British photographic history

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Photographers’ practice: a lasting legacy for new work

Plymouth University has been awarded £9,950 from Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme towards an important research and development project which aims to ensure new work made by contemporary photographers has a life and legacy that can benefit future generations - the general public, researchers and students.

Led by photographer Jem Southam, Professor in the School of Art and Media at Plymouth University, the project will involve partners in Birmingham, Manchester and London and will be completed in March 2013. 

Established and emerging photographers need to think about what future they want for their work, where it might go, who will have access to it, and how much contextual information should be kept and made available. 

Key elements of the project include: research into models of good practice, consultation with photographers and the publication of case studies examining different approaches to the ways photographers plan and organise their work and its legacy. The research outcomes will be published on websites and in specialist media and feedback and information exchange will help shape the next phase of the project, including practical guidance for current and future generations of practitioners.

This research is part of a wider, pioneering research project which aims to develop a national strategy for the preservation and dissemination of the work and archives of critically-recognised photographers working from the 1970s to the present day. The ultimate strategy will be of relevance to photographers, collectors, collecting institutions and policy-makers, with the final outcomes having an impact on students, researchers, photographic practitioners and audiences well into the future.


Independent photographic practice has developed significantly since the mid 1960s. Hundreds of photographers have made new work, frequently in the form of sustained series, which explores artistic as well as social, cultural and political issues, much supported through Arts Council and other public funds. The work has resulted in publications and exhibitions in public galleries, experienced by a wide range of audiences.

However, the extended value of this practice, whereby such work can contribute to a wide-ranging and powerful cultural and historical legacy for current and future audiences, has been neglected and is seriously under-developed.


What is the problem?

a)         There are currently some 20,000 students studying degrees in photography and related courses in the UK at any one time. For those that plan to pursue photographic practice as a career, it is vital that consideration of the public legacy for their work is embedded in their developing professional practice. This does not happen at present, nor is there any guidance on how to address the issue.

b)         Most of the work and archives of a generation of photographers who significantly developed and extended the practice of contemporary photography in Britain is held, in effect, in private ‘archives’ i.e. in the photographers’ own homes and studios, with little of the material publicly available for research or display;

c)         Photographers’ archives contain valuable contextual material – negatives, contact sheets, work prints, correspondence, articles and reviews - which provide an important insight into the creative working processes of photographers – important for students, researchers, practitioners, historians now and in the future; this work is not adequately represented in public collections. Some public institutions have acquired important archives, but the approach is currently ad-hoc;

d)         Many photographers themselves are at a loss to know how to deal with their archives and there is little information or guidance available to help them;

e)         There is a widely held assumption that digitisation will provide all the answers to the storage and preservation of a photographic practice; however its durability is untested. There are already many people, not just within the artist community, who are sceptical about the longevity of digital storage;

f)          Whilst a small number of national institutions are coordinating a strategy for collecting prints for their collections, no national strategy exists for collecting and making available photographers’ archives; 

g)         There currently exists no public forum in which to debate and share information on this subject in order to develop a strategic approach. 


In October 2011 a study day brought together contributors from Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Photographers’ Gallery, National Monuments Record, commercial galleries, photographers and academic institutions, including PARC (the Photography and the Archive Research Centre) at LCC, University of the Arts, London.

The discussions led to unanimous agreement that these were very important issues that needed attention. Also, they significantly informed us about the issues and challenges facing photographers and collecting institutions and helped determine our plans.



Project partners

The Photography Research Group at Plymouth University, which includes: Jem Southam, photographer and Professor of Photography in the School of Art and Media (leading this project); writer and curator Liz Wells; writer, curator, former Director of Photoworks, David Chandler.

Birmingham Central Library, which holds one of the UK’s National Collections of Photography, led by Head of Photographs, Pete James. As well as holding extensive historic photographic collections, Birmingham Library actively collects contemporary photography, and has recently acquired the work and archives of established figures such as Paul Hill and John Blakemore.

Redeye, the Photography Network, a not-for-profit organisation set up to support photographers at every level, led by Director Paul Herrmann. Based in Manchester, UK, Redeye has subscribers and users across the UK and globally.

PARC (Photography and the Archive Research Centre), LCC, University of the Arts, London, led by writer and curator Professor Val Williams.

Dr. Jane Fletcher, photographer and Senior Lecturer, BA (Hons) Photography at the University of Derby. Jane formerly worked at the National Media Museum in Bradford.


Project coordinator/researcher

Val Millington is an experienced arts and cultural sector researcher and consultant. Now freelance, Val’s former roles include Director of Visual Arts and Crafts for South West Arts and Director of the National Federation of Artists Studio Providers. She was also Chair of the Board of Spike Island in Bristol for six years.


Please email Val Millington for further information, or if you would like to keep in touch and receive project updates from time to time, including invitations to the consultation events we are planning in London, Manchester and Bristol in early 2013.     Val Millington, tel: 01392 278293; m: 07778 922230; e:

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