Founder Mr Russell Blackmore takes us to a Venetian archive to unearth rare photos of Messrs Paul Newman and Chet Baker – for an exclusive print collection just for MR PORTER
A smoking Ms Marilyn Monroe leaning curvaceously on a Manhattan rooftop balcony; Mr Clint Eastwood peering over his shades while catching some rays between takes; an unusual angle of Ms Brigitte Bardot turning heads and letting loose in a Cannes nightclub – three images of instantly recognisable people frozen in unguarded, largely unposed moments in time. This is the kind of photography on which Sonic Editions is building its burgeoning reputation as the go-to repository of affordable framed prints.
Like all good businessmen, Mr Russell Blackmore, the owner of Sonic Editions, knows how to spot a gap in the market. He realised there was a big white space between the cheap posters that students stick in clip frames and the appreciating works of art that deep-pocketed collectors hang on their walls. So he decided he could fill it with well-priced limited-edition prints of classic photographs.
In photography archives around the world, the vast majority of the images stacked high in endless rows of cardboard box files will never see the light of day. There’s too many of them to process. “It’s such a monumental task to scan and catalogue archive images that it just doesn’t make economic sense – not even for major photographic agencies such as Getty and Corbis,” says Mr Blackmore. But for an expert with a sharp eye and the right contacts, there’s money in these mines of celluloid. Mr Blackmore, who formerly worked for The Economist magazine in London, where he first built up contacts with picture agencies, now makes a good living from seeing the positives in negatives.
As the name would suggest, Sonic Editions started off focusing on music photography before widening its aperture. “Now we specialise in working with archives and agencies around the world to produce prints of iconic 20th-century photography.”
Mr Blackmore visits these photography vaults with his cohort Mr Sean Sullivan, an LA-based photographer and curator of iconic image site The Impossible Cool. Together they are raiders of the lost archives.
To assemble this first collection for MR PORTER, they travelled to Venice. “The unique advantage of Venice is that it has a backdrop that hasn’t changed in centuries; it’s the same stunningly picturesque city that Canaletto painted 300 years ago,” says Mr Blackmore. “And that gives these photographs such a timeless quality.”
In the 1960s, Venice was one of the premier festivals on what was then a more concentrated film circuit. “It brought the cream of the A list,” says Mr Blackmore. “Today you have scrums of paparazzi all taking the same pictures against the same promotional backdrops. But back then you had a few local photographers with inside knowledge, working their beat. They got their tip-offs from the gondoliers or the hotel concierges so that they were in the right place at the right time to get some candid shots.”
Three hundred thousand of these photos are now piled in musty boxes in the tumbledown Archivio Cameraphoto building on a Venice backstreet – a far cry from the sterile, climate-controlled underground lairs operated by Getty and Corbis. Only five per cent (15,000) of these photographs have been scanned and just 2,000 of those are catalogued online.
This meant plenty of buried treasure for Messrs Blackmore and Sullivan to sift through. “We were like kids in a sweet shop, we could have spent days in there,” says Mr Blackmore. They had pre-agreed 48 hours of access to the light boxes in order to cherry-pick the images that comprise this collection.
“The secret to choosing the kind of image that you’ll want to frame and hang on your wall is to avoid the obvious and clichéd and search out pictures that surprise and delight – iconic faces in situations you wouldn't normally expect them, with just the right pair of sunglasses or just the right look on their face,” says Mr Blackmore. And so in this collection you have Mr Chet Baker, who had recently been released from an Italian prison, casually tooting his horn by an open window overlooking Lucca; and a honeymooning Sir Mick Jagger cheekily flipping the bird with rock-star insouciance while sitting in a gondola with his then-wife, Bianca.
Watch this film to find out how this first collection of Sonic Editions for MR PORTER was assembled.