After artist Ian Trask obtained around 5,000 vintage 35mm slide photographs, he started exploring their decades of family holidays, pet portraits, candid shots of strangers, and other found images of life. The massive archive was previously owned and collected by the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. The New York-based family band used the slides from thrift stores, garage sales, and other second-hand places as inspiration and visual material for their touring performances.
“When I acquired my first batch of slides from the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, I was drawn to the rich backstory of the slides themselves,” Trask told Hyperallergic. “Slide collections are typically a forgotten or neglected relic of story-telling past.”
He met with Jason Trachtenburg about the potential slide donation, and learned how the collection was a creative source for their music, which responded directly to the scenes on the slides. Once the slides were in his studio, Trask began to create his own stories. In particular, he was interested in the curious juxtapositions of layering multiple slides into photomontages. An image of Stonehenge might interrupt a beach scene like a sunset-tinged mirage; baseball players could be transported into an African safari. Spanning from the 1950s to ‘80s, and including representations of art and famous monuments as well as more mundane snapshots, the slides offered myriad possibilities for transformation. Some are playful, like a house in place of the home base on a baseball field (there are a number of sporting slides), others have political overtones, like a huge picture of Jesus (illustrated, not a photograph) looming over the United States Capitol building.
Initially, Trask presented these surreal mash-ups on antique viewfinders. The saturated hues of Kodachrome, different transparency values, and the dust, scratches, and other imperfections of time added to the tactile quality of the sculptural objects.
“Looking into the viewers is an engaging and at times puzzling experience — you’re not always sure what you’re looking at or how it’s happening,” Trask explained. “This uniqueness drew many people to the work. But I also found that without prompting people would share about how the collages sparked their imagination. And oftentimes the narratives and perspectives conjured in their heads differed significantly from my own experience of the work, in the best kind of way.”
He decided to expand the project into a book. Called Strange Histories: A Bizarre Collaboration, it’s out now through his website. It features 29 authors who contributed stories over a three-year period, including his first collaborator, Brandon Kaplan. “There is something liberating and strange indeed about gazing upon these vignettes from strangers’ lives and finding in them a space for our own imaginations to germinate,” Kaplan writes in a book foreword.
Each contribution is accompanied by one of Trask’s slide combinations. Some people wrote personal stories, like illustrator Kevin Waldron’s reflections on his mother-in-law’s life as a Vietnamese refugee that join a photograph of a military helicopter hovering over a slide of a painted choir of angels. Others wrote poems or short fiction, such as artist Oliver Jeffers whose short story is alongside a collage of a parachuter flying above a steep San Francisco street: “It was a windy enough day with gusts blowing across the bay and rolling up the avenue.” A few authors brought their own found materials into play. Artist George Horner cut speech bubbles from comics to accompany a paraglider overlaid on a church sanctuary, while designer Richard M. Norris responded to a story he wrote as a kid 40 years earlier on “the big race” which joins a motorcycle soaring over some oversaturated sightseers.
Trask has regularly engaged with discarded materials, including his 2015 “Blister Pact” installation at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn incorporating around 5,000 blister packs — the ubiquitous, difficult to recycle low-quality packaging — in a luminous structure. His 2018 “Waste of Space” in the gallery’s Glass House featured suspended orbs that appeared like tiny planets, but were balls of trash ranging from keys to old toys. The slides similarly reinvigorate obsolete material. Trask is still collecting slides, continuing to bring new life to this found imagery in an ongoing reflection of our collective history through our trash.
“It’s weirdly addicting to look through some stranger’s entire slide collection, as boring and as poorly shot as the slideshow may be,” Trask stated. “In a time dominated by the infinite feeds of digital imagery on social media platforms, I find it incredibly satisfying to have an entirely analog counter-experience in the 35mm slideshow. There’s a physicality to the material and the experience that you just can’t get through a screen.”
Strange Histories: A Bizarre Collaboration by Ian Trask is out now.