Blog post by Megan Hon, Junior Honours student majoring in History of Art, on placement in Special Collections
From January to March 2017, I was very lucky to be offered a placement at the University Library Archives and Special Collections. My main task was to create a Flickr set of digitised images from an album of photographs taken in the mid to late 19th century. I was also given a chance to view the actual album. I found this very meaningful and learnt a lot from it.
The set of images I worked on is from an album of the Glasgow Photographic Association (Call Number: Dougan Add 141 ), active from 1862-1900, which was the successor to the Glasgow Photographic Society.
This album was acquired as it complements the Library’s existing outstanding holdings of early photography. These include the Dougan Collection, which comprises work produced by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in the 1840s, as well as over 200 volumes and albums of photographs, documenting the development of photography from 1840 to the early 20th century.
The Glasgow Photographic Association album includes the portraits of early committee members, including President John Kibble, Vice Presidents Andrew Mactear and Alexander Macnab, Treasurer Archibald Robertson along with Secretary Edmund Brace. These images are particularly valuable, because of their rareness and that they are photographs of photographers who took countless pictures of others. The album also consists of photographs of some leading commercial photographers and prominent amateurs. It is believed that the album was kept and given to the Association by Archibald Robertson, with the intention to collect photographs of all the members by requesting their cartes de visite. Cartes de visite were introduced in France in the mid-1850s. They were the size of a visiting card (hence the name), with a small photograph attached. For the first time images of general people became accessible and affordable, creating a craze for cartes de visite, known as “Cartomania”. The album includes 39 cartes de visite. Types of images include street views, landscapes, architecture and portraits. The portraits are in either vignette or full depiction with a background. These two types of photos are also important in demonstrating the Association’s study results of new technical innovations at that time, such as the use of artificial light sources, which was one of their preoccupations. Sometimes on the verso of images the type of light source is indicated, such as “Without Daylight” and photographed at night by gaslight” (Dougan Add 141 item 15 )
Different processes of photography could also be noticed, such as “carbon print” (Dougan Add 141 item 39 & verso). Also printed on the verso were names of studios where the images were taken, which usually belonged to the committee members, such as “Arch.d Roberston” at Glasgow at the verso of item 27.
I have also learnt about the practices of photography at that time. I found out that most figures in portraits had static postures, due to the longer exposure time of cameras, and from this we can notice the limitation of cameras/technology at that time. One of the photographers appears to have noted down the exposure time on the verso of the image. (Dougan Add 141 item 29 verso)
It has been suggested that furniture in photographs could be props hired by the studios, as numbers were interestingly tagged next to them, for instance in Dougan Add 141 item 14, the number 84 was marked next to the desk.
My first task was to upload this set of images onto the Library’s Flickr account. I was given a list of names and dates with their item numbers which matched the digital image files. Although I had a quick guide to uploading photos, my supervisor, Fiona, went through the steps with me for the first few images. We created a new album and discussed the tags to put in for each image. The images were uploaded one by one, in order to prevent mistakes like messing up with the order and naming. Though the process might sound repetitive, it requires a high level of concentration and attention to details, as there are verso and detail images for some of the items, the order of uploading and input of information must be correct. I believe that correct spelling and tagging is important for viewers. There are 6 tags to be added for each image. I noticed that the tags covered both large context such as “19th century photographs” and as specific as the exact title of the image. I also included tags of the University Library. It is this variety of tags that enables the image to be accessible to as many viewers as possible. And by discussion with Fiona, I have realised that the plural or singular forms of words in the tags does not affect the searching result, as we believe the principle of tags is to bring as many relevant items as possible to the viewers.
On my second session, I got to view the actual album at the Library’s photographic store with the guidance of Sarah. Through observing her handling of the album, and information on the conservation leaflet from the British Library Preservation Advisory Centre, I have learnt a lot on preservation of photographic materials. We had to pass through two doors to enter into the store; before opening the inner door, we had to make sure the outer one was completely closed. This is to ensure that the humidity of the store will not be affected, as it has a controlled environment which is different from normal room conditions. The same procedure applied when exiting the room. The store is quite dark and lights were turned on gradually as we entered, there are no windows and so no direct sunlight shone into the store. The humidity and light source need careful monitoring as photographs are prone to high temperature and humidity, which can lead to higher rates of chemical and physical deteriorations, causing colour fading and increase the risk of mould growth and insect damage. Therefore these two factors must be kept at a lower level to ensure chemical and physical stability of photographs. According to ISO standards, I believe that the photographs at the store are kept in a “Cool” to “Cold” condition. Other than that, unlike the usual library floors, carpet is not used, as it will hold dirt and encourage insect growth, which can damage photographs. However it is generally admitted that the levels would be harder to control for mixed photographic collections.
On the working table, Sarah took the album out from an archival storage box. Although gloves are used to prevent grease from hands damaging the photographic material, they may also hinder flexibility and increase the chance of physical damage. In this case, only the album pages and not the photographs were being handled directly and therefore gloves were not used. The album was placed on a cushion for support, and an additional sponge block supported the front board when the album was opened. This was to prevent adding pressure to the connecting part of the cover and the spine. Loose photographs from the album were kept in individual clear plastic pockets. Throughout the viewing we were careful to avoid touching the image surface. I stood by the album and observed, while Sarah did most of the turning of the pages, due to the album’s fragile binding.
My first impression on seeing the actual album was that it was way bigger and thicker than I had imagined. I think it is because it has a layer of leather cover and the pages inside were made extra thick to hold the cartes de visite. Each page can hold two cartes de visite, and has pockets with two windows, allowing the front and back to be seen. The leather cover is believed to have been green originally, however throughout time, it has darkened to a sort of black-green colour. There are two detailed carved metal locks to fasten the album, however, when brought out from its housing box, they were not fastened. This is to prevent pressuring the pages and causing potential damage. The most damaged part observed is probably the spine of the album, which is barely connected to the pages by a thin lining fabric.
I believe that my work creating an online album for the photos will help preservation of the physical photographs, as well as aiding researchers who are unable to access the original images due to geographic distance. As they are now viewable online, it will be much more flexible and convenient. This reduces the need to view the actual album, and in turn the need to remove it from its preservation environment, making the object even more lasting.
I believe that this album is a good record of the early history of photography and would be a helpful aid to those who are interested in the study of technological advancements or biographical researches. I am really glad to be able to work with this album; it was exciting to have photos of the Association members together with their works in the same album. This placement allowed me to learn more about the early developments of photography and its characteristics as an art form, which is a field less covered in my regular classes.
With thanks to Roddy Simpson, photographer and writer on the history of photography, who provided valuable background information about this album and its contents. We will be publishing a follow-up blog post by Roddy soon.