Until last year, I worked with the Photographic Collections in the archives at the Library of Birmingham. I left promising to write a blog post at some point in the future. Over a year later, while meeting with former colleagues, I was reminded of this promise. It was suggested I could perhaps write about my favourite item as part of the ‘Explore your Archives’ week activities. My head was instantly full of potential candidates. You’ll have to be patient with me here, because I cannot help but mention a few of them, at least in passing, so you have some idea of the staggering wealth of choices I faced. For instance, perhaps I would write something about John Blakemore’s beautiful handmade books on the Zone System (MS 2372/C/1-23 and MS 2372 Acc. 2015/088), a system devised by Ansel Adams and used by Blakemore in his photography for many years. Or maybe a post showcasing a little-known collection of cyanotypes (MS 2652) – a stunning example of a very early photographic process.Then again, perhaps I could write about a collection of 37 photographs taken randomly by a BCC employee, which when arranged in sequence connects up to form a panoramic view from the top of the old (and now vanished) Birmingham Central Library. When last shown, this series of prints prompted a reminiscence from a retiring librarian, of how it used to snow upwards in the well of Paradise Forum, before the glass roof was put on.
Or indeed I could certainly write about the photograph of a Pickford’s heavy haulage vehicle with its crew standing proudly beside it (MS 2726 ). This photograph appeared in so many talks – each time as evidence of something different, each time an integral part of a different narrative – sometimes telling the story of the man who took it, at other times illustrating a wider history of heavy haulage and the vehicles used, now a part of the history of the development of transport systems, and then also part of the social narrative of that particular time.
How was I to choose between them?
In the end I chose none of these. The item which reappeared most persistently in my mind was something I had come across in my first few weeks of working with the photography collections. It happened like this… while listing a collection of glass plate negatives, I came across a small box containing what appeared to be metal dog tags. Just plain little oblongs of aluminium it seemed. Unsure of what they might have been used for, I was packing them away as ‘miscellaneous’, when one of them caught the light. A mark? A shadow? I took it to the window and turned it this way and that. As the light slid across the surface, a smile emerged. A little girl’s smile. Creeping out of the metal like a ghost of a long-ago summer afternoon, she smiled at me with such immediacy it took my breath away. I felt I was seeing her smiling in the here and now, not a century ago when the image was made and I was suddenly acutely aware of the unique potency of a photograph. I was also reminded of just how experimental early photography had been – new processes were being invented constantly, refinements made in printing methods, in papers used – and indeed experiments in printing on surfaces other than paper – such as aluminium.And so my favourite item has resolutely chosen itself. A little piece of aluminium showing an unidentified little girl smiling somewhere, sometime in the c.1880s, testifying to the power of the photographic image and illustrating the tireless inventiveness of early photographers. It is part of Harry Slade’s collection (MS 2714) who was a business man, owning a workshop specialising in fine engineering work, for example enamelled boxes and so on. He was also a keen photographer, with an interest in record photography. He exhibited some prints with the Midland Camera Club in the 1890s.