Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Glories of Cambridge

"And on your right is Trinity College, where they discovered splitting the atom and creme brulée".

I'm in Cambridge, at the Wren Library, and the disconcerting patter of the guide in the punt drifts over the immaculate lawns.

The self-aware beauty of Cambridge never fails to impress, and the more you dig, the more there is to be impressed by. A Russian doll of varied cultural glories. From the Cam and the backs to the elegance of Wren's library. Then inside to the astonishing carvings by Grinling Gibbons, who worked boxwood like putty, and on to the shelves to see the Trinity Apocalypse in all it's prurient, appalling glory. An age when the consequences of sin had to be spelt out, lest the fabric of society be completely jeopardised.

Occasionally, when I tell people what I do, they are overcome with sad envy, sweating, as they do, for uncaring American corporations. Occasionally I feel lucky and today was one of those days.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Power of Reproduction

When the Royal Couple got married, the bit my son was most interested in was (predictably) the flypast. Wanting to know what a Lancaster bomber looked like, I dug out my old Big Book of Aircraft and found a picture. But interleaved next to the picture of a Lancaster was a piece of tracing paper that I had used 30 years ago to trace a wobbly outline of the plane that I never got to transfer to a nice clean sheet. Maybe teatime or homework interrupted me, and the tracing paper lay sealed up in this book since the late 1970's.

What efforts we used to go to to reproduce pictures and maps.

Secure the tracing paper to the picture with paper clips. Pick a soft pencil (HB or B) and carefully trace the outline. Remove the tracing paper and affix over a clean sheet of paper. Pick a harder pencil (H) and retrace the outline you just made, pressing hard enough to leave an impression on the paper underneath. Don't press too hard or you rip the tracing paper and you have to start again (a problem if you're tracing a map of the world). Having removed the tracing paper pick any pencil or pen and follow the indents along the page, twisting and turning, until you have a representation of a bomber (or the coast of Norway) appear on your page with surprising fidelity.

Fast forward to today. Type "Lancaster bomber" into Google, narrowing the search to Images. 99,400 results. Hmmm. Colour or black and white, cockpit or whole aircraft, flying or stationary…Right click, copy, paste and the image (copyright permitting) is ours to do with what we want. Information wants to be free and now this collection of bytes has been let loose to appear whenever and wherever we like.

As we fill our repositories with digital images, we're allowing for a myriad of unexpected, unpredictable and unknowable future uses, with entirely unforseeable results. A chaos theory of image dissemination.

And a long way from tracing paper.