'Bob Wiskin and Terry Davis' from the series Last One Out.  Richard Nicholson, 2006-2010.

For Members only: Analog

In Summer 2007, photographer Richard Nicholson decided to shoot images of professional darkrooms in and around London, developing an archive which formed the part of the exhibition ANALOG. Tot Taylor, for the Spring/Summer Issue of Photoworks 2012, reviewed the exhibition.

August 2009. I arrive at my home in Cornwall only to find that the Government have ‘turned’ off’ the analogue signal (sic). A big thing to do; turning off Cornwall. It appears that the county has been chosen as the guinea-pig for a nationwide analogue deletion due to be completed across Britain by June 2011. Consequently, nothing works. By nothing, I mean the TV; an onscreen alert announcing the familiar ‘no signal’, but today for an unfamiliar reason. And this time there is no fiddling with indoor antenna, bending of coat-hangers or incremental channel tracking. Nothing at all to improve or fiddle with. It just ain’t there anymore.

So what does it mean? I decide to go digital even faster than Cornwall and discover online that I, and everyone else, who wish to watch telly on the south west peninsula, will need to purchase a box called Freeview. The view may be free but the box is not. Cost: £24 + VAT from your nearest stockist, of which the VAT brings in £4.50. I’m thinking that £4.50 x 140 million plus TV watchers (Trakfirst statistic: number of TV sets in Britain 2008) is a good, substantial – and no doubt necessary at the moment – amount of national tax. Otherwise, the only recourse is to purchase a brand new set. Hmn…even more tax to come into government coffers, to pay for three huge wars, one thousand new hospitals or 50 bad housing developments. and all by just turning something off.
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The thing is, I like Analog, and I do not want them to delete it. Analog, to me, has always meant records, bits of music on plastic, and of course books, the paper page-turning kind. Photographs that I can take in my old Leica, then, via trial and error in the dark room, fiddle around with and improve upon – and print. Admitted, Analog is not exactly a very ‘convenient’ format – and never has been. Record-players, hi-fi’s, film-based cameras, domestic telephones, kitchen radios, novels, magazines, and tellys, are chunky, often heavy, inconvenient things. Not always easy to transport, or store. But they’re beautiful aren’t they ? Things which keep us going. And they work, after all these years – more or less.

Summer 2010. I get to thinking – about the bigger picture. Of course I use digital, it’s not that I don’t want it, I need it, to get online, to watch YouTube when I’m not watching telly. And, let’s face it, to do just about everything else available in the online world. Then I hear that the analog turn-off may now be abandoned. As with most things to do with politics, probably just as quietly as it was announced and trumpeted loudly.

Marble Statues:

Our exhibition considers the transformation in the worlds of photography and music brought about by the digital era.

On the photographic side, Richard Nicholson’s images of commercial darkrooms in and around London; most of them closed down during the past five years, i.e. since Nicholson began photographing them. While on the music side of things, a very young, very successful band, Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, discuss the benefits of recording using analogue tape instead of sound-card or memory-stick, as they explain, solely for the purpose of sound quality, warmth of sound, and, as they put it themselves, “humanity” (p56).

But two thoughts spring from this initial viewing and listening

1. The digital revolution in photography has all but closed the commercial darkrooms, done away with large-format film cameras and the need to actually develop, process or print out anything; images now being emailed, placed in virtual caskets (folders) and most likely forgotten. The reason is two fold, convenience of new format and cheapness of new format. If that is a downside, then there is also an up – the renewed interest in photography from previous eras, particularly Victorian photography, its methods and its ‘look’ – no doubt linked to the massive interest in Family History and our ancestors. Suddenly we are seeing more of them, these previously dark figures posing in a provincial photographic studio several generations back who now seem more familiar, more recognisable and connected to us. The family photographic archive becoming more wanted, more treasured, more scarce and therefore more valuable.

2. In music recording, the ‘death of vinyl’ has led to a growth in vinyl. Sales of vinyl recordings, flat, black records, old and new, growing at a rate of 15% – 20% year on year over the past five years. Records purchased not only by the middle-aged, retro-consumer, those who donated their record collections to Oxfam during the nineteen eighties and nineties but also by ‘the kids’. The demographic shows that the kids, 12 – 18 years olds particularly, are now buying plastic. The pink rexine record-player, the means to play records, in all its permutations and all of its glory now propped up in kickass window displays of teen boutiques all the way from Soho to Aoyama; all-in-one boxes made by the likes of Dansette, Fidelity, HMV and Decca, is apparently greatest among fifteen – twenty year olds (portable cassettes are the next big thing). The Perspex high-fidelity stereogram an office must-have of virtual creative directors, renal tastemakers and designers. Dieter Rams hi-end hi-fi’s appearing in the art-house auction catalogues; their prices rising to the level of real, actual Art.

3. Archiving. The Master; i.e. the absolute original, sole thing, non-multiple, non-copy version; the ‘negative’ if you like, that from which all others are pressed, printed and duplicated, what format is that in now? And . . . where exactly is that Master ? On movie film, the absolute Maser used to be nitrate but now Martin Scorsese and the AFI (American Film Institute) pay for every frame of Powell/Pressberger or Frank Capra to be copied and inter-negged, digitally presumably, for a new digital ‘print’ to be printed out.

In music recording, we all have Garageband on our laps, we flirt with itunes, the tracks we listen to ‘limited’ i.e. having bits (certain heavier memory-consuming sound frequencies) chopped out of them in order to take up less virtual space, be more easily downloadable and storable by consumers. Compare one of these mp3 laptop snacks with the ‘original’ black LP and you may be surprised by what you hear.

So what is/where is the Master or Mother nowadays exactly ? What actually is that original master-tape, reel of film or photo negative ?

This thought takes us back much further, before electronics, being that point – around the year 1850 when Benjamin Franklin realised the power of a lightning flash or Edison ‘discovered’ sound (1912) even back to Michaelangelo statues, something unswervingly Analogue. How and where do you protect and preserve your absolute Master of your new ‘single’ (the term and format also now redundant), your photo-session, your debut feature film or your novel ? The statue is the answer. Cave drawings are the answer. Shifting sands are the answer. Where exactly is that indestructible force, the post-death museum donation, the Shakespeare folio, Dickens handwritten copies, Rolling Stones eight-tracks – or even Madonna 24 tracks ! That thing you created which can – as far as we thought – never be destroyed ?

The answer is that they aren’t anywhere. There is no ‘indestructible’ anymore, no ‘forever’. Maybe there never was, we just accepted that there was. So don’t worry about it. The thing you created does exist, in reproduction form certainly, and unless you are panic-stricken about preservation and ‘quality’ to a manic degree it’s just not worth anymore trying to or wanting to exist in an analogue world. Marble statues are most definitely the new thing. The ultimate Master or Mother, the ultimate Analog, and therefore, of course, the ultimate ‘digital’.

Definitions:

And what does it mean, this analogue word ? Like yourself, I thought I knew – before we began. Something to do with well… not being ‘digital’, for a start. And… if that’s the case then …yeah…what does this ‘digital’ thing actually mean ?

So . . . one thing at a time. The term – the word – ANALOG surely means something physical; real, right-on,‘on-tape’, that is, on film, on paper . . . on something. Printed, a ‘relief’ maybe, stamped, indented – as opposed to…

A cursory look in any dictionary pre-1980, i.e. pre-digital, reveals actually very little. Precisely nothing, in fact; our word yet to make a meaningful entrance into the common bookshop dictionary. But there are other similar and interesting words/terms, ‘analogous’, ‘analogy’ for example, and so a sentence begins to form about comparisons, stories, and more particularly sound waves/waveforms, vibrations moving through air, images recorded on film, then processed/printed out, as opposed to being parked (‘film’…) and emailed – only to be admitted to the virtual hemisphere, then… forgotten. And so I pick up a brand new (analogue) 2010 Penguin pocket dictionary…

“Of a computer, using data supplied in a stream if numbers” (but I thought that was ‘digital’ ?) “represented by directly measurable quantities, e.g. voltages of mechanical rotation” (seems more like it), “compare DIGITAL 2: of a clock or watch, using hands to indicate time rather than an electronic display: compare DIGITAL 3: a way of recording sound: converting sound waves into a continuous electronic waveform” – exactly – Compare DIGITAL!

So, the exhibition – as always with Riflemaker themed shows, exists not as a conclusion or as any kind of completed feat, but to convey a notion: ‘have you ever considered ?’ ‘does this sound interesting ?’ Or

even… ‘if you liked this you might like…” before we leave it all with our audience and move swiftly on.

And so:

ANALOG kind of means so many different things. Above all, it seems to infer something which has gone; done its bit. Disappeared the way of plate cameras and Polaroid, iron filings on Ampex 2” tape, heavy to handle 48 multi-track tape-machines – those things on which (most) of your favourite records of all time were recorded (‘committed to tape’ as they say). Gone and fell asleep on the page, instead of the e-reader.

ANALOG is the tick-tock of the stately clock – as opposed to the bleep of it. It’s the click-clack of wooden metronome as opposed to the arse-tight ‘pip’ of it; ‘real noize’ instead of interference, true Loudness instead of empty distortion, heart monitor-type waveforms instead of vain self-seeking digits, and it’s certainly nostalgic, or it is now anyway – ‘vintage’ even.

Dark Rooms: – ‘camera’ (room) ‘obscura’ (dark)

A lot of this has been beautifully captured by Richard Nicholson’s recording of commercial, dark rooms in and around London, the photographs seeming to portray the near-godlike presence of the machines, enlargers and developers, which Lord it over these time-capsules and cubicles, as well as the utter emptiness of rooms which have been inhabited in many cases by the same individual for maybe two, three or even four dark decades. The room, its four walls, the machinery, the operator, the man – hardly any women are stupid enough to run dark rooms – no longer necessary. The job, the demand, the service, the thought . . . no longer there. No Elle Deco or World of Interiors features to trouble these addresses, no Design Council, RIBA or English Heritage to patrol or mourn them.

With these disappearances, some comforting brand names have excused themselves too. Kodak and Ilford; totally ‘household’ and once all-powerful, are submerged. Polaroid: cute and fun, with its own luxe emulsion and natural fade-out over time, now reserved for Sotheby’s sales and cool-hunters wanted lists. Passport booths, near extinction. Snappy Snaps snuffed out. Chemist’s ‘same day service’, no longer any kind of selling point.

Something else interesting…the fact that camera obscura – the real name for a ‘camera’ does of course mean ‘dark room’; an image which is conceived in one dark room is born into another.

And something inspired about the idea of photographing a room which has literally nil decorative element, no point in getting very particular about a room – a ‘camera’ – which will spend 99% of its life in darkness. No need to fill holes or repaint walls. The room will never ‘need updating’ in any local rag property supplement. No one will ever relax in there, hang out or entertain.

But the dark room is, for all of it’s bare, functional fixtures, still of course a place of wonder. Of absolute invention and imagining; tinkering, making and remaking, of judgements, selections, decisions, surprises and of course, disappointments.

Disappearing Recording Studios

London’s great factories of music recording; Olympic (the Stones, Led Zep), Utopia, (redeveloped as the coolly-hunted Museum of Everything), superhip Trident (Ziggy Stardust, T.Rex) – in Soho’s St. Anne’s Court, the first 8-track studio in London, all turned into TV commercial dubbing-rooms. In New York the big-time, legendary, Hit Factory and also its main competitor The Record Plant both gone to residential development.

Even the shrine itself, EMI’s Abbey Road (Beatles, Pink Floyd, Shadows, Glenn Miller, Sir Edward Elgar…) rumoured to be in the process of being sold off by it’s parent company to the consternation of many who assumed that the National Trust would step in and make more income from guided tours than these hallowed halls did in their hitpicking heyday.

These ‘disappearing’ and disappeared music point to the extinction not only of the superbly and often idiosyncratically-equipped place itself but also all of the detailed knowhow that goes with it. Skills built up over decades, procedures developed through doing: ‘assisting’ – music recording being one of the last industries to employ full-time apprentices – ‘tape-ops’ as they would become known.

Out of every disappearance comes progress, and so it is with the graceful bowing out of all things Analog. Great word, isn’t it?

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Published in Photoworks Issue 18, 2012

Commissioned by Photoworks

Buy Photoworks issue 18