Over the last couple of years Elizabeth Edwards, Professor Emerita of Photographic History at De Montfort University in Leicester, and until recently Andrew W, Mellon Visiting Professor at the V&A Research Institute, London, has been making periodic academic study visits to Keighley Local Studies Library. Elizabeth is the author of the ground-breaking study, The Camera as Historian, and generally hopes to raise awareness of library photographic collections that she feels have been much neglected in academic and heritage circles. Elizabeth generously offered to write a blog for us and in so doing, gives us a brief but fascinating insight into these valuable collections, their regional and national importance, and the vital role played by libraries in the development of local history.
The Camera as Historian
Among the local studies treasures in Keighley Public Library is a set of 6 bound volumes of photographs. That they are little known is the result of the almost total neglect of the photographic holdings in local studies libraries more generally, despite the distinguished social historian Raphael Samuel referring to them as the lifeblood of local histories. Certainly, many local historians have used the photographs productively in their work. But to really appreciate what is at stake, we have to think about the photographs collectively, as an assemblage, which came into being with a clear purpose, and with work to do in civic society.
This is where the 6 volumes come in. While they are just part of a larger collection of historical photographs in the Library, they represent a cornerstone, both as a collection and more especially as a purpose. They are described from the outset as a ‘photographic survey’ – as embossed on the spines of the volumes. They were donated to the new Library in 1911. However, their genesis was a couple of years earlier, in 1909, when Keighley Photographic Association formed a sub-committee to undertake a photographic survey.
They were inspired, according to an article in the Keighley News, by Birmingham MP Sir Benjamin Stone who was a keen amateur photographer. In 1897 he founded the National Photographic Record Association to which he hoped that local photographers and photographic societies would contribute, creating a national record of ancient buildings, folk customs and so forth. Stone seems to have been something of a thorn in the flesh of the photographic world with his pronouncements on how photographs should look and what they should do. He hated forms such as pictorialism (as practised by Keighley’s famous photographer of the early 20th century Alex Keighley) which he, Stone, referred to as ‘fuzzigraphs.’ So while many surveys give lip-service to Stone, most went their own way, working and thinking locally, bringing local knowledge and networks to bear on their production. For all the razmataz, Sir Benjamin’s national association failed because he tried to turn into a national centralised archive, something that was profoundly local, tied to local desires and local civic and civil society.
Writing about the photographic survey movement, which emerged in the 1890s, has tended to characterise it as nostalgic, ruralist, conservative – anxious about the loss of the ‘old ways’. In 2012 I published a book The Camera as Historian which argued against this position. Instead I suggested that the surveys were driven not so much by a sense of loss, but one of local dynamism, and a fear not of a direct fading away, but of a future that had no sense of its past. These sentiments resonate through Keighley’s survey photographs, recording as they do, civic and national events from wars to elections and charity events, street scenes, the demise of horse-drawn trams, the advent of electric trams, the modernisation of factory plant, slum clearance, everyday life and much else. They also copied older photographs, many of which map civic society in the modern town – the postmasters (and one postmistress), the chiefs of the local constabulary, the medical officers, and local teachers – people who made up the infrastructure of the town. Consequently, Keighley’s survey is concerned not with the quaint and picturesque, but with the changing face of a modern industrial town.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know of the Keighley survey when I finished the manuscript for that book about 15 years ago. If I had it would only have reinforced my argument. Because it really stresses the ways in which local identities were being played out. Yes, one can make arguments about who was doing the photographing (the expense of photography meant that most photographers came from the broad middle classes) but it would be a mistake to narrowly define them and reduce them to that. They were photographing in the contexts of a broadly liberal, non-conformist, philanthropic environment, where photographic skills in relation to survey were seen as a contribution to the civic and civil body. The photographs in the albums trace the presences and life experiences of a multitude of Keighley citizens and their families if one cares to look – and think. It has the feeling of a collective being.
The Library itself is an important player here. It was seen as the proper place for the survey albums, which were added to until about 1936. And Keighley is not alone here. A good many of the surveys were donated to public libraries or in some cases, such as Norwich or Dundee, were the result of a direct collaborative relationship, commission even, between public libraries and photographic clubs. I have become so interested in the role of public libraries in the development of local history, and more broadly, in a sense of local identity and local particularities, that they have now become part of my current book project. This explores the role of photography in an increasing, yet dispersed, sense of the past, which is manifested through everything from picture postcards, illustrated guidebooks, or the management of ancient monuments (the extensive visual presence of Kirkstall Abbey in west Yorkshire narratives is a good example here), to family albums, and even cigarette cards – and a multitude of photographic places in-between. And Keighley will most definitely be playing a major role in that argument.
Elizabeth Edwards has generously donated her book, The Camera as Historian, Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885-1918, (Duke University Press, 2012) and it will shortly be available for reference in Keighley Local Studies library.
Some publications by Elizabeth Edwards
Photographs and the Practice of History: a short primer. (London: Bloomsbury, 2022)
What Photographs Do: the making and remaking of museum culturesed. E. Edwards and E. Ravilious. (London: UCL Press, 2022) available as open access free download: https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/192312
Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums (Oxford: Berg, 2001)
Anthropology and Photography: A long history of knowledge and affect (Taylor & Frances Online, 30 Nov. 2015)
Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame, ed. C. Morton and E. Edwards (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009)
Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, ed. Chris Gosden, Ruth B. Phillips, E. Edwards (Oxford: Berg:Routledge, 2006)
Keighley Local Studies Team