Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The collector collector

There comes a point where documenting graffiti can become obsessive: how often do you wander the streets in the hope of capturing something new? Do you photograph every example of a new tag/paste-up/spray art that you see? At what point does it change from being a way to pass the time to a collection, and should you then start cataloguing it? (The pictures above are just some of Eine's shutter letters that I've photographed.)

This reminded me of meeting Robert Opie, the man behind the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill. In more than 40 years of collecting, Opie has amassed half-a-million odd objects, from cereal packets through shampoo bottles to space helmet-shaped TV sets. The first item in his collection was a Munchies wrapper – bought from a vending machine at Inverness railway station back in 1963, when he was 16.

"We have this innate instinct to collect things that's very much part of our human psyche," he told me. "I guess it's something to do with, the corn is going to run out some day, we must gather it in and have something to survive the winter. Manufacturers have used this instinct to collect things as part of their promotions, such as cigarette cards."

He started with the things many of us might collect as children – stamps, postcards, toys – he just never stopped. "A lot of people do give up because other pressures of life take over, so collecting things tends to be a childhood hobby but by doing that you're learning about life; I remember when I was collecting stamps you learnt about other countries. I'm sure it instilled in me an appreciation of commercial and graphic art as well because you've got these wonderful miniaturised versions of graphic designs as opposed to the modern variety, the majority of which are photographs."

We might associate collecting with men, something Opie again thinks has ancient roots, though his views betray something of his age. "There are huge numbers of women who collect but by comparision to the number of men it'll be 80 per cent men; it's partly instinctive, it's the hunter gatherer component of the male. It is also that women tend to be more preoccupied with running the home, children and everything else."

Opie's tips to collecting are relatively simple: focus your resources because once you've acquired the items you want you have to look after them; keep things in their boxes; keep the price and other information which helps place purchases; and avoid sunlight and glue. Then there are things that even he might not have thought of: "Someone gave me a collection of wine labels where they had written on the back what they thought of the wine that they'd just drunk – that's a very subjective analysis but it's an insight I wouldn't have had otherwise."

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