What is the Future of your Photography Archive?

A discussion event held at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 26 March 2013

Jem Southam gave an overview of the project and why he became interested in the issue of photographers’ archives and what would happen to them (see About section)

Susanna Brown, Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum outlined the Museum’s photography collection, showed examples (Curtis Moffat and John French) and talked about the issue from the perspective of a collecting institution.

  • Value: an archive can hold artistic, historical, research and market value
  • The more freedom the institution has with copyright, the more it can do with the archive
  • The issue of accessibility is at the heart of what the V&A collections and what it does

She advised that photographers should:

  • Talk to institutions sooner rather than later
  • Organise their archives in the way that they work. In other words the perfect archive should reflect its working order
  • Keep all your mistakes – they are also important in understanding the context of a person’s work / practice

The Archon Directory on The National Archives website has a comprehensive listing of archives around the country.

Scroll down to view Susanna Brown’s presentation.

Mark Power, Magnum photographer and Professor of Photography at Brighton University talked candidly about the challenges of managing his work and archives with a public legacy in mind. “I have invested so much in storage that I can’t really stop; it’s like a burden around my neck."

“I’m very meticulous about making prints as I go – I put paper between each one, sign and date each one, I number the negatives and ensure they tally, the contact sheets are all numbered, negatives stored in archival files, all my best work is scanned and the scans stored on four different hard drives. “I’m doing this for my benefit, so I can find things. No-one else will have any idea how it’s organised.” He mentioned a short film, ‘Side by Side’, narrated by Keanu Reeves, about digital and analogue in film. There are concerns about digitised material – will it last, will you be able to see it in years to come? However, it’s very costly to develop a physical archive. (See case study)

Mark Power lock-up, one of two

Key points from the discussion:

  • The V&A does not collect digital material; it will continue to collect objects. Every national collection is running out of space. There is some discussion of a national centre to house digital material
  • People no longer have family albums - they are just stored digitally (see exhibition at Format Festival 2013) - Jem referred to a weekend workshop with Martin Parr at which he took two photographs with his 10 x 8 camera, while others with a digital camera took 20,000 images
  • There is a lack of specialist skills for this area – few photography conservators, few photographic historians
  • Lack of resources in the national institutions – there are on average two people looking after a national archive (an exception would be the George Bernard Shaw archive, which has six people working on it, but is time limited)
  • There are considerable emotional implications in dealing with archives, especially for families and heirs – it can take years to gain some critical distance from the archive
  • Do photographers need to think about breaking their work down into series or bodies of work and looking for relevant places to locate or place it?