Photographic Archives


Bezencenet, Stevie., Bresheeth, Haim. ‘Photographic Archives’ Photographic Practices: Towards a different image ed. by Stevie Bezencenet and Philip Corrigan (London: Comedia, 1986) 61-64


The problem is that this multiplicity of imagery [found in private and public archives] is often not accorded any significance and consequently not ‘mapped’. Such a process involves an attitude, before anything else – one which recognises the value of so many diverse images and how they can be made more meaningful, accessible and useful.

The task of redressing the historical balance is not only one dealing with an elitist and distorted view of facts and events. It mainly has to deal with a much greater vice – that of omission, of an absence.


As opposed to the privileged, mainstream historian, who is privy to the various research collections and institutes, government reports and documents, supported by a lavish academic back-up system – the socialist/feminist historian is face with a job more akin to a social archeologist. The evidence and material have to be ‘dug out’ of numerous and diverse sources, ranging from the popular press, invitations to meetings, personal accounts in letters and interviews – the list is endless.


In this context, the use of photography offers both vast potential and enormous problems. The use of visual mass media like photography or film records of specific political events, debates and development (of the type not likely to be kept by the dominant media) is of crucial value to the continuation and furtherance of class/gender struggle. This type of evidence and analysis is a way in which the past is made real for a social grouping – history is made our own,  and we are offered a place in it which we can understand and criticise.

This raises, in turn, a serious problematic for the photographer/activist in this area of ideological struggle and cultural confrontation.

What is required from us is a different, critical approach towards the image as evidence – a process of interrogative ‘reading’, where the assumed ‘facts’ within the image are investigated in terms of our own knowledge and experience. We need to be critics at the level of the status of the individual image, as well as the whole process of constructing the past. Whether by amassing an alternative version of events with images, or whether we create strategies for ‘re-reading’ existing ones – the role of photography in the retrieval of our past is a vital one.

The construction of history using a patchy and arbitrary collection of images as the basis for theorisation and analysis is clearly inadequate. What is necessary is the committed, long-term organisation of historical pictorial statements, through a process of consolidating and improving radical historical research/action archives. In this struggle, the options of the future depend on a well-documented and analysed past – this investigation and mapping of history is a form of socialist movement.


Activities ranging from postcard collection to sessions demystifying cameras, lectures and seminars, publications and exhibitions – all these have contributed to the building up of far more than just another archive, or a photographic picture library for activists to use. The combination of recording and analysing, teaching and theorising, has created a tradition of an alternative use of photography as history, and of the history of photography.


For such a system to thrive and be continued, this individual effort has to be supplemented by a political system of links to the labour movement, so that the long term of the project is protected.

[discussion of Manchester Studies Archive]


[discussion of the Consett Photo-Archive and the Beaford Archive]

Like Consett and others, [Beaford] also commision new work, so that the archive becomes a live and growing resource with the potential for investigating relationships between the past and the present and working through the implications of that.

Documentary imagery is the basis for most of these archives and it is not necessarily exciting visual material. The strength and dynamic of this imagery is based upon its informational and revelatory function, rather than its aesthetic one. However, in order to survive, most of these archives rely partially or substantially on subsidy from the State, whose criteria is frequently measured in terms of ‘creative photography’. In order for these projects to be protected, it is necessary to use them continually, thereby demonstrating their importance for our heritage.

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