The invention of photography in 1839 changed the world. It provided a more accessible means for society to record and over the course of time, define itself. For the collector, researcher and historian, photographic records are absolutely invaluable in providing important pieces of information about everything that has contributed to our past and our current identity. The camera has recorded everything, from the minutiae of detail on an item of clothing to a providing a document of events that shaped opinions and changed the course of history.
Like many soldiers, I also carried a camera and documented my life in the army and when I decided that it was time to head down ‘civvie’ street, I opted to take my photography to the next level opting to become a professional photographer. These days, in addition to taking photographs I also work as a Photography/Media lecturer at the Central Institute of Technology in Perth. My classes are varied and range from teaching digital capture, editorial photography to traditional darkroom and long obsolete 19th century ‘alternative’ printing techniques. I have also been responsible for instructing the students on storing archiving and exhibiting their photographic collections. These are aspects that most people pay little attention to, with potentially disastrous consequences for the future, particularly in this digital era of built in obsolescence where technology becomes obsolete overnight and we are no longer limited by the shooting restrictions of a roll film.
So, in future blog posts, I’ll present a series of articles aimed at us collectors and military enthusiasts that will look at how to preserve, store and share the photos that are important to us, from a collectors perspective and also to ensure that our kids or grandchildren can enjoy the photographs that we take today. We will look at the various technologies from the birth of photography in 1839 through to the present day. For each of these we will cover considerations for preventive conservation, storage, handling and presentation. There’s a lot of ground to cover and I’ll break up the sessions with some battlefield reports (I’m heading back to Vietnam in a few weeks) or titbits from my collection. But, before we start, here is something that should arouse your interest in the topic.
Vignacourt is a small French town a little to the north of Amiens and during the First World War played an important role as a base and rest area for allied troops from the nearby fighting as it was just outside artillery range, but close enough to act as a staging area for the British sector. In late 1916 hundreds of Australians moved from the winter trenches of the Somme to the relative comfort of the town to rest and refit. Whilst many of the young Frenchmen had left to fight, the town it was still functioning and amongst those who remained were Louis and Antoinette Thuillier who turned their home into a photo studio and advertised for soldiers to have their photographs taken.
These were taken using glass plate negatives and printed outdoors, using the sun to expose the image onto postcards which the diggers could keep as a souvenir or send home to their families as evidence that they were still alive and well. Thousands of soldiers passed through their studio and whilst many of the resulting images have been preserved in family albums and institutions, it was believed that the original glass negatives had been lost. Then, in 2011 over 3000 of the glass negatives were discovered in a barn, amongst them around 800 images of the Australian troops. Kerry Stokes, businessman, philanthropist and friend of the Australian War Memorial generously donated these to the Australian War Memorial. Of these, 74 images were selected and reprinted using the traditional darkroom techniques and featured as part of the Remember me: the lost diggers of Vignacourt exhibition which ran at the AWM until July 2013.
The exhibition combines the images along with it’s own records and collection to tell the story of the subjects in their own voices. Whilst the exhibition only features a small number of the photos, the full collection is available online at the AWM site (http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/remember-me/collection/). To coincide with the exhibition, Ross Coulthart has produced a book, The Lost Diggers, which tells the story of the discovery of the negatives and the stories of many of the people in the photos. The AWM has also released a video showing the restoration and printing of the images, which is worth watching and provides an insight into the preservation of this type of photograph.