25 February 2020

Silver Scene Crime Scenes

25 February 2020 - Written by Colin Pantall

What do you do when you find a collection of old police records in your pile of discarded negatives? You print them in negative, silver ink on black paper, you turn them into a beautiful book object and reinvent the forensic archive as a meditation on the beauty of things.

© Thomas Sauvin, spread from the book 17 18 19

First of all, 17 18 19 is a beautiful book, it’s a block of a book, with a wrapping-paper cardboard cover emphasising the filing cabinet dossier feel. If you’re familiar with Thomas Sauvin and his Beijing Silvermine archive, you’ll know the routine. Sift through a heap of negatives that were bound for the silver recycling plant, find a common theme, and make a bijou book. Don’t skimp on the printing, binding, and design, keep it simple and let the book form do the talking.

It’s a formula - or discipline, or skill, or art - that has worked before, and it works again. In the case of 17 18 19, the images, rescued from “…a bag of in the heap of negatives, come from one of the city’s (Beijing’s) detention centres between 1990 and 1991.”

The title comes from a 3cm ruler (that runs from 16.5cm to 19.5cm) that is used to measure some of the items on display. It appears on the cover beneath a stained negative, the idea of an archive within an archive referenced before you even open the book.

© Thomas Sauvin, spread from the book 17 18 19

Once you do, you’re into a dossier of exhibits, evidence, and seized goods. It starts with sharp implements (measured against the ruler of the title) that one presumes (possibly mistakenly) have slashed, stabbed, punctured, and chopped, then goes on to items of clothing, though whether these are from victims or perpetrators we do not know. What is that dark (or silver in the case of the printed version) stain on that t-shirt? Is it blood as the structural narrative of the evidence archive would have us believe, or something more benign like sweat, soy sauce, or baby sick.

Keep on going and you get to piles of money laid out in various stacks, bundles, and fans. It’s mostly Chinese, and it’s mostly relatively small denominations – a pattern of five 10 yuan notes, however wide you spread it, still comes to less than 10 euros.

A coin-forging stamps reinforces the low-rent nature of most of the crime as do the tiny displays of contraband. There’s tobacco, alcohol and the amounts are minuscule, making you either nostalgic for some kind of universal golden age where you could leave the door open (or whatever the Chinese equivalent is) or wonder where exactly the real crime is or what kind of a party the police had the night that alcohol was seized.

© Thomas Sauvin, spread from the book 17 18 19

As with all of Beijing Silvermine’s projects, there is an element of unexplored mass observation in this book. These are the power tools, the keys, the cassettes, and the televisions that were coveted consumer goods at this time. Instead of Nikons or Leicas, there are Seagull and Great Wall cameras, all printed silver on black to make them leap out of the page in their thingness.

These images are impersonal artefacts for our examination, items that the archive they come from has left behind. These images originated in a police archive, they have been discovered in the Beijing Silvermine (pile of negatives) archive, and now they have become a part of a new archive, the library of repurposed curiosities that form the Beijing Silvermine publication, exhibition, and installation history.

There is a distance then, and it’s a distance compounded by the printing. Printing silver on black is beautiful and otherworldly. It allows the objects to glow, the background tones of the original negative becoming a silvery miasma in which these objects can float in their mysterious sea of crime-scene nostalgia.

© Thomas Sauvin, spread from the book 17 18 19

It’s a world of its own that looks great in its high contrast silver punching highlights. That’s why it’s printed silver on black; because it looks great and because you can get away with losing all the shadow detail that would come if you printed more in keeping with its original murky form.

The printing also matches the way they are photographed. They are exhibits, removed from their place, repurposed in the functional process of becoming visual evidence, part of a developing surveillance state in flux. They’ve been repurposed by the police, they’ve been repurposed by the Silvermine, and they’ve been repurposed by the printing process and this book.

There is little that is personal in 17 18 19, but that’s not really the point of it. The point is it looks great, it feels great, and it’s a curiosity that engages us with our own participation in surveillance, voyeurism and the very great joy of looking and feeling and wondering what the hell was going on then and there.


17 18 19 by Thomas Sauvin

Published by VOID

Printed with silver ink on black paper

Text by Holly Roussell, in English and Chinese

Hardcover // Edition of 750 copies // 15 x 20.5 cm // 224 pages



Thomas Sauvin is a French photography collector and editor who currently lives in Beijing. Since 2006, he has been working exclusively as a consultant for the UK-based Archive of Modern Conflict, an independent archive and publisher, for whom he collects Chinese works, from contemporary photography to period publications to anonymous photography. Follow him on Instagram.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

5 minutes