Treasured troves

Many creatives use a scrapbook for inspiration, but few make their contents public. Oliver Bennett looks at the increasing trend toward this style of presentation

The scrapbook – a personalised montage of photographs, words and ephemera – is something many of us will have kept as youngsters. It can also be said to be one of the earliest graphic formats to incorporate photographs. ‘Scrapbooks have been around since the earliest years of photography,’ says Russell Roberts, a curator at Bradford’s Museum of Film, Photography and Television. ‘In the 1840s, Fox Talbot’s mother made these albums of montaged photographs that were partly presentation devices, partly conversation pieces. Then, from the 1840s, family albums came into being.’ By the 1860s, he says, there was an explosion of scrapbooks. Every home had one, to enlighten, amuse friends and commemorate events.

These days, you might have expected that scrapbooks – both as a creative sourcebook and personal and family memoir – would be a thing of the past, fatally supplanted by computers and digital storage. But they seem to be coming back, both as a hobby and as a design device. There have been several books published using scrapbook-style graphic design, including two on the 11 September 2001 theme alone, namely Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs, compiled by Michael Shulan and Magnum photographer Gilles Peress, and Newyorkseptembereleventwothousandone, a collection by various photographers.

And designers also seem to have hit upon the delights of the scrapbook style. As reported in Design Week recently, children’s scrapbooks inspired Love Design in the creation of flyers for London nightclub Fabric, and the treatment is increasingly fashionable in illustrated books, recent notables being Death Scenes in Los Angeles: A Scrapbook of Noir Los Angeles, with text by Katharine Dunn and The Einstein Scrapbook by Ze’ev Rosenkranz.

It could be that the suggestion of raw, intimate communication in scrapbooks is in demand among photographers and graphic designers. ‘I’d say that there’s been a definite trend towards a more scrapbook-type presentation in the past few years,’ says Michael Moore, designer of the British Journal of Photography. ‘It’s a good way to make a raw-edged and tactile impression on the viewer.’ He points toward the Truth and Reconciliation photographs of South Africa by Jillian Edelstein, and the recent edition of the Collected Works of Robert Capa, which has typewritten-style captions, as examples of this rougher, emotional presentation.

Many artists, designers and photographers keep scrapbooks, whether as a travelogue, personal memoir, or visual mnemonic, and they can be an intrinsic part of the creative process – as they are said to be for all manner of notables from William Klein to Gerhard Richter and David Hockney. ‘Most creative people keep scrapbooks and sketchbooks,’ says Charlotte Cotton, curator of photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum. ‘Few make them public, but some photographers consciously use their language.’ Cotton names Joachim Schmidt, who exhibits found photographs, as one of those exploring the resonance of personal history in a way that evokes the scrapbook, and, as part of his series of photographs on Northern Ireland, Donovan Wylie gained inspiration from his family’s scrapbooks.

Graphic designer and lecturer Joe Ewart of Society is one such designer who has used the scrapbook style, and he thinks it can be a e e powerful tool, due to its emotional purchase. ‘When it is used in a graphic context, it can really engage the audience precisely because of the use of the scrapbook vernacular,’ he says. Of course, it can be an artistic reference as well, for the use of the found object in graphic work has a long artistic pedigree from Kurt Schwitters through Peter Blake to Jamie Reid.

It is odd, meanwhile, that scrapbook-keeping has regained its role. For in the US – the country with the highest ownership of personal computers in the world – there is a scrapbook boom, which has become a hugely growing hobby and a £300m-a-year industry. Recent estimates suggest that there are 4000 shops in the US selling specialist stationery, and magazines such as Scrapbooks Etc have emerged, supporting myriad conventions and Internet communities. Some call them ‘memory albums’, betraying the role of the scrapbook as a diary-style keeper of intimate meanings and personal history.

A pinnacle of the neo-scrapbook style, and a book with a great emotional presence, is Dan Eldon’s 1997 vintage The Journey is the Destination, published by Booth-Clibborn Editions. Eldon, a graphic designer and photojournalist who died in Somalia in 1993, amassed 17 scrapbooks of stuck-down ephemera, found objects, personal photographs and documents, some of which have been edited down for this volume – they have a real sense of the vitality. Photographer Peter Beard, who has also worked in Africa, uses a scrapbook look in his work with handwritten captions, and other artists attest to the allure of scrapbooks as an expressive tool. ‘Christian Boltanski photographed an SS officer’s family scrapbook and bought out the disparity between the man’s job and the life,’ says Russell Roberts, while German artist Gabrielle Basch has borrowed from her family scrapbook to create wall-size narratives.

The scrapbook is often part of a visual education. As a young man, Bruce Weber assembled scrapbooks of pages torn from magazines. ‘I put them in my scrapbook filled with family snapshots,’ he once said. ‘They seemed to fit right alongside images of my mom and dad in bathing suits, posed in our rose garden with hayfields as a background.’ There is also often an obsessive nature to the artists’ scrapbook. For many years, the late US photographer and designer William Gedney filled many pocket-sized notebooks with jottings, quotes, and miscellany, as if a compulsion. Fashion photographer Guy Bourdin who will have a retrospective at the V&A in April, constantly photographed and filmed his observations of the world, in a way that the scrapbooker will recognise.

Artist-designer Jake Tilson has long used found materials, in a way that has often conjured the traveller’s scrapbook. ‘I always keep things and collect things I find travelling, and incorporate them into my work,’ says Tilson. ‘Right now I’m working on an exhibition using found fonts. I found an old font on a tin of tomatoes I bought in Italy, and I’m trying to create a whole alphabet from it.’ Tilson has also recently created collages from stencils of Venetian road signs, which he will exhibit this spring and is a great believer in the power of ephemera.

Menus, receipts, bus tickets: all became grist to the mill of the scrapbook, which is part of the collector’s unrequited need. ‘I’d say that filling scrapbooks was an individual’s attempt to impose order on the world, and a desire to be part of it,’ says Roberts. ‘In the 1860s, the carte de visite would have a montage whereby the subject would put themself next to images of Napoleon, say, or at a famous landmark. It’s a way to engage with the world. Look how many fans fill scrapbooks with their heroes.’ Obsessive, personal and intimate – possibly even expressing a naive authenticity – the scrapbook is clearly a rich source of graphic ideas.

Jake Tilson will be exhibiting his found fonts this spring at Big Idea. Call 020 7202 2222

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