria Novella. It’s difficult to say which solution is more appropriate – and in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s much more important to point out that classification is never neutral, always arbitrary: a person took the decision to put a certain slide in one particular drawer and not in another one. This is everyday life in an archive and especially in a photo or slide archive. This choice, like many others, is just one step in the complex decision-making process by which photographs or slides are acquired, classified, stored and used in an archive (in the analogue as well as in the digital era), and contributes to shaping the meaning (or meanings) of the photographic object.

Thus, slide AQF.30 cannot be reduced only to its visual content. It is not just an image. It has a frame (the original frame from the late 1960s – early 1970s, as John Davis told me). It has a size (which is quite obvious to me, born in the analogue era, but will my little children be able to figure out how the size of a slide judging by its digital surrogate?). It has labels with captions (the code AQF.30, formed not by continuous lines but by dots, was probably not typed with a typewriter but printed with a label printing machine – I spent a lot of time analyzing the digital reproduction in a zoomed view and searching in internet for comparisons). It has a red dot (most of the slides in the collection have coloured dots, which is part of a colour-coding system intended to aid retrieval and re-filing). It has signs of deterioration through use. It has a back side that I don’t know at all. It has a weight (is it a long-lasting heavy mount or a more ephemeral, cheaper light frame?). It has the material qualities of the slide film (in the digital reproduction the characteristic reddishness of old slides is only scarcely visible).

I’m writing this statement for the preservation of the VRC slide collection from Florence, as I was unable to visit the VRC to choose a slide in person. So I can just imagine an entire set of feelings and sensations related to the material experience of this slide: the surface, the smell, the sound of the metal drawers – even only imagining them acts like Proust’s madeleine and activates memories from my university years. I don’t even know the rest of the content of the drawer in which AQF.30 is stored and I don’t know the entire photo collection, the archival context in which this slide unfolded its biography as a material object. But I know that its disposal would be an irreparable loss for the Manchester School of Art, for British and European culture, for the artistic and research activities of future generations, and also for many individuals.

What I’ve tried to trace here are just some of the investigative paths that open up if we consider photographs as material objects that exist in space and time, in social and cultural contexts. They are endowed with a biography or biographies that are in large part transacted within the archive. So the archive is not just the place in which photographs are preserved, but also the place in which these biographies can be restored to them. However, for this to happen, there needs to be a shift from the utilitarian approach based on the content of the photographic record, to a wider understanding of the functional context of its provenance, production and sedimentation. In archives, memory is not simply kept alive, but constantly shaped and reshaped, and in this process of epistemic sedimentation and formation archivists and users play, whether consciously or not, an active role. That’s why in adopting this slide I actually intend to adopt the entire VRC photo collection.

Photographs and archives are autonomous research objects, but also “artist’s quarries” (J. Schmid) and, in the end, “objects of affect” (E. Edwards). These are all reasons to support the VRC photo collection and subscribe to The Florence Declaration for the Preservation of Analogue Photo Archives (www.khi.fi.it/en/Declaration), which aims to promote a greater understanding of the inescapable value of photographs and analogue archives for the future of studies in historic, human and social sciences, as well as for our collective memory.

Costanza Caraffa
Head of Photothek
Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut
Florence, Italy