“CHIC, CHAC” – second slide – “CHIC, CHAC”. “Wait, wait, go back! We didn’t see it properly!” Remember? The music of projection nights? The sound of sweet nostalgia. Mum and her tiny red gown, Benjamin, the cousin with his glasses who we buried in sand up to his neck, grandpa at New Year’s eve wearing a pointy hat… Photos that bring back memories of evenings spent with family, friends, lovers and the times bygone.
Lee Shulman, 49, is a nostalgic Brit with French flair. The Franco-British director and collector has been working on a remarkable family album since 2017. “The Anonymous Project” is a journey through time, an irresistible encounter with several eras and an unmatched photographic approach.
He opened the door to his small Parisian atelier for Blind, the place where all the magic happens. With his nose stuck in the slides, Shulman recalls the “times when neighbors would come to our house to see or show vacation photos. It was a bit like Instagram of the time.” Leaning over the light table covered with photos, looking through a magnifying glass, he tells us: “You have to get your hands on the slides to understand!” So let’s get to work.
800,000 slides from 1930 to 1980
Slide, what is that? Widespread in the 1950s by Kodak’s Kodachrome, slides – with their small cardboard or plastic frame – contain a transparent reversal film (designed by Kodak in 1915) that, contrary to negatives, develop a positive image with light. Above all, it offers excellent color quality and longevity.
“I started this collection after buying a box on the Internet. I found some crazy pictures! So I bought more and more…,” says the collector, who now has nearly 800,000 slides from 1930 to 1980, the largest collection in the world. “It is also a matter of pride for me to pay tribute to this format of exquisite quality, which no longer exists. In Kodachrome, image is respected.”
Cartons full of slides arrive every week. 80% of the surprise boxes come from the United States, and the rest are from Europe, especially England. “I like photos from the United Kingdom, not just because it’s my native country but became they are more intimate, more touching. There is less flashiness in the United States. The English are humorous.” At the time, only a certain population could afford a camera.
A box of photos from the 1950s had just arrived from the United States. So he got to work. “I look for faces. I rarely find good pictures in the lots,” he admits while moving a stack of slides across the light table. “But it relaxes me; it’s nice. There are very touching moments among them.” In a garden with a lawn of green lush, two smiling kids are posing behind a wheelbarrow of pumpkins much bigger than themselves. “This one we keep!”
“This project is simply about people”
On the desk of the former director of commercials and clips, now run by a small team of three, we see an exhibition layout for which an entire house has been reconstructed. “Each project is different. We consider each a short film.” Exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles, in France’s train stations, at the Images Vevey festival in Switzerland, also in New York, London and even South Korea, the concept was a huge hit.
“The Anonymous Project is a non-profit association,” says Shulman. “But eventually, it became financially profitable. In the beginning, we had a bit of sponsorship, but the sales and the commissioning of exhibitions made it profitable. We also have sponsors from time to time.” How do you explain its success? “To be honest, it is a mystery. Maybe because it’s simply about people,” he analyzes.
In the workshop, Léa L’Azou is the eye that sees everything. It is through her that the selected images pass and are digitalized. She “cleans” the dust and other damaged traces off the photos. “On average, we spend 30 minutes on each image, ten images per day. Some can take almost 2 hours of treatment,” explains the image assistant. “We only clean them; we don’t retouch them,” adds Shulman.
He then leads us to the end of a narrow corridor, where the slides are stored in cabinets, meticulously organized by date and series. “I know all of them; it’s almost creepy!” There are cigar boxes and small ornate trunks stacked on one shelf, full of slides. “There is a very touching love story in this box,” says Shulman. “We give them a second life. I feel like I’m part of this big family; it is moving. I have seen people grow through their photographs.”
All the faces, the kids who are now grown-ups, the families… What has become of them? Lee Shulman once got a call from a woman who recognized her ex-boyfriend, a bodybuilder posing with two other muscular guys on Venice Beach in Los Angeles in the 1970s. “The man then sent us a letter with a photo; it was very heartwarming! »
A group of bodybuilders at the beach, a toddler with his nose in ice cream, a grandmother and her dog… They are all now on display at the Magnum Photos gallery in Paris, next to Martin Parr’s photographs, another Englishman… by the way.
The Magnum photographer, with his colorful and eccentric universe, had fun linking his photos to the anonymous ones. “I had met Martin at the Rencontres d’Arles. Magnum then contacted me to see if I was interested in working with him. I hesitated at first,” admits Shulman. “We went through his images with Léa, put them together with The Anonymous Project, and it looked great. It was crazy.»
The exhibition has made Magnum purists cringe. “This is the first time in 75 years that someone outside the Magnum agency is exhibiting at the gallery. And I think Martin is even more excited than me. He is the kind of photographer that never stops breaking the codes.”
The photos in the book Deja View and the exhibitions have no signature, no date, or location. Is it Martin Parr’s or some amateur photographers? The resemblance of situations and atmospheres is insane. Well done. The two Brits enjoy themselves like kids. “We are English; we are still punks!”
The Anonymous Project asks us about the choice of imagery, of the difference between an amateur and professional photo. “Taking a photo is not the most important thing. Anyone can take a picture these days. Being a photographer means knowing how to choose an image”, says Martin Parr.
The anonymous collection is a work of documentary about remembrance and collective memory through images. “Because in the end, what is a beautiful photo? It is, above all, an image that touches your heart.”
“Déjà View,” Martin Parr & The Anonymous Project, Magnum Photos Gallery, Paris, until December 22.