How did AHFAP come about 30 years ago, how has it developed, what have we achieved and what does the future hold?

Author: David Clarke
AHFAP President

In the following blog I share my observations as I witnessed the evolution of the Association. I am sure there are many who have different memories and views of events; it would be great to hear them, so please add to the blog.

How it all Started

The seeds of AHFAP were sown during a tentative conversation between a handful of museum photographers in 1985. They suggested meeting up on a regular basis to catch up with what was going on in their respective organisations and also to get to know each other socially. Meeting socially was a big step in itself. From my experience, photographers didn’t always mix well in groups. I have never known why but they certainly do now!

1988 Conference registration

1988 Conference registration Copyright: National Gallery

Thirty short years later, AHFAP has 280 members and presence and influence on a global scale; how did it happen? Well, in simple terms it has been due to the support and belief of many and the determination and hard work of a very few which has achieved this success.

Within those same thirty years, the world and in particular image making within the heritage sector, has faced three major areas of change:

  • The shift from film to digital technology
  • The growth of mass digitisation and mass access to art collections via the internet
  • In later years, a worldwide economic crisis

The Early Years of Digital, we start to find our voice

Very early on it became obvious that AHFAP was well placed to facilitate the communication between photographers and manufacturers as we stumbled, sometimes blindly, into digital technology. The Association did an excellent job to make sure we were all on the same wavelength as we tested and searched for appropriate equipment to achieve the standard of quality we required. At the time however, I don’t think many of us fully understood what the indicators of digital quality actually were or indeed how the parameters of quality would change so dramatically in future years.

Group experience and shared evidence linked to AHFAP membership was a very powerful tool when making the decisions and requesting funding from our respective budget holders. This would have not been possible without the free flow of dialogue between all concerned, mostly made possible through annual conferences but also by more ad hoc methods such as demonstrations and studio visits etc, more often than not organised by AHFAP. Slowly but surely a bond of trust was created between UK heritage imaging professionals which has proved to last the test of time.

International Partnerships are born

Quite early on, the move to new technology also triggered dialogue with individuals and organisations outside of the UK, including notables such as USA, China and of course mainland Europe. Over the following years, relationships were developed and friendships cemented, surrounded by understanding and mutual respect. In 2011 AHFAP organised an ambitious inaugural International Conference held in Brighton, which although a steep learning curve in logistics for the organisers, was a resounding success. Delegates met international contemporaries, sometimes face to face for the first time, and discovered the existence of a great commonality; the vast majority had the same worries and same sleepless nights over the same issues. A collective sigh of relief was heard over Brighton.

A wider reaching and more targeted international conference; 2+3D Photography – Practice and Prophecies, was held in 2015 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which attracted representatives from 22 different countries. This very successful conference showcased existing and emerging technology and discussed the need for commonly agreed quality standards. The conference model set by AHFAP, plus years of offered experience was an essential building block towards the success of the Rijksmuseum conference.

The Association spreads its wings and shapes the future

As AHFAP’s position of authority has become established, so too has its membership base widened. The Association, originally the sole domain of museum and gallery photographers, has and continues to attract a more diverse group of imaging professionals. It now includes Special Interest Groups from major libraries and archives, including universities, as well as a growing band of independent professionals and a number of digitisation companies.

Progressively through the years, AHFAP has been key in providing a platform to promote the development of best practice and new techniques for mass digitisation of not only fine art collections but archives held within cultural establishments and private collections.  AHFAP has become a pool of specialists who can often move from one organisation to another or indeed in these days of part time contracts, to simultaneously work for more than one employer. I can see a time when equipment, project staff and IS and web integration could be a communal activity which would transfer as a package between organisations. This would certainly benefit smaller or less resourced institutions.

Mass communication based around the web is now firmly established as both an educator and income generator. One major gallery for example, attracted approximately 7 million personal visitors in 2014 but 20 million web visits. The web in all its guises is image rich far beyond what could have been imagined even ten years ago. The image makers are accordingly valuable and essential to the continued development of web communication, including e-commerce which works in tandem creating an essential income stream, on which many cultural institutions now depend.

A Positive Twist emerging from the economic downturn

With regard to the economic downturn of recent years it could be argued that the situation has actually allowed image making within the heritage sector to flourish and prove its true worth. Audience generation via an image rich website is proven. So too are other schemes such as picture libraries which many larger collections operate. The success of high quality reproduction is of course dependent on high quality multi-purpose digital images. Confidence in technique and commonly held quality standards is rightly demanded by picture libraries and can now be delivered efficiently with confidence by in-house teams and independent specialists alike.  Issues surrounding image reproduction have always been identified as being of fundamental importance to AHFAP and progress in this area has helped strengthen the image maker’s hand.

I see a new confidence emerging, which was never there thirty years ago, or even ten years ago, for that matter. Imaging professionals feel more comfortable in their own skin, offering specialist expertise within their individual organisations and often working in other external partnerships.  The heritage sector is attracting talented newly qualified professionals. Image making in the sector is seen as an attractive option where individuals can follow both their technical and creative ambitions.  Crucially, budget holding managers also recognise the expertise which exists within their in-house teams. Specialist work which years ago would have been commissioned externally is now trusted to in-house staff. This includes architectural and advertising photography, web creation, film making, project management and a whole host of other activities. With the professional framework being promoted by AHFAP, heritage sector image makers in 2015 are being recognised as leading the field rather than following it, which was certainly not a general perception back in 1985.

Effects and Impacts on Individuals

What have we achieved on a personal level? I guess AHFAP could be officially described as a group of like-minded professionals working towards a common goal. However I prefer to think of AHFAP as a group of friends, for that is what they have become to me, who support and look out for each other. This has been well illustrated during the personal hardships of recent years. AHFAP has been invariably unable to intervene in any real sense when members have been made redundant or departments devoured by aggressive internal takeovers and stripped of their autonomy and some may say dignity and self-respect. However, the Association has provided a common and shared understanding, which has been immensely supportive to a great many people. Even in the face of the terrible time many have had, I do feel sure, for the reasons set out above, that a corner has been turned and there is a new feeling of self-empowerment emerging. There is a great future which is achievable and worth working towards.  Accordingly we certainly can be very proud of what has been achieved during the first 30 years of AHFAP.

David Clarke, President 2015