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By Geoff Belknap on

Why do we collect photography?

In this post, our Head Curator Geoff Belknap looks at how we approach the challenge of collecting photography, and how we make decisions about what to collect (and what not to collect).

Representing the history of photography

What does photography mean to you? Is it something you do, or maybe something you did a long time ago? It might be your gran’s family photo album, an old camera in a box in the attic, or an app on your phone. Whatever it means to you, can you imagine your life if photography didn’t exist?

Photography is everywhere. It’s a very important part of how we record our lives, communicate with each other, and express ourselves. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for the National Science and Media Museum, where we actively collect photographs and photographic technology. How do you represent the history of photography when so many photos exist in the world?

For example, one of the most significant collections of photography in our care, the Daily Herald Archive, comprises millions of individual images as well as negatives, contact sheets and notebooks. And this is just one archive.

Cabinets holding the Daily Herald Archive
Daily Herald Archive, Insight: Collections and Research Centre, National Science and Media Museum

Process, product and practice

So how do we decide what to collect and not collect? As a museum, we want to tell compelling stories about photography—but we also know we can’t tell every story.

We can think of photography as existing on a spectrum, with process (the way in which the image is made) at one end and product (the image itself) at the other. Between them lies practice, a whole potential range of meaning based on how photography is used: for commercial purposes, as scientific research, as creative expression, as ways of exchanging information, and many more.

Of course, we can’t collect everything on this spectrum, nor should we. But at the National Science and Media Museum, we find the idea of a spectrum useful in our approach to our collections. Our focus is on the areas of photographic process and practice. This means we are particularly interested in how images and technology were made and used.

Looking at how photographs were made and used

This perspective helps us not only better understand what to collect, but to understand the things that we already have—their history and context. Looking closely at process and practice can give us important information about a photograph, even if we don’t know who made it.

We can also uncover new stories about iconic photographers and inventors. William Henry Fox Talbot is widely celebrated as one of the inventors of photography, primarily due to his work in establishing the principle of a positive/negative process. His experiments in photographic engraving on metal plates (such as you see below) are less well-known. By collecting examples of Talbot’s work with different photographic processes, we gain a better understanding of him as a scientist, inventor and businessman.

‘Mount Guajara’ photoglyphic engraving plate
‘Mount Guajara’ photoglyphic engraving plate made by William Henry Fox Talbot from glass plate positive produced by Charles Piazzi Smyth. Science Museum Group Collection

What about photography as art?

Focusing on process and practice doesn’t mean that we are no longer interested in photography as art. What it does mean is that we have shifted our focus on how we collect, understand and interpret photographs made within the frame of artistic practice. We are less interested in what is represented in a photograph, and more interested in its production and use.

Take, for example, the series of photomicrographs made by Cornelia Parker while she was an artist in residence at the Science Museum in 1999. In the below image, titled ‘Comet’—part of her series Einstein’s Abstracts—Parker focuses on the chalk marks made by Albert Einstein on a board while giving a lecture on the theory of relativity. This series helps us understand the different ways photography can be used to explore the material world of scientific work.

Comet by Cornelia Parker
‘Comet’, Cornelia Parker, 1999. Science Museum Group Collection

Collecting photographic technology

To understand how a photograph is made or used, it is essential to explore what kind of camera and process was involved. By looking at process and practice, we can make better connections between our photography and photographic technology collections.

Photographic technology is also very important in its own right. Looking at camera technology, for example, can help us understand the history of mass consumption of photography from the 20th century onwards. Our Kodak Collection contains thousands of cameras, including the Kodak Instamatic 50 shown below. Released in the early 1960s, it was a massive commercial success, partly because loading and unloading the film was relatively simple. Photography was becoming easier and easier to produce, putting it in the hands of billions of people.

Kodak Instamatic 50 Camera
Kodak Instamatic 50 Camera, 1963. Science Museum Group Collection

Collecting photography in the digital age

The history of photography isn’t just about the past: it is very much about understanding our world now and in the future. One of the keys to understanding the role of photography in our lives right now is through the revolution that occurred with the invention of digital photography, which caused the speed, scale and integration of photography into our lives to explode.

Collecting photography in the digital age is a big challenge. It requires new ways to store and take care of digital images, as well as new curatorial approaches to deciding what should and can be collected. We are starting to collect more objects that can help us tell the story of how digital photography came into existence. An example is the active pixel sensor, below, which was invented by the engineer Peter Noble and was one of the first attempts to capture an image on a microchip.

Active pixel sensor
Active pixel digital image sensor. Science Museum Group Collection

Why photography matters

For us, photography matters because it changes how we imagine, understand and communicate with the world around us. We are committed to collecting, researching, displaying and celebrating the many histories of photography, with a focus on how this medium has become essential to our lives.

We also believe that because there are many stories to be told about photography, collaboration is key. We are therefore committed to working with other museums, libraries, archives, galleries, collectors and photography enthusiasts.

If you are interested in exploring how the history of photography has affected the way you see and understand the world around you, then the National Science and Media Museum is the place to visit.

This blog post is an edited version of an article originally published on the Science Museum Group blog. For a more in-depth look at how and why we collect photographs and photographic technology, plus more examples from our collection, read Process, product and practice: our approach to collecting photography.

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