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A Fair Crop. 1993 Electrostatic print (CLC copier), 30 x 42 cm
The fragment shown above, cut out from a larger A3 sized colour photocopy, exemplifies something essential about working in a copy-shop in the early 1990s - soon after the first digital colour photocopiers were introduced by Canon. The original photograph, which was brought to the shop by an aboriginal woman, showed her standing together with her son and daughter. The mother wished to know if it was possible to remove the background of the photo and, in particular, to cut away the figure of a white man wearing sunglasses who appears just behind the group. It was easy to do by making an enlarged copy, carefully cutting around the figures, mounting them onto a blank sheet of paper and laminating the final image. The woman was very pleased with the result and the next day she returned with the same photo and asked me to make five copies the way I had done previously. As I did the job, she explained that the photo had been taken in the central yard of the prison where her son was currently incarcerated. During the entire visit the boy had remained handcuffed to the man in the background: a prison guard, whose discomfort was now obvious to me. By cutting the image out, I had effected a symbolic kind of liberation which had so clearly delighted her.
At the time of writing, this kind of decoupling of images has reached a high point of realism that can easily be achieved on a mobile device. At the time I worked in the shop however, photographic collage was crossing the boundary between material (scissors and glue) and digital processing. The "colour laser copier" was the first device that took the task of photographic alteration away from the studio of the commercial reprographer, and put it in the hands of the general public. The real significance of the copier was that it could smoothe a rough cut and paste into a uniform picture surface that was at once both credible and reproducible. This was the beginning of what was to become a vast circulation of images 'orphaned' from their sources and subject to a promiscuous kind of recoupling. It was also the beginning of the end for many established forms of graphic authority and proprietorial relationships between image and sources that accelerated so rapidly later, with the spread of the internet.
In addition to the example shown above, I dealt with many others in which people's likenesses were separated and made to form new conjunctions: between real and imagined lovers, children reunited with dead parents (and vice versa), bland faces transported to exotic locations. The copier's ability to enlarge details and enhance colour gave a magical quality to these amateur transformations, so much so, that it not unusual for a customer to happily exit the shop with a copy in hand, but having left the original (and in this sense, inimitable) photo lying forgotten under the cover of the reproducing machine. It was usually our fault as much as theirs when this sort of thing happened and so we kept the originals for perpetuity in a designated cardboard box. It made me sad whenever I had to sort through this box, seeing images that had been bettered by reproductions that I knew were actually inferior in quality and material.