The Importance of an Archive, or What is an Archive?

I recently spent 90 minutes listening to the photographer Daniel Meadows discuss his archive. That may sound like a niche way to spend my time but stay with me on this. Meadows archive begins when his formal engagement with photography began, with the first images he created in the first term, of his first year at college studying photography.

That was in 1970 and since that point his archive has steadily grown in size and importance. It contains photographic prints, contact sheets, negatives, letters, posters, brochures, programmes, diaries, scraps of paper, audio cassettes, notebooks, newspaper cuttings and even kind of ephemera you can imagine that can be collected as evidence of a life lived.

However, all this material is not an archive. As Meadows explained, the most important aspect of bringing order to his collection of ‘stuff’ was the writing of lists. The careful and accurate compilation of detailed lists that documented and identified every scrap of paper and negative he had collected of the years was the missing element. Advised by two expert museum curators Meadows began the process of writing the lists, a process that took him approximately six years. During the talk he showed examples of these lists demonstrating the consistency of language used, the efficiency of his numbering system and attention to detail in explaining what every book, envelope and carton contained. It was impressive and illuminating.

I was immediately reminded of all of the ephemera I have failed to keep over my career. Interesting pieces of photographic history lost forever that could have acted as evidence for future researchers interested in photography at the end of the 20th Century. And that is the point of an archive, as a repository of information for future generations to access and learn from as an evidence bank with immaculate provenance. 

I speak with many photographers with important bodies of work laying dormant in sheds, garages, wardrobes and attics that they have spent their lives establishing. Many are anxious about the future of these collections after they have passed and want to find institutions who will house their photography as important collections. The problem is that these are not true archives of interest to researchers and it is researchers that institutions are interested in attracting. This is a simplification of the situation but it is a central consideration that is often ignored by photographers who have never worked within the academic system.

Meadows has worked within the UK university system and has used his archive as part of attaining a PHD. He had understanding of the importance of institutional research and benefited from informed supervisors and supporters who supplied him with limited funding, materials and physical help. That obviously helps, but the fact that he had kept everything he had alongside the photographs, contacts and negatives is what provides the historical context for his work that researchers are looking for.

In 2014, Meadows’ drew up a contract with the Library of Birmingham in the UK to look after his archive, no money exchanged hands but he was happy to have the archive established within a state of the art archive facility under the curation of the supportive Pete James, the library’s Curator of Photography Collections.  However, with a drastic cut of funds to the Library of Birmingham, and Pete James leaving the library, general access to Meadows’ archive and the work of other photographers was stopped. 

The situation of access is a key consideration when speaking with institutions about housing an archive. They need to be put onto retrieval systems, they need to be curated, looked after and most importantly of all, they need to be accessible to the people who want to see them. I know of a number of archives I have attempted to access with no luck purely because the institution is under funded and therefore incapable of giving the archive the resources it requires to remain relevant and not forgotten.

Fortunately for Meadows, The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford acquired his archive in 2018 and in 2019, celebrated the acquisition with an exhibition of his work, Now and Then, with an accompanying book. The passion for photography of the Bodley Librarian Richard Ovenden OBE, cannot be underestimated in this acquisition, a fact that raises another important discussion point when considering your archive.

You need someone within the institution that believes in you. That understands photography and that sees its historical relevance as well as its aesthetic qualities. Without that you are fighting an uphill battle that you are unlikely to win. 

Finally, let’s briefly talk about money. Meadows did not sell his archive, he gave it to the libraries that wanted it. The investment he sought was in ensuring that the archive was well supported and accessible. It is this fact that gave him the flexibility to move from Birmingham to Oxford, whilst others who had received payment from Birmingham now have their archives boxed up behind closed doors. If you are looking for a big payment in return you are handing over control of your life’s work to an institution whose future staffing and financial situation is out of your control. This may lead to issues with your family and estate after you have left this green and pleasant land once your payment has been spent or bequeathed.

So, what is an archive? Well, its not just your work in a collection of dusty boxes, it is much more than that. It needs to be ordered, it needs to be varied and most important of all it needs to be interesting to others. If you are coming to the end of your career, or if you are mid-way through your career, my advice is to start to get organised and make lists. If you are at the beginning start to keep everything and make lists as you go along. Whatever age you are, my suggestion would be to start thinking of yourself as a curator/researcher of your own work and make friends with those whose profession it is to work with archives. There is much to learn.

You can access the Daniel Meadows archive here

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.

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