Diary: Working with Activity Slide Lab

Elke and Jochen Trabandt

Elke and Jochen Trabandt, Activity Slide Lab

Jochen runs the Activity Photo Lab in Esslingen on the outskirts of Stuttgart in Germany with his wife Elke. For the last two years, he has been instrumental in allowing me to share his broad knowledge about quality control for producing accurate 35 mm slide duplicates. This collaboration began shortly after Kodak’s Ektachrome duplication slide film (EDUPE) was discontinued at the beginning of 2010, and as a consequence Tate was faced with an urgent need to find new partners to support  the duplication of slides from the slide-based artworks in its collection.

Jochen clearly recalls the day we first made contact as this coincided with artists Phil Collins (born 1970) and Tris Vonna-Michell (born 1982) both enquiring about slide duplication, which according to Jochen was the first time in 10 years that he had been approached to do such work. At the same time a conservation student from the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt had been conducting a survey on which remaining photography businesses still possessed the skills and equipment for producing 35 mm slide duplicates. Whether this was pure coincidence remains unclear but Jochen was ecstatic to be given a fresh opportunity to use his Forox Trick Camera, which had laid unused (but carefully maintained) for a decade.

Forox is a precision reproduction table that can be used to duplicate slides and many other analogue graphics applications that were state of the art until the introduction of digital design programs. When he talks about the early days of Activity, Jochen often refers to the day when the first Forox Trick Camera arrived in 1986 which, at a cost of $150,000, was a huge investment for the young couple. At this time only three other companies in Germany owned a Forox. Shortly after mastering this extraordinary piece of equipment, he bought another so that Elke could work alongside him when producing elaborate, often last-minute, commercial productions for the automobile industry, then Activity’s main client. Subsequently he bought two more and about ten replacement colour heads, the most crucial part of this camera, so he would be fully prepared for the lack of spare parts as this technology became obsolete.

Jochen is a perfectionist and holds degrees in electronic engineering, physics and media communications but not in any art-related discipline. He has lectured in Media Design and Photography for almost a decade at the Stuttgart Media University and has shared his expertise with countless interns and apprentices who are now scattered around the world but with whom he has stayed in contact. As with Adrian Fogarty, Jochen was exposed to cutting-edge technology as soon as it became commercially available, which helps explain how he approaches a problem and unravels its potential causes and remedies. For my part, and that of the younger technicians I work with, we are constantly trying to work on two fronts as we work to gain an understanding of past technologies whilst being confronted with rapid technological development. Jochen and Adrian have a different form of appreciation, having experienced the evolution and entire life-cycle of this equipment.

Since working with Jochen, my knowledge of slide duplication has grown exponentially despite slide duplication becoming an ever-more challenging task given the demise of industrial support. In 2011 we started to test the feasibility of using Fuji CDUII 70 mm slide duplication stock for which we plan to build a machine to cut the film stock in half to produce 35 mm film strips. Jochen has, in anticipation, modified his pin-registered camera so that it can transport film with perforations on just one side and still maintain perfect registration. Jochen is always one step ahead of me and many potential obstacles are resolved almost immediately. In 2010 we worked together on Magic Lantern by Susan Hiller, a work that required slide mounts with different sized circular openings, which had long been discontinued. I was still pondering how we could best re-manufacture them, and by the time that I had worked out a plan of action, Jochen had already got them milled and stencilled with perforation holes on either side so that they can clip in pin-registered mounts – I was speechless.

Obviously slide-based artworks are a little different from commercial large scale multi-vision slide production, which Jochen used to design, and he is often surprised at the sub-standard quality in which artworks were shot or duplicated, but this simply reflects the environment in which artworks are often made, which does not follow any standards or norms as each one has its unique story to tell. I often travel with the artists to meet Jochen at his lab in Esslingen and talk through the tests that he produces in advance. To sit around a large light box, each of us equipped with a loupe to magnify the slide, whilst discussing the beauty of slide transparencies in general, is a very festive moment for all of us. Even if this may be the last time that these slide duplicates are made for this particular work, there is celebration in the mastery of this analogue skill so completely..

There are only three times that I have seen Jochen at a loss for words. The first was when the commercial photography lab developing his film entirely lost control over the chemicals in the processing bath because of control strips from a faulty production batch. The second was when around one thousand 70 mm slide duplicates that took many days to produce were scratched as the film was sleeved; and finally when we both unknowingly bid against each other on eBay for the same film stock.

I would not be surprised if Jochen has the world’s largest stockpile of slide duplication film at the moment. He went to a great deal of effort to locate remaining stocks, testing them to check whether the emulsion was still viable, and finally purchasing them in the last couple of years so that he can support museums and artists in their endeavour to keep displaying slide-based artworks. Though Tate has recently been able to earmark resources to arrange for a reasonable amount of slide duplicates for the works in its collection, on the whole many museums struggle to decide whether they should digitise the slides or arrange for analogue duplicates, as the funding available may often only stretch to one or the other. Jochen often asks me for advice on how best to approach museums to make them aware that time is of the essence, as it is unclear how much longer E-6 processing will be available. Sadly, I know too well that it can often take years to discuss this in-house and find ways to arrange for funding, which is difficult for him to imagine, given the short lead times which museums frequently demand of his service.

Very recently, he has invested in a new set-up so that he can offer digitisation alongside analogue duplication, as we both felt strongly that when artists present a unique opportunity to have temporary access to their in-camera originals, it is of paramount importance to be able to offer both. I very much hope that all the slide stock will come to good use so that Jochen can carry on producing the best matched slide duplicates imaginable and that the legacy of this medium and the beauty of slide-based artworks can be witnessed as the artist originally intended for longer.