Why I Created a Book Full of Weird and Wonderful Images I Found in Online Archives
I don’t know when my obsession with old pictures started, and why I find them so appealing. After college, I lived in Berlin for several years and spent every Sunday at flea markets rummaging through shoeboxes full of old photographs. There would be no rhyme or reason to the selection found in a single box, a wild mix of subjects – family snapshots, formal portraits, postcards, press clippings – all snippets of stories and clues to lives now lost.
I made a selection in each box that I scanned, to create a group of images that somehow spoke to each other, told a different kind of story. It was around this time that I got into making collages and discovered various online archives of public domain images that were beginning to emerge. I became obsessed with these seemingly endless portals, browsing through them for hours every day. Glued to my screen, it might not have been as wholesome as a Sunday stroll around a market, but in terms of visual variety, it was so much more expansive. In a way, these archives were like the ultimate shoebox – largely unsorted, unfiltered, spanning hundreds of years, multiple genres.
I bought a cheap printer for my collages, but most of them slipped into computer folders, sorting them by themes, associative categories, and more unexpected connecting traits. When I started doing the same for books, audio, and movies, the idea for The Public Domain Review website was born, a sort of online wunderkammer dedicated to exploring and celebrating non-copyrighted works found in online archives.
From just £3 per week
Grab a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide an essential lifeline to our work. With every subscription we reinvest every penny to support the network of sellers across the UK. A subscription also means you’ll never miss weekly editions of an award-winning publication, with each issue featuring the leading voices on life, culture, politics and social activism.
Ten years later, at the start of confinement, my thoughts turned to the creation of a book. The site has collections in a variety of media, books, movies, and audio, but when it came to thinking of a book, I would turn to pictures.
They were the genesis of the project and, in many ways, its beating heart. I also knew that I wanted the book to be an exploration of how images can speak to each other, as well as to us. What new worlds, what new forms of knowledge could be woven by placing different images next to each other? It also seemed appropriate to mark the 10-year milestone, not with something retrospective, but to create something new. That’s what The Public Domain Review has always been about – not only highlighting historic works, but encouraging readers to explore the creative potential of this incredible resource. So a big public domain picture book seemed like the perfect vehicle to celebrate the project and Affinities was born. As with The Public Domain Review, the book was assembled from a wide range of sources: from manuscripts to museum catalogs, from journals to primers on Victorian magic. There are plenty of site favorites in there: a 17th-century gouache of a Pictish warrior woman in floral tattoo, Wilson Bentley’s photos of snowflakes through a microscope, Japanese wave and ripple patterns. But through the pages of the book, they were thrown into this imaginative new space.
Why this title Affinities? All of the images in the book are those with which I have, and I hope readers will also have, a certain affinity. Coming back to the flea market, these are the ones I would definitely pull out of the shoebox, images that spark a kind of attractive spark that stops the scrolling, that makes you stop, look closer. This is where we touch on the first meaning of the book’s title, how individual images speak to us.