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PHOTOGRAPHY AS ART AND SOCIAL HISTORY

Part 1: The Francis Bedford Topographical Photographs

Part 2: Urban Landscapes and Society: The Warwickshire Photographic Survey from
Birmingham Central Library

A Century of Survey Photography by Peter James

In his recent book Photographs and Local History, George Oliver declared that “… as a primary source of visual information there is nothing better” than photography, for, “with remarkably few exceptions the photograph is a generally reliable and truthful witness”.1 This view was shared by the late nineteenth-century amateur photographer William Jerome Harrison FGS2 who initiated a photographic movement with the express purpose of securing and handing down photographic records for the benefit of future generations.

Recognition of photography’s potential role as a truthful witness dates back to the earliest days of the photographic era. The optical and chemical processes of photography were taken to “designate a scientifically exploited but ‘natural’ mechanism producing ‘natural’ images whose truth was guaranteed”.3 This promoted the camera as an indispensable tool in the collection of empirical data. Photography was subsequently dubbed as the “handmaid of science” and “handmaid to the Muse of History” by virtue of its power of putting upon record “the actual state and appearance of persons and places”.4 The technical complexities and costs involved in the various early processes, however, largely restricted active participation in photography, and therefore in photographic record-making, to a relatively small number of amateur and professional photographers during the first half of the nineteenth century.

During the second half of the century doubts arose as to whether the social and environmental changes wrought by industrialisation and urbanisation represented unqualified progress or perhaps social setbacks. Public concern on these issues manifested itself in the emergence of societies for the preservation of the natural environment, architecture, and monuments. It was also during this period that photography became accessible to relatively large numbers of people for the first time in its history. The introduction and development of collodion dry-plate technology in the early 1880s dispensed with the need for specialised knowledge and cumbersome equipment, enabling a broad section of the population to become producers rather than consumers of photographs.

Although fired with enthusiasm, many of the new generation of amateurs were unsure how, or to what useful purposes, they should apply their photographic energies. There were others like Harrison, however, who had developed clearly defined ideas on the practical applications of the process. In 1885 Harrison was called upon to propose practical schemes of work for fellow members of the recently formed Birmingham Photographic Society (BPS). He suggested that “much useful work … could be done … by securing accurate representations of old buildings”, for they would thereby be furnishing “a record for posterity” whose accuracy “could not be disputed” and whose “interest in the future would be great”.5

These ideas were not taken up immediately within the Society for it appeared that this would only serve to duplicate the type of work which professional photographers such as Francis Frith had specialised in since the 1860s. However, others took up the idea and accounts in the first amateur photographic surveys began appearing around 1888. In that year the Boston Camera Club (USA) announced their intention of making photographic records of “75 to 100 leading objects of interest”6 in and about their city, the Birkenhead Photographic Association decided to “hold a photographic survey of the Hundred of Wirral”,7 and in May 1889, E Howarth published his “Suggestions for a Photographic Survey of the District of Sheffield”.8

Harrison - by this time a familiar name in British and American photographic periodicals - noted “the growing desire among the English photographic societies to make themselves of real service to the community”.9 He sketched out a rationale and methodology for obtaining “a complete photographic record of the district” surrounding a society’s headquarters in early 1889, and by October that year he transformed this into a detailed plan for a Photographic Survey of Warwickshire.

This scheme was read before members of the Vesey Club in Sutton Coldfield and gained the wholehearted support of John Benjamin Stone - later to become Sir Benjamin Stone - who offered Harrison “every possible assistance” in carrying it out. Stone was elected President of the BPS in late 1889 and almost immediately set about organising a Special Meeting on 11 December when Harrison formally presented his “Notes on a Proposed Photographic Survey of Warwickshire” to the Society.10 These events culminated in the foundation of the WPS on 8 May 1890 and the subsequent election of Stone as its president.

Many of the ideas in Harrison’s paper were derived from earlier surveys. He detailed the evolution of survey work from Domesday Book to the more recent photographic surveys, listing the preceding schemes he had drawn upon in formulating his own plan. He suggested that pairs of photographers study the map of a given locality, listing and then reading up on the important or promising sights such as ruins, churches etc. They were then to seek out the advice of various local literary, scientific and artistic societies, for if they were to “survey Warwickshire in earnest”, they would have to become “students as well as photographers”. Finally, they would go over the area first without, and then with their cameras and secure their records along with details of the subject, time, date, focus of lens, printing process, and the contributor’s name, address and remarks. The resulting records would be printed to a standard size (whole or half plate) by some permanent process (usually carbon or platinum prints), mounted, annotated, and then submitted for potential addition to the WPS collection in the Birmingham Free Library. Harrison’s paper was published and distributed to photographic societies in Britain and America and led to the establishment of numerous surveys based upon these principles.

Prompted by the response to this paper, Harrison developed his ideas on the scale and scope of Survey Photography. In 1892 he accepted an invitation to read his proposal for “A National Photographic Record and Survey” to the Royal Photographic Society,11 and in 1893 he was invited to present his paper “On The Desirability of an International Bureau: Established [1] to Record; [2] to Exchange Photographic Negatives and Prints” at the World’s Congress in Chicago.12 Although the scheme for a National Survey was thought to be “impracticable, unwieldy, of doubtful utility” and “problematical longevity in its execution”, his 1893 paper led to the appointment of an International Committee which considered how his ideas might best be carried out.

In 1893 Harrison resigned from the BPS and WPS and retired from mainstream photographic life following revelations regarding comments made - under the cloak of a pseudonym - following the RPS’s rejection of his proposal for a national survey. Stone continued in his role as president, and became a major contributor to the WPS. During the next four years he was knighted, elected to Parliament, and became a photographic celebrity on account of his survey of the Houses of Parliament and its inhabitants. In 1897, Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, it was announced that he was “formulating a scheme” for “a photographic survey of the three kingdoms, not forgetting the principality”, and he set about using his influential status to draw a host of important supporters to his cause. The National Photographic Record Association (NPRA) was formally established in September 1897 when Stone was elected its first - and only - president.13

Although Stone had not so much “formulated a scheme” as drawn upon Harrison’s earlier papers without acknowledgement, he worked assiduously for the NPRA and donated vast numbers of his photographs to the Association’s collection in the British Museum. Stone’s exhaustive efforts “failed to augment the number of photographs and photographers”, and over a period of ten years “an average of less than 500 prints” was added to the collection each year.14 In many respects the relative failure of the NPRA bore out the criticism of Harrison’s earlier proposal for a national survey.

There was no lack of support for survey work at a local level, and this was reflected in the increasing coverage which the subject gained in the photographic journals of the period. In July 1902 The Amateur Photographer established a regular feature called “Survey and Record Notes”. Its editor “Menevia”, invited readers to send brief notes of “buildings, sites, or customs” which were “in danger of disappearing” so that “if unable to make a photographic record of themselves”, the correspondents might allow others to do so. By 1904 the same magazine was “devoting at least a whole page a week to … [this] … interesting and important branch of photographic work”, and it subsequently announced the formation of The Amateur Photographer Record League “for the interchange of prints and information” between interested parties. 15

Picking up on these trends, Harrison presented a paper on “The Desirability of Promoting County Photographic Surveys” at the Annual Meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1906.16 This paper - which may be seen as one of the definitive texts on Survey Photography - traced the evolution of the movement and acknowledged the work done by the NPRA and groups in Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Yorkshire, and Edinburgh. He declared the “three great objects” of Surveys were to benefit “(a) the individual photographer; (b) the Scientific and Photographic Societies; and (c) the nation generally”, maintaining that Survey work was “a liberal education for any man” for it was impossible to “photograph without learning much about the objects photographed”. He appended an encyclopaedic set of “Suggestions and Memoranda”, and proposed the establishment of a Committee to collect, disseminate, and co-ordinate the work of these surveys. Both he and Stone were subsequently nominated as members of a provisional committee, but Harrison never lived to see the fruits of its labours, dying just eighteen months after this address in 1908.

The growing concentration of work at a local level resulted in the increasing feeling that there was little point in a separate national survey. In May 1910 it was therefore announced that the NPRA, having collected 4,478 prints, considered that it had done its work, and that the time had arrived when it could retire and leave the work to be carried on by local societies. The impending termination of the NPRA forced Stone to seek another avenue through which to pursue and encourage Survey work. Three weeks prior to the announcement of the NPRA’s closure, Stone chaired a meeting of a provisional committee formed to establish the draft rules of a Federation of Photographic Record Societies. Five days after the NPRA’s demise, another meeting formally ratified the report of the provisional committee, inaugurated the Federation, and elected Stone as its first president. Although the initiative was Stone’s, substantial material and once again been drawn from Harrison’s earlier paper without due acknowledgement. Stone continued to work for the Federation until his death in 1914.

The legacy of these two men’s work continued after their deaths. In 1926, A Handbook to Photographic Record Work - the first “attempt to deal with the subject in one volume” - listed details of the work done by the NPRA, The Nature Photographic Survey, The BAAS, the Photographic Survey of Wales, in the counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Surrey, Sussex, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire, in towns from Brentford to Woolwich, and in Belgium, America, and Germany.17

The WPS continued working until 1950 when it was finally terminated due to lack of support, having amassed over 10,000 photographic records of the county. The work of the Photographic Record and Survey Movement is carried on today by organisations such as the Worcester Record Office who have carried out survey work based on Harrison’s original plans since 1950. It would be interested to know how many other surveys are still operating, or where and how work of this kind is carried on today. It would also be interesting to find out where the work of those earlier surveyors is stored for their photographs are not only part of local history, they are part of a century of photographic history which will continue to provide historians with unique visual records of our changing world.

REFERENCES

1: George Oliver, Photographs and Local History (1989) p.8.

2: W J Harrison FGS was born in Yorkshire in 1845. He trained and worked as a science teacher before becoming Curator of the Leicester Town Museum between 1872 and 1880, and Chief Science Demonstrator to the Birmingham Board Schools until his death in 1908. For more biographical information see: P James, “Evolution of the Photographic Record and Survey Movement”, History of Photography Vol. 12 No. 3, July - September 1988.

3: John Tagg, “Power and Photography: A Means of Surveillance: The Photograph as Evidence in Law”, Screen Education. No 36 (1980) p.20.

4: Rev W J Read, “On the Applications of Photography”, Sutton’s Photographic Notes, 6 March 1856, p.130.

5: W J Harrison, “On the Work of a Local Photographic Society”, British Journal of Photography, 3 July 1885, pp.421-422.

6: “Illustrated Cities”, Photographic News, 18 May 1888, p.319.

7: “Proceedings of the Societies”, Amateur Photographer, 6 April 1888, p.211.

8: E Howarth FRAS, “Suggestions for a Photographic Survey of the District of Sheffield”, Photographic Societies Reporter, 30 April 1889, pp.185-189.

9: Talbot Archer (pseud.), “English Notes”, Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, 10 August 1888, p.453.

10: W J Harrison, “Some Notes on a Proposed Photographic Survey of Warwickshire”, Photographic Societies Reporter, 31 December 1889, p.506.

11: W J Harrison, Proposal for a National Photographic Record and Survey (pamphlet), Birmingham, Harrison & Sons, 1892.

12: British Journal of Photography, 25 August 1893, p.548.

13: Anon., “The National Photographic Record Association”, Photography, September 1897, p.714.

14: Colin Ford, Sir Benjamin Stone, 1838-1910: Victorian People, Places and Things Surveyed by a Master Photographer (National Portrait Gallery 1974) p.13.

15: “Photographic Record and Survey”, The Amateur Photographer, 7 January 1904, p.5.

16: BAAS Annual Report, 1906, pp.58-67.

17: Gower, Jast & Topely (Eds.), The Camera as Historian: A Handbook to Photographic Record Work for those who use a Camera and for Survey of Record Societies (1916).

PETER JAMES is a photographic researcher working in Birmingham Central Library, where the Harrison, Stone and Warwickshire Photographic Survey Collections are held.

The above article is reprinted from The Local Historian, November 1990, Volume 20,
Number 4, with the kind permission of Peter James, photographic researcher at the Birmingham Central Library

The images that accompany this article will be available to view soon.

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