ANDREW HIGGOTTOpinion

STUFF IN THE PHOTO LIBRARY
(originally published in AArchitecture 19)

07 June 2013
AA Photo Library, London

Andrew Higgott, the AA ’s slide (photo) librarian from 1975 to 1989, and in 1986 awarded the AA Grad Dip in History and Theory, documents the history of the Photo Library since it was first set up more than a century ago.

 

150,000 slides of Buildings and Places
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

The Photo Library has been built up as a co-operative venture over more than a century: initially, AA members travelling around Britain and abroad searching for buildings of interest gave photographs to the collection. Hugh Stannus provided a huge number of pictures of the ancient sites in the Middle East and John Loftus Robinson of English country houses, among much else.

 

AA Images on the server from the 1920s to 2013
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

The first Photo Librarians were Rachel Morrison and then Marjorie Morrison, who was librarian from 1935–75. The collection they built was of the three-and-a-quarter inch (825mm) square ‘lantern slide’. From that, an impressive and well-edited survey of Western architecture was built up, comprising some 40,000 images, which is still held as a unique and valuable archive. A classification system, unique to the AA, was developed to address teaching needs.

 

Films stored in the Photo Library
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

F R Yerbury is of the greatest importance as an individual photographer. This gifted amateur was, alongside his otherwise very demanding job of running the AA School’s administration, one of the most significant architectural photographers of the 1920s and 30s, during which time he brought the imagery of modern architecture in Europe and the USA to Britain: his photographs were exhibited, and published in a series of a dozen books as well as over a hundred journal articles.

 

Lantern slides
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

What makes the AA’s library unique is its role as the repository of tens of thousands of original images of architecture that are not taken from books and not duplicates, but photographs taken in situ of innumerable buildings from the Glasgow School of Art to the Taj Mahal, from Palladian villas to the Sunset Strip.

The archive of lecture recordings
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

During the early 1950s, Kodachrome made its appearance, and the 35mm colour slide became the standard way of photographing architecture. A second collection, superseding that of lantern slides – 35mm slides – were added to many thousands of large-format slides which were rephotographed to provide the core of the new smaller-format collection. Many exceptional photographs may be found in this collection: the short-lived buildings of the World Fairs in Brussels (1958), Montreal (1967) and Osaka (1970); Canon Parsons’ photographs of Italian churches; and Alec Bellamy’s of the USA in the 1960s.

 

School life negatives and prints from the 1980s to 2003
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

The changes of the 1960s and 70s in architectural education required a broader approach to building the collection. The design teaching staff, rather than historical or technical lecturers, developed increasingly speculative projects and used the resources of the library to develop their pedagogy, while students (who were allowed to use the collection from 1971) became, at times, demanding borrowers. Bernard Tschumi, Peter Cook, Dalibor Vesely, Charles Jencks and Reyner Banham were among the frequent users of the collection during this period. A more inclusive understanding of architecture and history – including the anonymous architecture of the city, vernacular architecture of many different cultures, examples of technical inventions and even pictures of people, shaped radical changes in the collection. I became librarian in 1975 and oversaw this development in order to form a more proactive role for the library.

 

Schoolwork slides from the 1960s to the 1990s
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

Staff of the library, including Marjorie Morrison and long-time part-timer Hazel Cook, had already set up a tradition of taking photographs for the collection, rather than depending on others to bring them in. This was further developed during my period as librarian, and continues with my successor, Valerie Bennett, who extensively contributes to the collection. The period of the later 1970s and 1980s, under the chairmanship of Alvin Boyarsky, also saw the start of the consistent photography of student work in the School, as well as a collection of images of School life.

 

The Erno Goldfinger Collection

The 1990s saw more radical changes, and Valerie Bennett who had become Librarian in 1989 took the work of the library in new and different directions. A very successful series of cards of images from the collection were published; the early twentieth century idea of the Camera Club was revived; and a far more ambitious programme of exhibitions was initiated. In recent years, valuable collections of slides by Reyner Banham, Robin Evans, and Ernö Goldfinger have been donated to augment the Photo Library’s collection.

 

The Robin Evans Collection
Image: Valerie Bennett

The Photo Library also expanded in terms of developing a video collection, which includes an archive spanning several decades and incorporates lectures by most of the major figures in architecture. And the collection’s move in 2008 to the ground floor of 37 Bedford Square allowed for the establishment of the AA Cinema. But Valerie Bennett’s role has gone beyond that of curator, and her photography of the events at the AA has become an intrinsic part of School life. Lectures, workshops, juries and events are photographed by her and added to the School’s blog and digital archive.

 

The Hooke Park Collection
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

Its current total of something like half a million images extends beyond what its early history might have suggested: the role of the camera in the development and documentation of architectural processes have become absolutely fundamental. And the far wider access and use opened up by digital media has enormous potential for its further use and growth.

 

The Reyner Banham Collection
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

For more information:

The NEW Photo Library website

 

Buildings and Places on the new website
Image credit: Valerie Bennett