The Reject Box

Last weekend saw me at a loose end with my time due to an extended period of rain that had moved across the United Kingdom. The hill opposite the house had disappeared under a veil of low rain bearing cloud that occasionally lifted its tendrils, revealing misty outlines of trees clinging perilously to a carboniferous matrix of scree and small cliffs, once a thriving limestone quarry.

So it was that I ensconced myself in the conservatory in preparation of draining a Cafetière of fresh Baileys-infused coffee when I noticed a black brief case poking out from beneath a chair. I don’t know why it came as such a surprise to me as it has lived here for a couple of decades, enduring extremes of temperature whilst offering protection to its contents. I am talking about my photo reject case –the final resting place of countless photographs – a veritable crapshoot of poorly composed, badly lit, grimly exposed and awkwardly posed works that did not make the final cut for reasons that were embarrassingly obvious even to the untrained eye.

I have not had any images printed for many years now, so the collection before me represented at least two decades of detritus which ended in the late 1990’s when I moved to using solely slide film. So after popping the case locks and taking a large swig of coffee I delved in, removing large bundles of old photographs secured for no real reason by rubber bands. The rain drummed steady on the conservatory roof as I smiled and winced my way through the collection; here were a real bunch of outtakes that tracked my progress as a photographer in all subjects and many different film types. I was peering into a long lost world of experiments gone wrong and faded youth…of early terribly staged photographs of my girlfriend and me (now wife of 25 years) and golf ball-grained aberrations of our baby son (now about to breach his teens). Artefacts from my over enthusiastic use of effects filters presented themselves, to be quickly replaced by the lousiest macro photographs ever to fall out of the back of a camera. OK, so I am overcritical of my own work but even when removing personal bias, what lay before me was with little exception, a mess.

Looking beyond the technical failures of this sorry collection, I found that it did have some endearing qualities. Behind the badly focussed and poorly lit subjects lay a world of forgotten items. Such items are present in much of my acceptable personal work, but the reject box showed them in a different light (no pun intended). Here was a shaky picture of my old friend and fishing buddy Shep, our collie who died decades ago; on the periphery of the frame were his two favourite squeaky toys, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan. And a picture of my Mother at Christmas with dreadful flash reflection in her glasses; behind her was our old first colour TV set reminding me just how much technology has changed.

Many of these images contain a trace of the past beyond their subject matter that has become interesting. These are the ‘warts and all’ images that counterbalance their doppelgangers in my best albums, minus the warts. I can go to my collections and find a beautifully crafted picture of Shep taken during the same sitting as the reject picture, but it does not contain the things I now find interesting. I simply composed them out of the final take. Similarly I have great pictures of my Mum taken at a different angle to crop the TV, but that old wart (not my Mum, the TV) is a really interesting part of the image.

So the morning drifted on and I rediscovered an entire world peering out from the reject box…I just needed to know where to look. I realised that before me was an important part of my photography. In a similar way to a musician having demo and outtake work lying around on old tapes, here was my output in photographic form.

After snapping the case shut and stowing it away, it came to me that I have a similar collection of slide rejects stored in tins in the loft. These are a more recent collection, spanning just the last 14 years. I am intrigued to recover these too, and run them through a projector to see what noxious results await my pleasure. But there again I may just leave them to mature for several years more as I am sure they will become infinitely more interesting with time’s steady passage.

This brings me on to my digital work which only began seriously in 2005. Oh! The convenience of digital – we can take image after image until we achieve a desired result. All those crappy ones can just be deleted to save disk space and because they are, well, crap. What we end up with is a collection of polished results to woo our customers and friends with. And there lies a problem I was not aware of until now; A quick look through my digital libraries shows no skeletons in the closet, no ghosts in the machine, no secret relatives in the attic…they have all been subject to execution by means of the delete key, all have been returned from whence they came with no trace to be found.

As much as I enjoy periodically going through my digital libraries I suddenly long for a digital reject box; that bunch of 1’s and 0’s that resolved into a blurry image could have found solace here and been archived onto an external hard disk to enjoy a binary slumber until such time as I rediscovered them. Maybe I should begin now and start saving my duds again, but I feel a little late to this particular party as I have already lost several years of potentially embarrassing, but at the same time engaging material.

I learned something from my trawl of the reject box…never throw images (no matter how bad) away.