Ghostly gifs made from archive photos – the haunting work of Kevin Weir

The New York-based designer’s animation project The Flux Machine transforms old images into surreal stories, giving the dead an eerie afterlife

A small girl sits in an ornate chair. Her feet are crossed in placid composure. One hand, holding a floral sprig, rests in her lap. Suddenly her palm wobbles and the sprig turns into a flame. The corner of her mouth twitches. The photograph itself catches light, peels away, to reveal another photo underneath. The little girl is restored, briefly intact – until the loop begins again. The child is Princess Juliana, and her portrait was taken between 1910 and 1915. It belongs to the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress, which is where Kevin Weir came across it and turned it into an animated gif.

Weir, 26, is an art director at the advertising agency Droga5 with an interest in Photoshop and animation. Three years ago, between semesters at the prestigious VCU Brandcentre, his attention turned to old images. “I was piecing together old photography with new photography. It started out as a way to burn time and sharpen up on Photoshop. It wasn’t a project back then.”

Ruins of Roebling’s works, Trenton by Kevin Weir

It is now. On a good day, The Flux Machine attracts 50,000 visitors to its online gallery. Weir’s starting point is the “batch of 100 new photos” the Library of Congress uploads every couple of weeks. “I look through, and see what jumps out at me.” Around a quarter of the time, the subject’s continued story immediately presents itself to his imagination. Otherwise, patience is necessary. “Some of the images are so loaded with mysteries. I sit with them for a while, just to see where they could go.” Sometimes he does this for a few days. He is really creating a fiction from the stills. “The shortest of stories,” he says.

A surreal portrait of German industrialist Gustav Krupp von Bohlen by Kevin Weir

As time has gone on, Weir’s creative process has become more complicated. For “Princess Juliana”, for instance, he printed out the image, burned it, and filmed the burning before feeding it back into the animation. In the early days, he made the gifs, such as “French 42cm gun” – which took about a week to build – by drawing 80 to 100 frames in Photoshop, “cutting things out into layers, moving them a little bit, making a new layer, moving that a little bit.” He cites the If We Don’t, Remember Me tumblr as inspiration.

French 42cm gun by Kevin Weir

The stories Weir’s gifs tell are dark. In “French 42cm gun”, whose original image is dated 1914-1915, a soldier stands beside a cannon. Smoke, or thick dust, plumes and falls to the ground where it forms a new soldier, a few steps behind the first. The new soldier picks up the first soldier and drags away his lifeless body. In his website biography, Weir writes that he “grew up in the woods” in rural upstate New York. Perhaps that setting accounts for the gothic fairytale quality to the images? He laughs. “They were pretty normal woods.” His parents both worked for a software company, though his father also had a painting studio. He thinks that “all the dark books I read growing up, like HP Lovecraft” are more likely to blame. That, and the quality of the pictures themselves.

Bruges by Kevin Weir

“Princess Juliana has such an air of mystery. The reality is that she is probably just a mischievous little girl. But something about the way these photographs are taken makes history unfamiliar to me. There is an unknowable quality to them. People will look at photographs from our time and they will know pretty much everything about us.”

At the end of each cycle of Weir’s gifs, there’s a moment of calm. Normality returns. (Weir sometimes allows a pause of eight seconds.) But it cannot last. The image, and the viewer, are locked in a world of perpetual replay.

Countess Minto by Kevin Weir

“What I like about the format is that it allows you both to use suspense and to freeze one moment,” Weir says. Suspense seems counter to the idea of gifs, which are, obviously, based on repetition. But Weir is right. His animations, his plots, are so surprising and well judged that they are suspenseful. Each pause between loops fosters the thought that this time, things might turn out better. But, of course, it is just a moment of illogical hope.

Labour organiser Mother Jones by Kevin Weir


Paula Cocozza

The GuardianTramp

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