With the washers safely in my studio my first concern was in their preservation. They had been packed well in a box in bags and with plenty of bubble-wrap, but I felt as soon as they had prolonged time under daylight the paper would start to yellow like any contemporary newspaper would. I transferred the most important washers into some unused archival slide bags and I ordered some more suitable clear archival bags that would usually hold stamps or coins, endeavouring to keep the washers in darkness when they weren’t being photographed.
Looking back through old emails I came across this one sent to my client on 22nd September:
“I’ve been doing some preliminary tests on the paper washers over the last couple of weekends. I thought I’d start by getting a good accurate digital copy of the more interesting ones – newspapers and some of those from the ledger. I’m really loving the quality of the paper from the newspapers, like today’s handmade papers, very textual and full of unexpected colour. I’ve been using flash lighting and also a light box so that I can see both the surface texture, the printed information, and something of the reverse in the resulting picture. I’m happy now with the optimised focus that I’ve achieved and lit quality throughout.
I thought it might be a good idea to make digital copies of the most interesting washers, both sides, in this fashion to start off with. What do you think?”
I added a WeTransfer link to the email enabling my client too access a high quality file of one of the washers, that already seemed to have an interesting story attached to it. Throughout the project I was very keen to keep my client informed and able to give suggestions where appropriate so that he would feel part of a collaboration and we would be taking the journey together.
Right from the start I was drawn toward the two faced nature of the newspaper, of the news, transparency and hidden. The similarity of a newspaper sheet to a photographic negative, both of which would make an image in contact with photographic paper. I was free of the need to accurately record something, like I might have done if I was digitising the newspaper as a historical document in the context of the museum collection. I was, rather, in the process of making artwork, something of beauty, from these tiny newspaper washers containing snippets of information, fragments of stories from long ago.
Getting a balance between the readable side of the washer and the reverse I found was most important. Being able to access the story through the words contained was paramount. Getting a sense of the papers texture and fibres was also important to me because this old, yet still commercial and mass produced, newspaper rag was still far more interesting in close up than the equivalent broadsheet stock of today. I was amazed to find microscopic fragments of coloured fibre within the paper, demonstrating how indiscriminately paper pulp was made in the 1860’s.
On September 26 I emailed the following to my client:
“I’m really getting to grips with the washers now having photographed all of them except for the plain ones. I’m trying to catalogue them a bit to so that they all have a unique file number and so I and they don’t get muddled.
Have all of the newspapers/stories been discovered/researched yet? I looked through past emails from you and you had identified, I think, a couple of them but there are many washers from the newspapers with text on that I have no information for, regarding which newspaper or article they came from. If you have the information please send it, if not it would be useful for me to do some. I will be in London in a couple of weeks’ time and could spend some time in the British library for this. Alternatively, and perhaps as well, I could spend some time researching the newspaper archive website that you were using, let me know the URL of that again please.
The digital photo of the washer that I sent you in the previous email might be particularly interesting to you as the words ‘southern train’, ‘six states’ and ‘land commission’ and a figure in dollars: $12…. are all held within the article. – A USA story or perhaps a USA newspaper?”
A few days later I started using the website for the newspaper archive, it is:
This is a fascinating resource and you can lose yourself for hours looking through it even if you have nothing particular to research; but I was on a mission and started to feed in the often randomly collected words from each washer to see where that would lead.
On September the 30th I emailed:
“I’m feeling that the stories contained within the text on the washers will be far more interesting than finding the actual newspapers and making high-quality photographs from them. Even to find the story from a different newspaper would be useful because once we know the story then the washers containment of random words will suddenly will come to life.”
Each newspaper washer now became far more than simply a visual object, it was a clue to a story, an identity, every one was unique. Each one a jigsaw piece from a long forgotten puzzle, with no image to work from and with the vast majority of pieces missing.