Tag Archives: Photography

Pete James: Birmingham’s Mr Photography

Pete James and Jim Ranahan on their last day together at the Library of Birmingham, September 2015. Copyright: the Estate of Pete James

Pete James was an accomplished photographic historian and Head of Photographs at the Library of Birmingham (formerly the Central Library) until 2015.  Pete sadly died in March 2018, but his legacy continues:

Through Pete James’ work, the photographic collections became part of the very pulse of the Library of Birmingham

Professor Elizabeth Edwards [1]

Pete arrived in Birmingham in 1984 to study ‘The History of Art and Design’.  He was guided to Birmingham Central Library, where he discovered a fantastic array of photographic collections.  After gaining an M.A. from Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) Pete chose to follow a career in photography and fortunately for us all, Pete decided to stay in Birmingham.  He immersed himself in the City’s photographic culture, not least with the photography magazine ‘TEN.8’, published in Birmingham through the 1980s and early 1990s.  This grounding in contemporary campaigning and documentary photography provided Pete with invaluable experience for his later success as a photographic curator, where he would champion emerging and established photographers alike.

However, Pete’s passion for historic studies remained and he formed the ‘Birmingham Photographic Heritage Project’ to enable him to pursue research begun during his M.A.  Pete returned to the Central Library’s collections, initially focusing on the survey photographers William Jerome Harrison and Sir Benjamin Stone.  As his understanding of the collections increased, Pete realised just how significant they were for the history of photography, locally and nationally.  He also realised that this significance was masked by their dispersal across library departments and that researchers less tenacious than he, would not uncover their riches.  Pete successfully demonstrated to Patricia Coleman, City Librarian, the potential for raising their profile and research applications and he was appointed as the Central Library’s first specialist photographic researcher.

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Birmingham Heritage Week 2018

It’s not long now until Birmingham Heritage Week 2018, and we’ve got a wide variety of things going on here at the Library of Birmingham!

8th September


Saturday 8th September 2018, 11:15am-4:15pm

Venue: Heritage Learning Space, Level 4, Library of Birmingham

Booking: Pre-booking essential! To book, click here.   

Birmingham is an ever-changing city, and its changing nature has been documented through Archives in various formats for centuries, a relatively recent format being photography!

This family-friendly workshop is about capturing the city, photographically, on one day (Saturday 8th September 2018) as seen by you.

After a brief introduction by Michael Hallett, an explanation of the activity, and guidance on how to make the most of using your mobile device (mobile phone or tablet – no “proper” cameras!), and a walk around the Gallery where a photography exhibition will be on display, you will be sent out into the city to take photographs that, for you, represent the city or a moment in the city.

You will then return to the Library of Birmingham where we will look at your photos on a screen with all the other people attending to discuss them (so you absolutely must bring the cable you have for your device so that we can connect it to our hardware and download them!). Of the photographs submitted, a selection will be exhibited at the Library of Birmingham in late 2018/early 2019, and deposited in the City’s Archives for permanent preservation.

A Dancer’s Tale

Saturday 8th September 2018, 11:30am-1:00pm

Venue: Library of Birmingham

Booking: Pre-booking essential!  To book, contact Library of Birmingham on 0121 242 4242 or email childrens.library@birmingham.gov.uk

Inspired by Birmingham’s theatrical heritage and the ‘Year of Movement’, we will be offering a creative writing workshop for children aged 12-17. We will be using movement, music and images to spark your imagination and help you to create your dancer’s tale.

14th September

Creative Writing using First World War Archives with Fiona Joseph

Friday 14th September, 11:15am-4:00pm

Venue: Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Level 4, Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Broad Street, Birmingham, B1 2ND

Booking: Pre-booking essential! To book, click here

Join Birmingham historical novelist and biographer, Fiona Joseph, for a hands-on Creative Writing session around the theme of the First World War. Archive material at the Library of Birmingham has been specially selected by Fiona Joseph in conjunction with Corinna Rayner, Archives & Collections Manager. This writing workshop will give a unique opportunity to explore some of the many archival treasures themed around Women at War (Home Front, Industry) and Conscience at War (Quakers, patriotism and pacifism). You will be able to browse items such as family letters, photographs, posters, postcards, news items and memorabilia from the period and use these as a springboard for your own creative response. Writers at ANY level, including beginners, are welcome. Just bring some writing equipment – pen and paper or laptop.

During the afternoon there will be an opportunity to read your work to the group for reaction and feedback. (Please note that this is strictly optional!) Fiona Joseph will be able to offer professional guidance on shaping and editing your writing. You will also be able to submit your piece for possible publication on the Library of Birmingham Archives & Collections blog.

15th September

Heritage Research Area Familiarisation session at Archives & Collections

Saturday 15th September, 11am-1:00pm.

Venue: Heritage Research Area, Level 4, Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Broad Street, Birmingham, B1 2ND

Booking: Pre-booking essential! To book, click here.

Meet staff at this event which will act as a beginners’ guide to resources such as maps, parish registers along with digital resources on Ancestry Institution and software for reading local newspapers.

Spaces are limited to 12 people per session and booking is essential.

There is so much going in Birmingham Heritage Week this year! Find out more by going to the Birmingham Heritage Week website.

Exciting Photography Exhibition in Birmingham!

Virtual reality and Archives? Maybe not so far away – indeed, maybe right here in Brum in the Waterhall of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery!

An intriguing exhibition, Thresholds, curated by Pete James and Matt Collishaw enables you to experience the exhibition of William Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings at the Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Birmingham at King Edward’s School, New Street in August 1839.

Charles Barry’s drawings of Birmingham Free Grammar School on New Street, Birmingham, 1833.
[MS 575 Acc 2012/013]

Put on the headset and backpack and you’re standing in the school hall, can view the drawings in display cases – and even lift them to look closer, feel the fire, hear and see the Chartist protestors outside the window – amazing. Chartist riots had taken place in the Bull Ring just a few weeks before and Fox Talbot requested that the Birmingham Literary and Philosophical Society acquire the display cases in order to protect his drawings from possible protestors.

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Explore Your Archive: Once Upon a Time…

Blue RevealedUntil 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.

Cyanotype [MS 2652]

[MS 2652]

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?

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When Daisy Met Harold: An Edwardian Marketing Ploy

Brochure for Harold Baker, photographer

Promotional brochure for Harold Baker, photographer [MS 2938]

This photograph of the Countess of Warwick has pride of place in the brochure announcing the relocation of Harold Baker’s photographic studio.  The Countess is just one of Harold’s many illustrious clients and I have wondered why in a deferential age, he does not lead with Prince Edward, Princess Victoria or one of the other members of royalty gracing the client list.

My assessment is that Baker made a very shrewd choice, given the colourful reputation of the Countess as a socialite. It seems that then as now, a mixture of celebrity and notoriety can be a successful marketing device. Frances Evelyn Greville, Countess of Warwick was popularly known as ‘Daisy’ and her personal life did not command privacy. She was associated through high profile affairs with amongst others, the Prince of Wales. ‘Daisy’ also had a reputation as ‘the Socialist Countess’, being a supporter of the Pen Workers’ Union, formed in Birmingham in 1897 and concerned with protecting a largely female workforce.  In 1904 she joined the Social Democratic Federation, at about the time that this brochure was published.

Harold Baker appears to be very comfortable in linking his business with such a well known and (perhaps for some) notorious person. Alongside her image, he highlights the advantages of his new studio at the corner of Cherry Street and Cannon Street, Birmingham. These include a lift to carry clients to the studio and dressing rooms, strategically placed on the fourth floor to catch the most natural light for effective photography. A powerful electric lamp permits night photography. 

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