By Matthew Butson Vice President, Hulton Archive at Getty Images
"How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durable and remain fixed upon the paper!" - William Henry Fox Talbot
In 1846, Fox Talbot diarised his struggle to produce lasting images. At this time photography was still in its adolescence with its forefathers Niepce and Daguerre laying the groundwork for a medium that today many of us hold in our pockets.
Technology has developed at such speed in the last century that it has become a process we take for granted. Whether it’s a family celebration, a music concert or last night’s dinner it is all too easy to snap and share. These images pass us by on Instagram or gather dust in old photo albums. However, what may seem trivial today, will one day be historic traces into how we lived.
Images of the every day taken by the photojournalists of years gone by, give us a glimpse into a time few of us have known. It is this journey to the past that has inspired Getty Images’ latest gallery exhibition. Motivated by the Queen’s 90th birthday the exhibition – 1926: Britain through the lens – explores both daily life and the events of ninety years ago; revealing some intriguing similarities and some inevitable contrasts. From a cow being milked on the platform of King’s Cross station, to soldiers being sent off to Egypt – these rare and often candid photographs offer the viewer a snapshot of the past that is t once both alien and eerily familiar.
One of the most exciting and challenging parts of bringing together a gallery like this is reviving the images. The photographs on display have all been printed by hand from the original glass plate negatives. Back in 1926 negatives would have gone through a process called ‘dipped and done’, which can leave damage on the pictures. In some instances, this has been cropped out or hand-retouched in order to provide the best possible print whilst remaining true to the photographer’s original vision. Where damage is visible in the finished prints, it reminds us of their age and serves to highlight the importance of preserving this priceless visual heritage.
As a nation, we have a fascination with all things old. From our Victorian seaside towns to vintage clothes and Bruce Forsyth – we love a blast from the past. The lure of old photographs could be put down to a hunger for historical knowledge, an academic look at how we once lived; however I think it runs much deeper than that.
Nostalgia hangs on the corners of each negative, bleeding out through sepia tones. Even photos from the 80s seem disconnected to modern life. Such is the blessing and curse of the photograph; it is in one instant both immediate and dated. With each flash, the camera steals a moment and contains it to one time and place. The instant the photo is taken it slips into history. When we look back at these images be them thirty, fifty or ninety years old we are given a window into the past. An opportunity too mesmerising to miss.
Taking these images from fragile artefacts and breathing new life into them is what we call a ‘Lazarus’ project. If you are working in this industry it is vital to not only celebrate modern work but guard and, when appropriate, resurrect images from gone by eras. With a combination of modern technology and time honoured methods, we can revivify a moment snatched in the blink of a shutter.