From Lantern Slides to Laptops

Photo Library History

The Photo Library has been a part of AA life since the 1890s, and its collections are a unique and important resource.

It has been built up as a co-operative venture over more than a century: initially, AA members travelling around Britain and abroad searching for buildings of interest gave photographs to the collection. The quality of these photographs, taken with large-format cameras, can be appreciated as the work of a different age, and among many others Hugh Stannus provided a huge number of pictures of the ancient sites in the Middle East and John Loftus Robinson of English country houses.

Just as other aspects of the AA developed after the establishment of a full time course of education early in the century, the photographic collection was enlarged and became more formalised after the School’s move to Bedford Square in 1919. A systematic approach was taken to enlarge its coverage of all aspects of architectural history, and its primary role, that of providing images for lectures, consolidated. With the appointment in 1929 of Rachel Morrison, the first full time librarian, it took up a location which it kept until 1980 on the first floor of 36 Bedford Square, between the Library and the AA bar. The Slide Library, as it then was, became a hub, social as well as academic, for members and AA staff- students were excluded. Marjorie Morrison (no relation) took over as librarian in 1935 and became one of the most appreciated members of the AA staff- generations of teachers and students still remember her fondly, and she was awarded the MBE after her retirement forty years later.

The format which became established in the time of Rachel and then Marjorie Morrison was the three-and-a-quarter inch (825mm) square ‘lantern slide’, and an impressive and well-edited survey of western architecture was built up, comprising some 40,000 images, still held as a unique and valuable archive. A classification system was developed emerging out of the needs of teaching and was particular to the AA. Pre-modern historical buildings were ordered by period and country, while twentieth century buildings were classified by building type- all houses together, all schools, all office buildings together and so on. A card behind each slide served to form a catalogue, a carefully hand-written caption giving full details of each image, staying in place when the slide was borrowed.

Among many talented photographers who contributed to the library’s collection in the 1920s and 30s the figure of F. R. Yerbury is of the greatest importance. The Secretary of the AA, he travelled throughout Europe and beyond in search of whatever was new in architecture, and photographed many of the most important buildings of Modernism before they were seen as significant. This gifted amateur was, alongside his otherwise very demanding job of running the School’s administration, one of the most significant architectural photographers of the inter-war period. He brought the imagery of modern architecture in Europe and the USA to Britain in this highly charged period: his photographs were exhibited, and published in a series of a dozen books as well as over a hundred journal articles. Among the most celebrated are early photographs of Le Corbusier villas, and work by Mendelsohn, Oud, Asplund, Perret and Hood, alongside other subjects equally interesting but now relatively forgotten. His whole archive of over 3,000 negatives and contact prints, which also includes accomplished photographs of historic architecture, was later given to the collection, where it takes pride of place.

During this time, when slide-illustrated lectures were the norm, neither the RIBA nor the Bartlett School developed slide libraries, and the AA collection of architectural images was the only substantial one in Britain. There were other libraries of slides for use in the teaching of art – the Courtauld and the Victoria and Albert Museum also have collections with long histories – but what really made the AA’s library unique was it being the repository of tens of thousands of original images of architecture. Not taken from books, not duplicates, but photographs taken in situ of innumerable buildings from the Glasgow School of Art to the Taj Mahal, from Palladian villas to Sunset Strip. Hundreds of staff, students and other friends of the library have made valuable contributions over the years. And while some have been useful rather than inspired in terms of their photographic quality, the general standard of the results of this cooperative exercise has been very high. Many photographs of modern buildings were taken, like Yerbury’s, in the early days of a building’s completion, so act as a contemporary record as well.

In the mid-century, Kodachrome made its appearance and the 35mm colour slide became the standard way of photographing architecture during the early 1950s. A second collection, superseding that of lantern slides, was set up: 35mm slides were added to many thousands of large format slides which were re-photographed to provide the core of the new smaller format collection. Increasingly, the collection became encyclopaedic in scope and has a well-edited series of images of practically all major European and American buildings, both historical and modern. Many exceptional photographs may be found in this collection- the short-lived buildings for the World Fairs at Brussels in 1958, Montreal in 1967 and Osaka in 1970 for example; Canon Parsons’ photographs of Italian churches; and Alec Bellamy’s of the USA in the 1960s.

But the changes of the 1960s and 70s in architectural education began to require a broader approach to building the collection. The loss of a commonly held architectural agenda, supplanted by a brief for the re-invention of architecture and its role, meant there was no longer agreement on a canon of significant buildings which the library should document. The design teaching staff, rather than historical or technical lecturers, developed increasingly speculative projects and used the resources of the library to develop their pedagogy, while students (allowed to use the collection from 1971) became at times demanding borrowers. Bernard Tschumi, Peter Cook, Dalibor Vesely, Charles Jencks and Reyner Banham were among the frequent users of the collection in this period. A more inclusive understanding of architecture and history, including the anonymous architecture of the city, vernacular architecture of many different cultures, examples of technical invention and even hitherto excluded pictures of people and activities, shaped radical changes in the collection. Andrew Higgott who became librarian in 1975 oversaw this development, while he also developed a more outgoing and proactive role for the library. Its newly-designed space in the basement of 36 Bedford Square gave opportunities for that, including a changing series of small exhibitions. Open presentations of slides were set up and, later, substantial exhibitions and publications, including a highly successful show of Yerbury photographs in 1987 and of Eric de Maré’s much-appreciated work in 1990, the result of acquiring his archive of negatives.

Staff of the library, including Marjorie Morrison and long-time part timer Hazel Cook, had already set up a tradition of taking photographs needed for the collection, rather than being dependent on them being brought in by others. This grew during Andrew Higgott’s period as librarian, both he and his successor Valerie Bennett extensively contributing to the collection. The period of the later 1970s and 1980s – under the Chairmanship of Alvin Boyarsky – also saw the start of the consistent photography of student work in the School, as well as a collection of images of School life, which can now be seen as a highly valuable and certainly unique archive of this heady period.

The 1990s saw more radical change, and Valerie Bennett who had become Librarian in 1989 took on the task of developing the work of the library in new and different directions. The rise of digital photography and the PowerPoint presentation began to change its role: its use as a resource for slides for lectures gradually declined, but there was a corresponding growth in a commercial role for the collection, now renamed the Photo Library, matched by a broader realisation of how its resources might be used and exploited. A very successful series of cards of images from the collection was published, the early 20th century idea of the Camera Club was revived, and a far more ambitious programme of exhibitions was initiated. Of recent years also, very valuable archives of slides by Reyner Banham, by Robin Evans, and by Ernö Goldfinger have been donated to augment the Photo Library’s collection. The core of the collections was digitised, and an immense potential audience was made aware of their uniqueness and quality.

The Photo Library expanded in terms of developing a video collection- itself including an archive spanning several decades incorporating lectures by most of the major figures in world architecture- while the collection’s move in 2008 to the ground floor of 37 Bedford Square has allowed for the setting up of the AA Cinema. But Valerie Bennett’s role has gone beyond that of curator, and her photography of the events of the AA has become an intrinsic part of School life. Lectures, workshops, juries and events are all photographed by her and added to the School’s blog and digital archive: at the same time she has developed her career as a professional photographer.

Its current total of something like half a million images goes very far in scope beyond what its history might have suggested, the role of the camera in the development and documentation of architectural processes having become absolutely fundamental. And the far wider access and use of these collections opened up by digital media has enormous potential for its further use and growth.

 

Andrew Higgott

 

Camera Club

Many of the lantern slides originally donated to the School in the 1880s and 1890s were taken by amateur architectural photographers during the AA’s Annual Excursions. In 1893, several regular slide donors formed the AA Camera Club with John Loftus Robinson – the ‘Camera Man’ – as first President. Relaunched in 2006 with an exhibition and a student competition to design a new badge, the AA Camera Club consists of all our current contributors to the collection .

If you are interested in contributing images to the Photo Library, both transparencies and large digital files are acceptable. Please contact Valerie Bennett for more detailed specifications.

Opening hours

Monday to Friday 10:00–18:00,
closed 13:00–14:00

Contact

Valerie Bennett

+44 (0)20 7887 4066
valerie@aaschool.ac.uk

The Architectural Association, Inc. is a Registered Charity Incorporated as a Company limited by guarantee. Registered in England No.171402. Registered office: 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES, 020 7887 4000

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