Before Google Earth: Aerofilms and Aerial Photography at the Library of Birmingham

Stunt Man on Biplane: Aerofilms Collection / English Heritage Reference EPW037854 Photo by Aerofilms.  Copyright – English Heritage

Photo by Aerofilms. Copyright – English Heritage

This picture graphically illustrates the challenges of aerial image-making in the era before satellites, but I am sure that this dare-devil’s priority is not photography! The image has been chosen to highlight the exhibition ‘Aerofilms: Britain from Above’ which opened on 31st May 2014 at the Library of Birmingham.

Britain From Above

Britain From Above

This touring exhibition showcases the unique Aerofilms archive, which is held on behalf of the nation by English Heritage and its partner organisations in Scotland and Wales. The exhibition contains a varied range of images from the period 1919 – 1953, covering urban, suburban, rural and industrial scenes. It is in two parts, opening on 31st May with an outdoor exhibition focusing on images from around Britain, such as the dramatic view of the I.C.I. Synthetic Ammonia Works in Billingham, County Durham.

‘ICI Synthetic Ammonia Works, Billingham, County Durham June 1930’ Photo by Aerofilms. Copyright – English Heritage

‘ICI Synthetic Ammonia Works, Billingham, County Durham June 1930’ Photo by Aerofilms. Copyright – English Heritage

This exhibition uses the Library’s purpose designed external display system and is located in Centenary Square immediately outside the Library. From 1st July it will be complemented by an internal exhibition in the Library’s ‘Spotlight’ area, located in the foyer. This will focus on images of the West Midlands. Both displays are free and they run until 31st August 2014.

The Aerofilms Collection is internationally significant with regard to aerial photography and it was acquired in 2007 by a partnership of English Heritage, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. The collection consists of 1.26 million negatives and over 2000 photograph albums and covers the period 1919-2006. With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Foyle foundation the earliest images covering 1919 – 1953 (95,000 images) have been conserved and made available online at the project’s dedicated, interactive website http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk. The Britain from Above project has ensured that this unique and enthralling picture of Britain in the 20th Century has been saved and made accessible to the public online for the first time. It indicates the prodigious output of the Aerofilms Company, many of whose prints appear in archive and library collections across Britain, not least the Library of Birmingham. Our holdings include albums, individual prints, postcards and newspaper cuttings of aerial views in City suburbs, the latter being a regular and popular series in the early post war period. The ubiquity of Aerofilms products is reflected in the range of collections that contain them, including this image of the ruined Coventry Cathedral, photographed in 1949. A print is contained within the Warwickshire Photographic Survey, along with others of Coventry in 1949 by Aerofilms and one by Aero Pictorial (1950).

MS 2724/3/82/C10/294 &  WK/C10/294 ‘Ruined Cathedral Church of St Michael & Holy Trinity 1949’ Photo by Aerofilms.  Copyright – English Heritage

MS 2724/3/82/C10/294 & WK/C10/294 ‘Ruined Cathedral Church of St                                              Michael & Holy Trinity 1949’                                              Photo by Aerofilms. Copyright – English Heritage

These form just part of a wide range of aerial photographs held at the Library of Birmingham including work by Aero Pictorial (from 1958 merged with Aerofilms), Air Views (Manchester), Cambridge University Aerial Surveys, Midland Air Services and Topographic International. Both vertical and oblique photographs are retained, each reflecting the original purpose of the commissions, high altitude vertical being used for land use surveys etc and low altitude oblique views often focusing on specific buildings, landscape features or townscapes. An example of the latter is provided by this view of Birmingham Repertory Theatre, taken in the early 1970s by Willoughby ‘Gus’ Gullachsen from a traffic spotting ‘plane.

MS 2307/D/1/1 ‘Aerial View of Birmingham Repertory Theatre’ Photo by W. Gullachsen.  Copyright – The Estate of W. Gullachsen

MS 2307/D/1/1 ‘Aerial View of Birmingham Repertory Theatre’ Photo by W. Gullachsen. Copyright – The Estate of W. Gullachsen

 

This is of interest both in that it shows the site of the current Library of Birmingham (built on the car park adjacent to the Theatre) but also because Gus received much of his photographic training with the R.A.F. Photo-Reconnaissance Service in World War Two. His responsibilities included remote photography using cameras loaded into Spitfires for fast high level surveys and ‘hands on’ photography operating a camera in the back of low flying aircraft, experience which later served him well as shown with this view of the Repertory Theatre. Whilst aerial photography was not the mainstay of Gus’s later career, he retained both an interest and ability in utilizing it as the occasion required. His collection is held at the Library and reflects his career as a studio, press and commercial photographer (MS 2307).

Please visit www.libraryofbirmingham.com for details of the exhibition. Please contact archives.heritage@birmingham.gov.uk for enquiries about our collections. English Heritage’s accompanying book ‘Aerofilms: A History of Britain from Above’ is available from the Library’s shop.

Further Reading
‘Aerofilms: A History of Britain from Above’ J. Crawford, K. Whitaker & A. Williams (2014)
‘Shooting through Life’ W. Gullachsen (2007)

 

Jim Ranahan                                                                     02/06/2014

Advertisements

Leave a comment here or send enquiries to archives.heritage@birmingham.gov.uk

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s