The John Wall Archive of the Directory of British Photographic Collections
The John Wall Archive of the Directory of British Photographic Collections, 1972
Text by Val Williams
The Rev. Dr John Wall was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, a Doctor of Divinity and a committed member of the Royal Photographic Society, of which he became a Fellow in 1977. He was a leading member of an RPS group, which proposed the making of a National Photographic Archive. In 1972, the group proposed the compilation of a National Photographic Record; John Wall became Honorary Editor. The Directory of British Photographic Collections was published by the Royal Photographic Society in 1972. In the introductory section, Wall noted that the Directory: ‘provides a comprehensive account of all the photographic collections of note in the British Isles, in response to a widespread need felt and voiced increasingly in the world of photography at large. It seems fitting that Great Britain, the home of so many notable advances in the science and art of photography, should at last be provided with a ‘native’ Directory of its photographic collections, many of which are unique and irreplaceable. ‘ Wall also emphasised that:
‘every kind of photographic collection has been the subject of this enquiry and none has been excluded from consideration: private or commercial; personal or open to public view; published or unpublished; ‘historic’ or contemporary; negatives, copy-negatives or positive prints and transparencies; whether or not copyright in the originals, or reproduction rights, are held by some other person or body elsewhere.
In the introduction, Wall stressed the instability of the photo collection: 'Like the units of a conventional book-form library, the units of a photographic library can be removed, dispersed, transferred to other collections, begged, borrowed and even stolen. There is an unstable quality about even the most apparently permanent of photographic collection. What we have done is ‘fix’ or record a collection at a particular moment in time, just as a photograph of, say, a moving object is itself ‘ a moment frozen out of time’.
The Directory took four years to compile. Although Wall was the beneficiary of the files collected by a number of other records projects, including the proposed Register of Photographic Surveys of Buildings in the British Isles, and Colin Osman’s planned National Register of Photographic Archives – most of the research was carried out by Wall and his team. The Sunday Times launched a campaign to help to fund the work, and the RPS published and sold sets of reproductions of photographs from the Society’s collection to provide extra income.
The only material result of the campaign for a National Photographic Record appears to be Wall’s 1972 Directory. Although Wall hoped to: ‘put the project on a fully professional basis, [to] establish a permanent office, to employ researchers who will follow up on questionnaires sent to all possible owners of photographic collections. Trained assistants will collate the information so that in the end the National Record will provide a sophisticated index to Britain’s photographic history’, there is no evidence that this took place.
The Directory is a remarkable publication. It includes, as Wall promised, a wide variety of collections, from individuals, charities, interest groups, manufacturers, museums, libraries and local councils, to name only of a few of the kinds of contributors. Most intriguing are the collections of individuals- Mrs Pearl Margaret Vose listed 160 8x6” prints documenting her village from 1888 to 1945. The photographer Leslie Bryce photographed the Beatles on tour from 1963 to 1968 and John Clere of Blackheath, in South London owned 14,000 colour transparencies, 45,000 negatives and 3000 8x6” black and white prints, documenting subjects which included: ‘Mountaineering, mountain landscapes mountain rescue lighthouses [and] transport’.
Some of the collections which Wall listed have no doubt since disappeared as unique entities- some will have been absorbed into larger collections, others donated to libraries and museums, and some of the larger personal collections may have simply ceased to exist. John Wall could not foresee the advent of either digitalisation or the corporate and institutional absorption and blending of collections. He could not foresee globalisation, when individual companies would become part of conglomerates, leaving their archives at the mercy of corporate decision-making.
The Photography and the Archive Research Centre acquired the John Wall archive when researcher Bob Pullen visited Wall, when in the early stages of making a web- based Directory of Photographic Collections in the UK, inspired by Wall’s 1972 Directory. For some years, the filing cabinet which held the Wall papers was stored in the Centre’s office, but the opening of an archive room in the Centre’s new premises at the London College of Communication in 2014, made it possible to begin to examine the papers and to begin to begin to build research into a unique 1970s project. Illustrated here are six of the file cards made by Wall and his team, which became the basis for the Directory’s entries.