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By Geoff Belknap on

Process, product and practice: our approach to collecting photography

Geoff Belknap, Head Curator at the National Science and Media Museum, reflects on how we collect photography.

What does photography mean to you? Is it something you do, or maybe something you did a long time ago? Is it your gran’s family photo album or that old camera you might come across in a box in the attic?

Maybe photography is an app on your phone, which allows you to send pictures of your life to family or to post on Instagram. Whatever it means to you, can you imagine your life if photography didn’t exist?

Photography is everywhere. It’s a very important part of how we record our lives, communicate with each other, and express ourselves.

This ubiquity of photography is both an opportunity and a challenge as we actively collect photographs and photographic technology for the Science Museum Group Collection.

How do you represent the rich histories of photography – whether in technology or image – when the number that exist in the world is beyond a scale that can be counted.

This question is nicely demonstrated by one of the largest and most significant collections of photography that we care for, the Daily Herald Archive.

Image of items from the Daily Herald Archive
Daily Herald Archive at the Insight Research Centre in the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

This archive constitutes the picture database for one of the most popular mid-20th century national UK newspapers – The Daily Herald.

Each of these cabinets and metal folders (and many more beside) are filled with photographic prints produced in the period between 1920 and 1965 detailing events, people and places that would have been newsworthy throughout the 20th century.

This collection alone counts to the millions of individual photographs, and includes prints, negatives, contact sheets and notebooks.

Charlie Chaplin c. 1916, Daily Herald Archive, 1983-5236/12626

Considering there is just so much photography in the world right now, how do we decide what to collect and not collect?

At the National Science and Media Museum, we want to tell compelling stories about how photography affects our lives, but we also need to acknowledge that we can’t tell every story about photography.

Photography has a wide spectrum of value and meaning. On one side of the spectrum you can think of photography as a series of different mechanical and material processes – from the very earliest photographs made from salt and silver to digital images made by a combination of sensors and bits of information.

On the other side of the spectrum photographs are valued because of what is in the image – what we call the product of photography – whether that is a snapshot of ourselves when we were a baby, a place we have never been or an interpretation of the world through the eyes of an artist.

Between these two sides of the spectrum lays a whole range of meaning for photography based on how we use photography, such as for scientific research; for political reasons; to monitor and record; as commercial objects; as tools for circulating and exchanging information; or as aesthetic creative expression. This middle ground can be called photographic practice.

How photography is made meaningful, whether historically or right now, we argue is based on where a photograph lies in their placement within this spectrum. This is particularly useful for helping us think about the emphasis we place around the collections of photography and photographic technology that we currently have, and those that we will collect in the future.

We can’t collect everything on this spectrum, nor should we. One of photography’s great strengths is that it is in so many parts of our lives. The same is true for collections – photography already exists in almost every museum, gallery, library and archive or private collection.

At the National Science and Media Museum we use this idea of a photographic spectrum in our approach to photography in the Science Museum Group Collection.

While we already have, and will continue to hold, an internationally significant collection of photography and photographic technology which emphasises the many sides of photography, our focus will emphasise the areas of photographic process and practice.

This means we are particularly interested in the stories of how material images and technology (whether analogue or digital) were made and used.

This perspective helps us not only better understand what to bring into our collections, but to understand the things that we already have.

For instance, this autochrome plate (one of the very earliest colour photography processes) by Arthur E. Smith, while beautiful and evocative, is important because it was used to demonstrate how this new photographic process works.

If you look closely, you can literally see the grains of potato starch and spots of aniline dye used to make an autochrome.

Arthur E. Smith, Autochrome plate enlarged 50 times. 1909-187.

By focusing our attention on how photographs are made and used, we can also start to uncover new stories through our collections about some of the most iconic photographers and inventors which have never been widely discussed.

For example William Henry Fox Talbot is widely celebrated as one of the inventors of photography. This is primarily due to his wide experimentation with and publication of his silver chloride based positive/negative photographic process.

We are privileged to hold the largest body of Talbot’s photographic work in the world at the National Science and Media Museum.

What is less well-known, but equally important to our collection, is Talbot’s experiments in photographic engraving. By focusing on Talbot’s different photographic processes, we are starting to connect photographs engraved onto metal plates (such as you see below) as essential to understanding Talbot as a scientist, inventor and businessman.

This history also changes how we interpret the history of photography more generally – if this doesn’t look like a photograph, can it still count as a photograph?

Photoglyphic engraving plate made by William Henry Fox Talbot
‘Mount Guajara’ Photoglyphic engraving plate made by William Henry Fox Talbot from glass plate positive produced by Charles Piazzi Smyth, 1937-526

We can also start to think in new ways about the thousands of photographs in our collection where we don’t know who the photographer or the sitter was.

In fact, it is far more common that we don’t know anything about who made, is pictured in, or used a photograph.

The history of photography is, in many ways, a history of loss.

As a society, we have lost or destroyed far more photography than we have kept. And those that we have kept, we often don’t have the full story behind the images.

But if we focus on the photographic process, we can start to uncover and explore some parts of those histories that we do have. In this image, for example, while we don’t know who the young woman is in the photograph, or who made the image, we can tell a history of practice by looking at what was done to the photograph.

This photograph was hand coloured, adding a blue background, tinting to the woman’s cheeks and detail to the floral brooch. In this way, we can understand a bit more about what kind of market existed for photography in the late 19th century, and how photographs were manipulated to make them look more realistic.

Hand tinted tintype photograph c. 1880 of unknown woman made by an unknown photographer, 1990-5036/F58

Focusing on process and practice doesn’t mean that we are no longer interested in photography as art.

What it does mean is that we have shifted our focus on how we collect, understand and interpret photographs made within the frame of artistic practice. Rather than being focused solely on the aesthetic or visual aspects of a photograph, we will continue to hold and collect photographic art which explores questions of photographic process or practice.

In other words, we are less interested in what is represented in a photograph, and more interested in its production and use. Take, for example, the series of photomicrographs made by Cornelia Parker while she was an artist in residence at the Science Museum in 1999.

In this image, titled ‘Comet’ which is part of her series Einstein’s Abstracts, Parker minutely focuses on the chalk marks made by Albert Einstein on a chalk board while giving a lecture in Oxford in 1931 on the theory of relativity.

This series of photographs is relevant for our collection and mission because it helps us understand the way photography can be used in different ways to explore the material world of scientific work.

A photograph of chalk marks, taken by Cornelia Parker
‘Comet’, Cornelia Parker, 2001-5034

This focus on process and practice also allows us to make better connections between our photography and photographic technology collections. To understand how a photograph is made or used, it is essential to explore what kind of camera and process was involved.

A wet plate camera, for example, because of the chemistry involved and the size of the camera, creates very different types of photographs than a handheld digital camera.

Photographic technology, however, is also very important in its own right. Looking at a camera made by the Gandolfi Brothers in the 1930s for UK Home Office to take photographs of prisoners can tell us about the craft and market for large format brass and wood cameras in a period when the handheld mass market cameras – such as the Kodak Brownie – was much more the norm.

Gandolfi extending bellows camera
Gandolfi (c. 1930) extending bellows camera, 1983-833

Four decades later, a camera such as the Hasselblad 500 was the tool of choice by professional photographers such as Shirley Beljon.

Beljon was a celebrated fashion photographer, who primarily worked in the 1970s and 80s in the UK. Beljon used a number of different camera formats – including a Polaroid Mamiya camera – which make up part of our collection of Beljon’s studio equipment.

By looking at the kinds of cameras Beljon chose for her work, you can explore her photographic practice. At a glance, you can tell that Beljon liked to shoot from the waist rather than from eye level.

Both the Hasselblad and Polaroid cameras require the photographer to look down through the top of the camera, rather than bringing the camera’s viewfinder to the eye.

Shirley Beljon’s Hasselblad 500 Camera
Shirley Beljon’s Hasselblad 500 Camera, c 1970, 2014-5133/10

Looking at camera technology can also help us understand the history of mass consumption of photography in the 20th and 21st centuries.

One of the largest and most comprehensive parts of our photographic technology collection is the Kodak Collection. One example, among the thousands of cameras, is the Kodak Instamatic 50.

This was the first commercially available version of the instamatic camera in the UK, released in the early 1960s. The Kodak Instamatic was a massive commercial success – if you search your own house you might have one lurking in a cupboard somewhere.

The Instamatic was in part successful because it allowed you to load and unload the film with failproof ease. Rather than winding out your film roll in the back of the camera, all you had to do was slot in a self-contained cartridge. Photography was becoming easier and easier to produce, putting it in the hands of billions of people.

Kodak Instamatic 50 Camera
Kodak Instamatic 50 Camera, 1963

By focusing on how photography and photographic technology were made and used, we can start to unpack some of the many ways in which photography has become integrated into our lives.

The history of photography is not just about the past, it is very much about understanding our world now and in the future. Without photography, our world would not be so visually rich.

One of the keys to understanding the role of photography in our lives right now is through the revolution that occurred with the invention of digital photography.

The speed, scale and integration of photography into our lives exploded when photographs could be made with 1s and 0s rather than on chemically sensitized paper.

Collecting photography in the digital age is a really big challenge. It requires new ways to store and take care of digital images, as well as new curatorial approaches to deciding what should and can be collected.

We are, however, starting to collect more traditional three-dimensional objects that can help us tell the history of how digital photography came into existence. Our recent acquisition of the active pixel sensor, pictured below, was invented by the engineer Peter Nobel and was one of the first attempts to capture an image on a microchip.

Active Pixel digital image sensor
Active Pixel digital image sensor

We are committed to collecting, researching, displaying and celebrating the many histories of photography.

While we won’t be able to represent everything to do with photography, we can focus on the histories of photography which emphasise the many ways this medium has become essential to our lives.

For us, photography matters because it changes how we imagine, understand and communicate with the world around us. We also believe that because there are many stories to be told about photography, collaboration is key.

We are therefore committed to working with other museums, libraries, archives, galleries, collectors and photography enthusiasts to amplify the many stories of photography that make up the rich tapestry of heritage collections in the UK.

If you are interested in exploring how the history of photography has affected the way you see and understand the world around you, then please do visit us at the National Science and Media Museum or explore online the photography and photographic technologies we care for.

An edited version of this post was published on the National Science and Media Museum blog.