Photographing the AA
22 February 2013
Photo Library, 37 Bedford Square, London
In advance of the launch of the new Photo Library website, we met with its creator and AA Photographer, Valerie Bennett to learn more about: how she came to work at the school thirty years ago, when she started documenting AA Life, what her favourite part of the job is, why she is constantly trying to reinvent the way she takes photographs and how she manages to curate the overwhelming collection that the Photo Library contains. The following is a transcript of our conversation accompanied by a selection of Valerie’s favourite images that she has taken over the years.
Image Credit: Brett Steele
Prior to joining the AA I went to art school, where I ended up studying textiles and fashion. After that I had a small business designing and making clothes for a while and a part-time job at the Crafts Council, working with slides. One day I spotted a tiny little ad in the Guardian. The AA was looking for an assistant in the Slide Library and I thought, “Slides, I can do that.” I got the job in September 1982 and that’s when it all started.
Marjorie Morrison, who ran the Slide Library, gave me a camera and said, “Maybe you would like to start taking some photos in your spare time?” Marjorie, Andrew Higgott and Hazel Cook, who also worked in the Slide Library, were already taking photos themselves – it was a Slide Library tradition. So every holiday I felt compelled to go somewhere. The students were always going off to interesting places and I wanted to do the same. Over the years I’ve travelled all over the world, photographing buildings, places and people. I would get hold of a map and put dots on it to mark things we needed for the slide collection. Then I would try to get round to all of them, hoping that the sun would be in the right place. When the Berlin Wall came down I went twice in one week. In the late 1980s I began to take photos of buildings and architects professionally.
I started to photograph events around the school because I thought it needed to be done. The earliest images I’ve found so far are from 1985. Suddenly everyone is interested in these photos and I realise I’ve created a very useful archive. I began with lectures, exhibition openings and parties, and on Saturdays I would come in and photograph the exhibitions themselves. I don’t remember when I started documenting things during weekdays – it just naturally evolved. In 2005, when Brett created the AA blog, he said we should make putting pictures on it a priority. I began to store them on a server at the same time, so they could be easily accessed by people around the AA. Now I get requests for these images every day, from both inside and outside the school, and the aalog and Facebook page have thousands of followers. It’s amazing.
At the moment, work on the redesigned Photo Library website entails endless uploading and captioning of images, which keeps me pinned to my desk. But I scan the Events List and room bookings every week, circle events that need to be recorded, and then just do a run around the buildings from time to time. I put a couple of pictures into the blog and the others eventually go onto the server. They all have to be there by the summer term so that the Print Studio can access them for the Book and the Prospectus.
150th Fashion Show 1997
This was a competition for AA students to design an outfit based on a building. I chose the photo because the event was the most exciting thing I have experienced at the AA.
AA Fireworks 2009
It was pouring with rain and I had to point the camera upwards – I had to keep wiping the lens and out of 30 or more photos I only got this one.
A couple of years ago one of my student assistants said, “You need to try to reinvent the jury shot.” There are only so many ways you can show a group of people sitting in a dark room, looking at a screen or a panel, but I realised he was right, so now that is always on my mind. For a while I was taking pictures from above, but that was just embarrassing, climbing onto the table to photograph the people sitting around it. For a recent Design & Make jury, I photographed it once when the lights were off and then decided to return with a tripod so I could get the models in the foreground into focus. But when I got back they had rearranged everything and I had to crawl under the table with my tripod and pop up on the other side. I could see them all looking and smiling but the models are in focus so it was worth it.
What I like most is recording the life of the school, especially things like the students at home or the Facilities staff series. With the Facilities photos, I tried to capture each one of them in a place that related to their role but, if possible, was also secret. I asked Peter Keiff if there was anywhere with an overview of the school and he took me onto the roof, where I saw that breathtaking space with all the chimneys. It was Matthew Hanrahan’s idea to go into the Library after hours because he often sits there in the dark when he knows there’s no one else in the building. Everyone likes that one best.
The Photo Library has evolved into something very different from the resource for lecturers that it originally was. Nowadays students are more interested in the films and the recordings of lectures. But when the more inclusive website is launched I think that will change. We’re now adding images of school work and school life to the 8,000 scans of buildings and places that comprised the first phase of the project. We’ve been scanning the slides and negatives for nearly a decade and we now have about half-a-million images in the collection as a whole.
The school work collection dates from the 1880s and the pictures of school life go back as far as the carnivals of the 1920s. There’s a new section featuring our contributing photographers. Over the years, hundreds of people have donated slides – AA alumni and members, current students and professional photographers as well as architects. We’ve inherited some very important collections from people like F. R. Yerbury, Robin Evans, Erno Goldfinger and Reyner Banham. Each photographer’s page features a selection of images together with a short biography. In order to keep the collection up to date, we plan to look for people who would be willing to act as our agents in particular countries or cities.
It’s strange to think that this all began thirty years ago (as of 22 September 2012) and, although the launch of the website could be an occasion to celebrate it, I see myself as more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person.
Alvin Boyarsky & Bernard Tschumi on the stairs at a party 1988
They both loved this picture and I feel like I took it yesterday.
Dip 18 End-of-term jury 2012
Many things happen in semi darkness these days – Diploma 18 like darkness more than any other unit
Dip3 Projections on the AA facade, Projects Review 1994
Pascal Schoning and the Diploma 3 students were demonstrating how to change the perception of the city by projecting messages on to the AA facade. It was a fantastic photo opportunity, this photo is just one of many.
Magic FORMAT 2011
The Format Levitation event – I know how they did it now…
Facilities Series 2011
This is Lee checking the ladders in one of the vaults; the vaults are very beautiful spaces and who knew we had someone regularly checking the safety of the ladders?
The Penguin Pool 1989
My most published photo – I was commissioned by Arquitectura Magazine to photograph all of Berthold Lubetkin’s zoo buildings so I plucked up courage to phone Berthold Lubetkin to ask if I could take some photos of him – he invited me to lunch and I went down to Bristol for the day
Philip Johnson at the Grimshaw exhibition 1994
What is there to say? It was Philip Johnson in the building!
Orange trousers in the Photo Library 2011
Mary Wang and Fortune Penniman came in wearing almost the same outfit one day
All of these photos and thousands more of School Life and School Work will be on the revamped Photo Library website which we hope to launch next term.
For more information:
Valerie Bennett’s website
AA Photo Library (new website coming soon)