Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Rain Theory

I was doing my photo-collage thing yesterday, when it struck me that certain pictures I have been working on in recent times have a rainy theme in common with some slightly older, as yet unused work. Clearly, there is potential for a new series there. The expression "rain theory" popped up in my mind, and I remembered it belonged to a set of photographs collected under that title, which I had assembled way back in the late 1990s. It was after I had learned to write HTML – "HyperText Markup Language", the coding that underlies the World Wide Web, and controls the display of "pages" containing text, images, and hyperlinks – and I was excited by the idea of creating CDs containing HTML pages as an inexpensive way of making and distributing interactive books of high-quality photographs, which anyone with a CD drive would be able to use. So I dug out one of the old Rain Theory CDs, as I didn't have any memory at all of what was actually on it.

I have to say I was both surprised and impressed. I'd completely forgotten what photographs were in the "sequence" – just twelve, in fact – and that all of them had been originated on medium-format film and scanned. The linking idea was that in the 1990s we had been experiencing some unusually severe summer droughts, and I realised I had been photographing the various water conservation methods that people (in particular gardeners and allotment keepers) had improvised. Visually, they could be seen as a variety of makeshift theories of what rain is, where it comes from, how it may be stored, and even, on the level of sympathetic magic, how it might be encouraged to fall. A nice idea, but fairly poorly executed, I have to say. I'm not surprised that people who saw my work at that time tended to look bemused. Some of the photographs are good, but some are not, and more than a little generosity must be deployed to see them as linked by the stated common theme. Although, as a classic example of a strong concept derived from and illustrated by rather less strong material, you might say I was ahead of the game...

However, I was impressed by the effort I'd put into the web-page design, especially the navigation. Each page is essentially a single image, with clickable areas designated by their mapped co-ordinates within the image. The "home" page (above) reproduces the CD cover image – a bold, text-only statement using a stencil typeface – but adds a "mouseover" navigation bar using simple numbers to link to the pages of the sequence, a question mark to link to a help page, and quotation marks to link to a page of text. Neat!

The images are presented as a series of six pairs, each pair on a numbered page, with one of the pair shown large, and both shown as medium-sized "thumbnails" (below). It's all done by graphical suggestion; very little is explicit. The hollow, clickable arrows are intended to indicate that the other image in the pair may be viewed in a large version, too (the whole area of the alternative image itself is also clickable), and clicking either the arrow or the image links to the alternative version of that same page, with the other photograph shown large. Simple! The numbered, clickable chevrons indicate how the previous or next pair in the sequence may be viewed.

Of course, I'd probably make some very difference choices now, not least because far more sophisticated user interfaces and designs are possible, with the addition of CSS ("cascading style sheets"), JavaScript, and whatever has evolved since I retired in 2014. Although it's true my knowledge of HTML, Perl, CGI, and all the rest of it has now gone to the same dark place in my mind as Latin conjugations and declensions. But, looked at now, I find I still enjoy the simple, "pre-Windows", through-designed look I came up with in 1998. Each page has the appearance of an interactive postcard. Only one very important thing has been "broken" by subsequent developments: it seems a CD with an "autorun" file will no longer automatically fire up a web-browser and open the designated "home" page when put in a drive, which means you have to start the thing up yourself by identifying and double-clicking the relevant file, which defeats the whole point. Distributing primitive, home-made e-books on CD using HTML pages is no longer practical.

Mind you, I don't now recall if I ever sent anyone a copy of this or any of the other, similar (and better!) projects I came up with before "Web 2.0", social media, real e-books, and online, on-demand publishers like Blurb rendered the whole approach redundant. Twenty years is a long time, but it's an eternity in tech-years. I do hope that in another twenty my efforts won't have become as unreadable as Ogham or Linear B. But given that then, with any luck, I'll be a couple of weeks away from my 85th birthday, I may not care about it all that much.

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