The Archive of Modern Conflict has a track record of creating excellent books. As a vast depository of photographic material from the 20th century, it gives writers and editors endless inspiration and material to draw from. However, it takes a truly special writer to create a book like Pictures of You. Prior to writing this book Rory MacLean has written an account of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a travelogue of the overland Asian hippy trail and the much feted BERLIN: Imagine a City, a changing portrait of the city over 500 years. Pictures of You takes this theme of transformative journeys, present throughout MacLean’s work, and refracts it backwards, creating ten journeys in time each inspired by a different photograph in the archive.
The result is a book which weaves through history, combining fact with fiction to create stories that convey real truths about the human condition. The narrative arc of the book is held together by MacLean’s experiences in the archive, but the book is most powerful when it dives headfirst into a different life. The small, lightweight paperback is bound in a silver mirrored cover. Inside, the photographs that form the basis of the stories play around the page: sometimes cut and pasted into a simulated comic book, at other times appearing as if fed through a bad photocopier.
By taking this personal, and almost backwards, approach to archival research, MacLean has been able to create something beautiful and quite affecting. We recently spoke to Rory about the creation of the book and the power of combining fact with fiction to create a truly compelling story.
Who first had the idea for the book? Was it your idea or a project initiated by Archive of Modern Conflict?
To be honest, I don’t remember. I first came across the Archive of Modern Conflict while researching my previous book BERLIN: Imagine a City. Over the last quarter century the Archive has assembled the world’s largest collection of amateur photographs…some four million photographs. Its snapshots, press prints, throwaways and daguerreotypes have been plucked from all over, from Berlin flea markets and Beijing recycling plants, defunct Soviet institutions and small-town auction houses. It’s become one of the world’s most moving image treasures, and virtually no one has heard of it. I simply had to write about it.
How did you approach working in the archive? What did you tackle first?
We all have a shoe box or drawer full of pre-digital photographs, of people whose names we may no longer recall, of distant family members whose story slips into focus only where their lives touched our own. If old enough, the pictures may even be the only record that the person ever existed. I realised that the Archive's collection was a kind of vast shoebox, or lexicon of lives – a compendium of countless actions, thoughts and emotions that I had been given the chance to discover. As for my approach, I decided to chose one photograph — or group of photographs — from each decade of the 20th century, and then to focus on the individuals in the image.
In the book you build fictional stories from real photographs. Why did you take this sideways approach to working with the archive?
Time and again, while holding a snapshot of a child or an intimate portrait of lovers, I was moved beyond words – and then to words – by these glimpses of past lives. As so little is known about the images, I chose to weave stories around the few facts that were available to me.
How much research did you do to support these stories?
As much as possible. But in almost every case I had to rely on the image alone, on recognising a specific city or landscape or type of aircraft. In a couple of cases a name might be written on the back of the print or — if the photograph came from an album — there might be captions, and other images with which to contextualise it. I researched each one until no more hard facts could be distilled and then, from these, I told the subject’s possible true story, in their own voice. I let the photographs shape those narratives, and so the book itself. In a way I wanted the subjects — or the photographers — to live again.
What does fiction achieve that archival research cannot?
It brings the individuals — and their time — to life. To my mind it is only by experiencing the world from another person’s point of view that we can begin to understand that person or society, by evoking empathy. At the archive, through the photographs, I uncovered lives, and ways of living, that called out to be witnessed, valued, remembered.
The book often changes typeface and images are used differently throughout, how does the design of the book support the stories within?
I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to work with the London-based designer Melanie Mues. Melanie — who has worked with the Whitechapel, the Hayward, the V&A and many others — got the text, then she reworked and augmented the images which had inspired my stories to create a kind of parallel narrative of her own. For a writer, the experience was incredibly exciting — and humbling — to work with such a gifted artist.
We're a website devoted to exploring independent publishing, What does independent publishing mean to you?
I think it comes down to having the courage to try to create something different, something that doesn't necessarily tick the usual boxes that tend to bring commercial success. I had the chance to publish the book with an established trade publisher but decided instead to go independent. That meant that we — Melanie, our editor, myself and publisher Bone Idle — could make the book that we wanted. Perhaps it will be less of a commercial success but to my mind we have created something unique; in its concept, its typography, its design, photographs and stories. As one reviewer put it, the result is a Gesamtkunstwerk — an entire work of art.
Images courtesy of Archive of Modern Conflict and Bone Idle Books.
Pictures of You by Rory MacLean is published by Bone Idle Books, February 2017 in English. Softcover, 100 black and white illustrations. 200 pages.