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Thousands of Forgotten, Historical Images Are Being Placed on Digital Archive
Birmingham Post

For years, the photographs were stashed away in a broom cupboard, hidden from the public gaze, seemingly destined for oblivion.

The Birmingham Photographic Society, founded in 1856, was once hailed as one of the most important provincial photographic groups in the country. The work of its members captured the character of the Victorian era and detailed the changing face of Britain in the 20th century.

The Birmingham Photographic Society (BPS) had opened its first international exhibition on September 14, 1857 at the Hen and Chickens Hotel, in New Street. The society went on to hold acclaimed exhibitions, in partnership with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, in New Street, and was noted in particularly for its style of record and survey photography and pictorial photography. The work of its leading members was shown around the world.

Declining membership forced the society to merge with other amateur photographic societies, firstly with Hall Green, then Kings Heath Photographic Society.

Then digital cameras became widely accessible and affordable. Images could be brought to life at home with a USB cable and a PC. There was no requirement for films, dark rooms, or gentlemanly meetings and debates.

The BPS disappeared from the cultural landscape - and its archive was locked away in the forgotten recesses of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, where the defunct society once convened.

Fortunately, an inquisitive MA student, Peter James, discovered the mothballed archive while researching the history of art and design at the former Birmingham Polytechnic.

Peter, who today is head of photography at Birmingham Central Library, used to go along to Hall Green library and meet some of the BPS's older members, who in turn had known some of the pre-eminent photographers of the previous generation.

Peter says: "Some years later, having been employed to work on the collections in the library, we negotiated the deposit of the material."

The Central Library also holds the collection of the Midland Counties Photographic Federation, which taken together with the BPS archive means it boosts the largest collection of significant amateur club photography in the country.

In total, the BPS archive contains more than 5,500 images, detailing the role played by Birmingham and Birmingham photographers in the history of photography. The library's projects office has recently finished conserving, cataloguing and digitising the collection. The painstaking work took 18 months and the images will be available online next year.

In addition to photographers such as Sir Benjamin Stone, the collection features the work of H P Robinson, O J Rejlender, Emma Barton, and Roy Thornton, all of whom are recognised as amongst the finest photographers of their day.

The collection includes the earliest type of photographs, known as daguerreotypes, as well as the splendidly-titled wet collodion positives, albumen prints, stereographs, carbon, gum platinum, bromoil and gelatin silver prints, and lantern slides. Then there are the BPS's annual reports, exhibition catalogues, minute books, journals, medals and other ephemera.

The collection also includes mounted exhibition prints exhibited by BPS members in amateur photographic exhibitions locally, nationally and internationally. These cover a large array of subject matter including, landscapes, portraits, nature, wildlife and architectural views. Hidden away for so long, a light is finally being shone on some of the city's photographic gems.

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