The Library of Birmingham hosts a world class photo collection. Unfortunately, most of it is sitting in boxes

‘An archive is nothing if it’s not publicly accessible’

By Rachel Segal Hamilton

1855. Crimea. A sepia-hued scene shows sail boats docked in a bay, while British army tents cluster the shoreline.

1970. England. A stylish young Black woman poses for a studio portrait with a relaxed smile and wide flares emblematic of the era. 

2006. Iceland. Clouds engulf a mountainscape in one image; in the next, a man’s face drips water like a strange sea creature.  

Your eyes move from picture to picture, across time and place. You could be at a museum in New York or Paris. In fact, you’re in the Library of Birmingham.

Photo from the Dyche Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Birmingham.

Behind the locked doors of the Library’s store rooms is one of the country’s foremost photography collections. Experts agree it’s exceptionally valuable, documenting the history of photography from the dawn of the camera to the present day. The Library’s photography collection has ‘Designated Status’ under an Arts Council England scheme that recognises collections of national and international importance. 

Yet much of this collection is inaccessible to the general public. Unlike similar collections, there’s no curated programme of exhibitions within the building. You can’t easily scroll through a lot of it online. You might struggle (as I did while researching this article) to fully grasp what’s even in there. This world-class collection is an asset to Birmingham, part of our unique cultural heritage. So why is it sitting in boxes? 

As a journalist specialising in photography, I’d heard about the collection long before a move to Birmingham was on my agenda. That’s primarily down to the work of one man: Pete James.​​ 

Dubbed “Birmingham’s Mr Photography” by his colleague, the archivist Jim Rannahan, Pete James tirelessly championed the collection during his 26 years at the Library, putting Birmingham at the centre of the photography map. James got a taste for photography while working for Kodak in the 1970s, and later earned an MA in the History of Photography at Birmingham Polytechnic, now Birmingham City University (BCU). It was during his Master’s that his obsession with the LoB collections began. After convincing the then-City Librarian of the collection’s merit, he talked himself into a job. He joined the Library in 1989 as a researcher, ultimately becoming its inaugural Head of Photographs. 

James was able to carve out this path by recognising there was treasure in the Library’s dusty stores. He was possibly the first person to clock that there was something that could be understood as a photography collection, and he set about making that collection more accessible.

Across the Library’s 6,000 archives and collections, photographs appear in all sorts of different contexts: promotional shots for brass bed manufacturers and toy companies, personal family albums, dramatic production stills of actors treading the boards at the Old Rep, architectural images from town planning departments, and gruesome pictures of murder victims from coroners’ reports among them. 

“Pete started taking these disparate items and connecting them,” remembers Senior Library Services Manager Tom Epps. He catalogued collections held in the library, including the work of Sir Benjamin Stone, co-founder of the Warwickshire Photographic Survey. Coming to Light, a landmark 1988-89 exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), suddenly brought the idea of these images as a cohesive collection to public attention. The show proved how Birmingham had historically pioneered the development of photography, and still continued to conserve and build on that heritage.

Cossack Bay, Balaklava (1855) © Roger Fenton / Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005.

In his time, James expanded the Library’s holdings. He secured the collection of self-taught photographer Ernest Dyche and his son Malcolm, and the archives of photographers such as Val Williams and Daniel Meadows. He staged exhibitions that featured material from the collections as well as newly commissioned work. GRAIN — today Birmingham’s most prominent photography organisation — originated as a  project at the Library, that saw James and Jim Rannahan teaming up with curator Nicola Shipley inviting contemporary photographers to respond to the collection and to Birmingham.

Something of a maverick, James helped launch the careers of many photographers here, including BCU Senior Lecturer in Photography Stuart Whips, who first met him as a final year art student. “I showed him this project I was working on about the Leyland factory at Longbridge and he gave me 500 quid to buy film,” Whipps recalls. James pointed him in the direction of relevant industry-related photography within the collection. “To have someone support the work was beyond anything I could imagine.” I follow Whipps’s gaze to the back wall of his Grand Union studio covered in pinned up prints from that project, which he’s currently revisiting. “He could be a grumpy sod – and I say that with all love and affection, I loved him dearly and I think of him all of the time,” he says, “but underneath that there was a tremendous warmth and generosity.” 

James had bigger ambitions for the collection, dreaming of a national museum of photography here in Brum. There was even a 2005 ‘Assessment Report’ by Colin Ford, the founder of the National Media Museum in Bradford, and proposals for a partnership with IKON Gallery for a space in Curzon Street (which, due to changing finances, never materialised). “The fundamental strength of Birmingham’s photography collection is in documentary photography, which potentially gives it a broader public appeal than its London rivals – the National Portrait Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum,” Ford’s report concluded. 

Though not uncontroversial (many still mourn the iconic Brutalist Birmingham Central Library building), the £188.8m new Library of Birmingham offered state-of-the art storage facilities when it opened in 2013. “There were no temperature controls at the Central Library. It would go from 15 degrees in the winter to 30 degrees in the summer,” says Head of Archives and Collections Peter Doré, explaining that fluctuating conditions are the conservationist’s number one enemy. 

As the largest regional library in Europe, it was meant to herald a cultural renaissance in our city. However, just two years after it opened in a fanfare of media coverage, Birmingham City Council announced a round of savage cuts. Of the Library’s 180 staff, 100 were shown the door, including James. 

In 2004, the renowned photographer Paul Hill MBE became the first living photographer to sell his full archive to the Library. He says he identified in Pete James someone “who knew what he was talking about and [had] a will to actually make the work very accessible and very visible. That’s what you want for your archive – not for it to go in a drawer and never be seen again.” He even started a petition over the council’s slashing of the photography department: “But in the end there was nothing I could do because the council were in a shit fest and, well, they still are.”

James continued to work independently, and still banged the drum for Brum through projects like Thresholds, a cutting-edge collaboration with artist Mat Collishaw that used VR to recreate photography inventor Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 presentation of calotypes at King Edward’s School — the world’s first ever exhibition of photography, which happened right here in Birmingham. The show launched in 2017 at London’s Somerset House, touring across the country. And then, in 2018, Pete James died. His research papers went to BCU, but the knowledge in his head was gone forever.

Thresholds by Mat Collishaw. Photo: Mat Collishaw.

It is pouring with rain when I lock my bike up in Centenary Square on one of the endless grey mornings we’ve had this year. It’s May, and the exam season is in full swing. The LoB is buzzing with students. I’ve signed a disclaimer to say that I understand the risks associated with entering the low oxygen environment of the archive stores, which is strictly regulated to prevent the chance of fire. Peter Doré takes me on a tour round these windowless, slightly sci-fi spaces, where I see everything from monochrome pictures by Handsworth-based Maxine Walker, whose work on Black womanhood was displayed in a 2019 solo show at London’s Autograph, to 1950s prints showing cheerful Cadbury’s factory staff and a fraying roll of Dyche Studios backdrops.

Most estimates put the photography collection at two to three million items. Pete James had the figure higher, at 3.5 million, but no one can be certain, because no one has counted. Peter Doré describes it spatially as 16km of shelving. Either way, it is a vast and sprawling collection that includes not only prints and negatives, but objects: from vintage exhibition posters and flyers to photobooks, magazines, newspaper clippings, meeting notes, research documents, vintage cameras and studio lights. 

But while the collection is impressive, the system for accessing them could do with improvement. Sometimes looking for the right photo at the Library can feel like rooting about in a barn full of haystacks for a diamond. 

To understand why the average person today might have trouble  accessing this collection, one needs to understand how archives and collections are organised. ‘Cataloguing’ means listing what’s in an archive or collection along with identifying information. In the case of a photograph, that might be the name of the photographer, the subject, where and when it was taken, the type of print, and so on. 

If an item is not catalogued, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist — you would have trouble locating it in the collection. For this reason, it’s particularly concerning that only 25% of the photographic material in the Library is fully catalogued to be compliant with the General International Standard Archival Description.

Even if work is catalogued, unfortunately not all catalogue entries are created equal. For example, it was only by trawling descriptions of the Bournville Village Trust Estate boxes that I could see listed negatives from a 1943 commission by Bill Brandt to portray the reality of life in slum housing. Brandt is considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, and I was desperate to know more, but they were not fully catalogued nor digitised. 

Digitisation is what any photo collection should be aiming for, meaning that a digital copy of the photo is uploaded onto the system — this way you can be completely certain that you’ve found the correct photo you were looking for. So, again, it leaves much to be desired that less than 5% of the collection is digitised. (By contrast if you search ‘Bill Brandt’ in the V&A’s far better-resourced website, a page pops up with visuals of his work and an encouragement to ‘explore the collection.’)

Not everyone can visit in person. Not everyone wants to. Digitisation means that we can enjoy our great public collections as we do most things these days — from our sofas or on the go. I spent a morning commute transfixed by the smartphone screen of a woman next to me as she flicked through images of breathtaking museum antiquities. It also means that the library’s collection is useful to people accessing it remotely — those in the West Midlands can enjoy it, but also people all over the world. Some LoB photography collections, such as the Warwickshire Photographic Survey, are visually accessible to the public through Birmingham Images (no login required) and highlighted on the Archive and Collections blog, the Iron Room and its social media channels. But there are so many gaps.

Digitisation is expensive so no organisation digitises everything, instead prioritising value and quality. Currently, the Library simply doesn’t have capacity for any in-house digitisation beyond items on now defunct tech like cassette tapes or MiniDiscs, though volunteers assist on specific projects.

Thankfully, the Library staff — many of whom have worked here for decades — are extremely helpful. “We fill in the gaps,” Doré says. He and his team mostly welcome academics and authors, architecture history enthusiasts, theatre makers looking for period costume inspiration and (to a far lesser extent) members of the public interested in building history or genealogy, though ancestry websites have largely replaced archive visits.

Wouldn’t it be great if LoB had a website on a par with the Bodleian Libraries or the V&A, with their slick image-led and user-friendly interfaces? Or for organisations lacking the cash for a fancy site of their own, Art UK hosts digitised art and archive collections from 3,500 British institutions, offering users anywhere in the world ways to engage with these through themes, curations and stories.

Camilla Stewart, Head of Commercial Programmes and Collection Partnerships at Art UK, says that collections such as LoB’s deserve to be made genuinely accessible to all, since they are publicly owned archives that tell the stories of people’s lives. “We don’t subscribe to the idea that anybody is trying to hide collections or archives from the public,” she says. “But there is a critical underinvestment in cataloguing infrastructure and has been for a long time. We need to rectify that so they are discoverable.”

An important way for the public to engage with collections is through curated shows. From City of Empire to City of Diversity, a partnership with SAMPAD and the University of Birmingham that ran during the 2022 Commonwealth Games, saw the Dyche Collection digitised and exhibited and toured in Birmingham schools. Currently on show in the Library’s third floor gallery is Intended for Jamaica, an exhibition by artist Tracey Thorne. “Over the past decade, there’s been a decline in photography here,” Thorne says. “People said to me, it’s great to see something back in this space.”

‘Pottery Shards’ from Intended for Jamaica © Tracey Thorne 

But so much more could and should be done with it, not least because Brum has a proud photographic history of its own. “Birmingham was really important in terms of propagating early photography and showing it to the public,” photography historian Dr Michael Pritchard explains over coffee at Photo London preview day. The city not only hosted important lectures and exhibitions, its chemists and manufacturers innovated materials for taking and developing pictures. 

“In the 19th century, Birmingham had a new newly wealthy class of professionals who were interested in science and art,” adds Pritchard. “Photography was very much rooted in the city, through both amateur and professional practices in how it was used to document industry.” 

Birmingham also had a pioneer in Emma Barton, one of few early women photographers whose work was taken seriously at the time, who exhibited her portraits with the Royal Photographic Society in 1901. And a century on, in the 1970s, “the epicentre for photography was the Midlands, not London,” says Paul Hill, remembering the wave of vibrant photography courses, grassroots collectives and the influential magazine Ten.8 that sprung up here. Into the 1980s and 90s, Birmingham was home to Triangle Gallery and later Rhubarb Rhubarb, a portfolio review festival for photographers.

In many ways, the Pete James era of the Library was a continuation of this timeline, but it took a certain individual force of character (and, presumably, a sympathetic boss) to achieve what he did within an institution. Testament to the sway he held are the rows and rows of empty shelves that had originally been designed for the photography collection, some 1,000 metres of them. 

African Liberation Day, Handsworth Park, by Vanley Burke. 

After James’s tenure at LoB ended, some photographers had second thoughts about leaving their archives to the Library. Brian Homer, Derek Bishton and John Reardon removed some of the Handsworth Self Portrait ancillary materials, though the original prints remain. “It was sad because obviously, we would have preferred to have it in Birmingham,” Homer says. Val Williams sent her archive to the Martin Parr Foundation in 2019, following Daniel Meadows, who took his to the Bodleian Libraries in 2018.

“When Pete was there, the Library of Birmingham was seen as this big hope for photography and photographers’ archives and collections, and now the Bodleian has taken on that role,” says Michael Pritchard, who worked closely with James while at the RPS. Both institutions were on the founding Committee of the prestigious National Photographic Collections, which included the V&A, the Imperial War Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. 

Pritchard adds that the Bodleian, under the leadership of Richard Ovendon, has been making new acquisitions, presenting exhibitions of work by Meadows and Henry Fox Talbot and publications and employed a dedicated photography curator. In a country where cultural heritage is skewed towards the capital, the Bodleian is also notable as one of few key British photo collections outside London. Could our Library ever return to something like this? 

Perhaps. About 18 months ago, Stuart Whipps started looking through Pete James’ old research papers at BCU, trying to understand how they connect with the Library collection. “I’ve always thought about this story in tragic terms of nearly 30 years of Pete’s work becoming more and more invisible with every passing year,” he says, saddened by the way that energy and vision for the collection’s future turned out to be so short-lived. Spurred by his research, he is now poised to do a residency in the Library, spending one day a week surveying the collections.

Hopefully, this is just the start. After an initial research phase, Whipps envisages further stages, funded (if his bids succeed) through the Arts and Humanities Research Council that would involve bringing together a large team of conservationists and archivists. “So at the end, what you’ve got is something that’s completely accessible to everyone.” This, he underlines, would be 10 years away. “I don’t want to be Pete,” he says. “I don’t want to be the head of this collection. I don’t want to run my own museum. I’m an artist, I want to do that. But I also feel passionately about what we’ve got here.”

Stuart Whipps in his Grand Union studio. © Rachel Segal Hamilton

Tom Epps, who in his previous role as Cultural Partnerships Manager, worked on the 2022 Dyche Collection project, sees the benefits. “After [the 2015 cuts] we no longer had the level of in-house expertise that we once had. And yet the collections are still here. Projects like Stuart’s would brilliantly fit that gap. And actually, there are real positive advantages, too. Partnerships bring in different perspectives, whether academic or cultural.”

Like in 2015, we again face savage council cuts, with community libraries on the list of services under threat of closure. Councillor Saima Suleman, BCC Cabinet Member for Digital, Culture, Heritage and Tourism, emailed the Friends of Library of Birmingham group on 29 May this year: ”I can assure you that [the LoB] is not included in the current savings proposal and service redesign. Its existing services will remain unaffected.” 

But in the current context, it doesn’t seem all that likely extra resources will be coming the council-run Library’s way any time soon. I emailed Councillor Suleman twice to ask whether she’s aware of the LoB photography collection’s significance, had any plans to improve accessibility through cataloguing, digitisation and exhibition or to replace the expertise lost when specialists were made redundant in 2015. She has yet to reply. 

Still, it feels like there is a hunger for photography in Birmingham right now, as demonstrated by homegrown photography organisations like GRAIN and Multistory in the Black Country, Women in Photography Birmigham, Darkroom Birmingham and PRISM. A revived role for the LoB could feed into this enthusiasm. Whipps has collaboration in his mind, hoping to join forces with organisations like Flatpack and the University of Birmingham, which also have important photo collections. 

It’s often said that the Library of Birmingham looks like it’s been gift wrapped. It is a gift, and it should be opened. The importance of its public photography collection goes far beyond this city. We are custodians of something that has global historical significance. “An archive is nothing if it’s not publicly accessible,” says Michael Pritchard. “Preservation is only half the story. Collections need to be used and brought to life.”

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