Factory of Memories photography project

Posted on by Fay Curtis.

Becky Peters, Engagement Officer – Exhibitions

Black and white photograph of a seated woman and standing man working a machine in a basement

As part of our programme for M Shed’s Open for Business exhibition we’ve been working with Bristol based photographer and producer at IC-Visual Lab, Alejandro Acín, to create a photobook and programme of events called the Factory of Memories project.

We caught up with Alejandro Acín to find out more about this project:

How did you come up with the idea behind the Factory of Memories project? Could you explain what it’s about?

The main aim of the project is celebrating the diversity and variety of unpublished images, held in local archives, showing the industrial landscape of Bristol from 1950 onwards.

For this project we wanted to carry out the following;

  • Research into the photographic content held in local archives
  • Create a series of events where local residents can contribute with their own vernacular imagery
  • Collaborating with University of West of England photography students to work on a set brief about photographing office work environments in the city
  • Host a multimedia screening on 23 May showcasing the work of other practitioners to extend the understanding of this theme, as well as place it in a contemporary context.

One of the main outcomes of the Factory of Memories projects is a photobook. Can you explain a bit about why you chose this form?

Photo of an open book showing a map of England

The idea of producing a photobook came while I was doing my research. I was told about a collection of books and pamphlets collected by A.C. Langford, Officer of Customs and Excise at Bristol Airport, and later acquired by the University of Bristol. The original collection has been much augmented and now contains about 24,000 volumes. Much of the material is ephemeral, published by firms around the UK for limited circulation among their employees.

Firstly, I was so amazed about the aesthetic of these company history books (mainly published in 1960s and ‘70s): the designs, the use of photographs, graphics, texts, the materials they were produced with, the book mechanics… They were an object of celebration and commemoration of different businesses, their workers and its history. Therefore, I thought it would be great to acquire this celebratory approach to produce a Bristol version. After a few conversations with Becky Peters, Engagement Officer for Exhibitions and Senior Curator Andy King, we consolidated the idea of creating a journey through the industrial history of Bristol after the war.

Secondly, photobooks are very good vehicle to use communicate ideas or stories using photographs. Books are like little collections within the whole archive of the universe – you can experience them not just by reading but touching and smelling them. However, this medium sometimes needs to be combined with other vehicles to reach wider audiences.

How do you deal with the large volume of photographs? Where did you start?

Black and white photo of two men standing at an early computer

Ohh, this is the fun bit. Well, it’s very simple, it just a matter of time. I’ve got a flexible methodology where I normally start with primary research establishing a historical and conceptual framework. This involves creating mind maps, reading books and articles, talk to key people… I normally end up having a list of questions that will help me to find the images.

Then I start with the visual research. In this particular project I started with a collection of approximate 12.000 images hosted at the Industrial & Maritime Archive, Bristol Archives and the Reference Library. It could sound a bit overwhelming, but as soon as you assume your edit will just be one of the many paths that people could take, then you feel the relief letting your imagination ride wild. I believe in instincts, first sights… to select images during early stages, once you have a skeleton or a primary structure then you have to be more considered and go through former rejections. Things often get harder as you have fewer images as the editing process goes on.

What have been your findings? What has fascinated and surprised you the most?

The industrial history of Bristol is very diverse: coalmines, chocolate factories, the harbour industry, the aero-industry, sherry merchants, tobacco factories, shoemakers, media companies…

One of my favourite collections was Hartley’s, a communication agency that commissioned photographers to produce commercial work for different companies. There are all sort of things: a series for a Health & Safety manual for cleaning activities, an inventory of company vehicles, images inside factories, product exhibitions, window displays, competitions, portraits, architecture…

I have been actively looking for images showing changes in the environment where people have been working (from factories to desk stations), the architecture, the tools… I have been also using images that show hierarchy relations between workers and their bosses, social events, celebrations, inaugurations… I also like using small details, or images that show the relation between human and machines to represent technological progress.

You said that you would like local contributions – how can people do that?

Black and white photograph of three people spray painting the underside of a boat

I would like to invite anyone with interesting images of work places, factories or offices to attend our collecting dates on the May 14th and June 6th at M Shed Museum. We will set up a mobile digitising studio where people can have their images digitised for free. In particular there is a lack of material from 1980 onwards about the local industry of Bristol. Contributions by residents are essential to keep the history alive.

What are you trying to cover with this project?

On one hand, the premise of this publication will be to investigate the unreliability of photography and memory, by using images out of their original context as well as the construction of a new narrative to show the industrial changes in the city. This ambiguity makes things interesting: images be part of the whole rather than single documents. On the other hand, it will investigate how photographs in our local archives help us remember the past and ensure its survival.

Importantly, we also want to encourage local residents to contribute with their vernacular imagery and hopefully generate a diverse content. I believe in participatory archives, any tool that facilitates this should be welcomed: not only to extend the amount of collections but also to make use of the images to help the community re-interpret their history.

I really appreciate the creative freedom and support from Becky, Lee and Andy in this project.

What is it about the archive as a site of investigation that interests you?

In part it comes from my current role at the Historical Photograph of China project at the University of Bristol but also from my experience in different community projects where the use vernacular images are the main source of inspiration.

I like how archives tend to suspend the meaning and use by divorcing the image from its original context. This means it exists in a state that is both residual and potential. The suggestion of past uses coexist with a plenitude of possibilities to create a very productive area in which to work.

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