AHFAP Conference Keynote

Author: James Stevenson

I worked in museums between 1983 and 2013, firstly at the National Maritime Museum and for almost twenty years at the V&A. My talk is naturally influenced by my experience at these two institutions and may be biased and not representative of photography in cultural history. So my career in museums has followed that of AHFAP quite closely.

If AHFAP’s first meeting and forming in 1985 was not its actual conception, the glint in its boyfriend’s eye was 1982, a year that helped form the need for an organisation such as AHFAP

Some highlights from 1982 include:

  • The Commodore 64 was made in August of that year
  • Word perfect for DOS was released
  • Lotus 123 spreadsheet (Excel, 1985)
  • Sony Trinitron monitor
  • Apple made $1b in sales
  • Phillips made the first compact disc
  • Sony made the first audio CD player
  • Adobe was founded
  • Tron was released


  • the first computer virus was detected

I think that the development of technologies such as these helped form the idea and need for an association such as AHFAP. The adoption of PC technology in museums created more immediate forms of communication (the demise of the typing pool occurred around this time) but particularly business reporting and accountability. Museums were not slow to develop these needs, though the V&A was actually one of the last. This meant that it skipped some of the early errors and mistakes and jumped in at a later convenient point.

At the same time the use of technology allowed a more systematic auditing of collections and there was considerable improvement in collections management.

When this happened it was natural for managers and directors to ask, ‘What is happening elsewhere?’ and hence the development of benchmarking.

The consequence of the founding of AHFAP may have been originally socially meeting in pubs to meet with fellow professionals. The reality was to find out what each was doing, what problems they were facing and what solutions were being developed.

It is interesting to see when other associations in museums were founded:

  • The National Museum Directors’ Council 1929
  • The British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers 1943
  • Collections Trust’s history stretches back to the 1970s when it began life as the Information Retrieval Group of the Museums Association
  • The Museum Object Data Entry System (MODES) was launched in 1987 with immediate success
  • Museums Computer Group 1982
  • AVICOM, established in June 1991, is the International Committee for Audiovisual and New Image and Sound Technologies.
  • The Institute of Conservation was created in 2005, which was the creation of disparate group specialist conservation groups.

I joined the business of museum photography in, I think, 1984. I don’t keep a record of my own anniversary dates.  This was around the time of the high-water mark of analogue photography.

The top-level output for images in museums at this time was the fine art publication. Colour printing had achieved its high level of quality, and press and publicity. Newspapers went into colour in 1986. Today, owned by Eddie Shah, was the first newspaper to pioneer computer photo-typesetting.

One of my memorable pictures from this time is a series I made of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

One is a shot of the Observatory buildings made at dusk with dark blue light still in the sky, artificial light on within the buildings and the exterior illuminated by flash powder bought from a theatrical suppliers in Covent Garden. The picture was made on 10×8 Ektachrome, with a 5×4 camera used alongside as a processing test. These were all processed by Rod Tidnam. And this image was entirely based on chemistry! There were chemicals for the light and chemicals for the processing and final image, the large-format colour transparency.

All photography in museum studios at this time was chemical.

The V&A, which I joined in 1993, was still using a mixture of 1940s technology for b&w but had just introduced its own E6 processing line for colour transparency. It soon became obvious to me that the b&w element of the service was essentially worthless. The use of it in the museum was a legacy of its historic and ancient cataloguing systems.

This old way of using images was a legacy too of the Courtauld Institute’s resistance to colour images in their teaching of the history of art. They still taught about the history of painting in monochrome until the 1980s. They were naturally concerned about poor colour reproduction and did not trust it. This was true prior to 1975 when E6 was developed, but even after that colour was a moveable feast. Kodak tried to standardise things with Q Lab QA in the around 1990. It was partly as a result of Q Lab that museum photography started to rely on the large format colour transparency as its medium of choice.

The first members, the first generation, of AHFAP were, to my mind, chemists. This could be typified by Brian Tremain. Many members of the BM and the NMM will remember ‘Brian’s Brew’, his collection of developing chemicals kept in old film canisters. There were variants for all types of contrast development.

There is a photograph made by Brian of the oil painting ‘Death of Nelson’ by Arthur William Devis. It cannot be beaten for imaging quality, in either b&w or colour reproduction, both 10×8 negative and Ektachrome transparency.

I was asked once to re-photograph it, and considered the exercise pointless, because Brian’s image was so good. It is possible that digital imaging may now make an improvement with a linear curve, and a camera such as the Sinar CTM but that has never been done. However if you look at the image on-line it does not hold up. There are too many alterations in the web publishing process that kills it. Who knows what colour space it is in now? It holds up better when downloaded into Photoshop but I was still only looking at a 300k jpeg. You have to see the large format colour transparency, or for an even more sublime experience the 10×8 negative, to appreciate it fully. Of course, as this is stored within the NMM’s negative store, this is only available to one privileged person at a time. You will have to speak to Tina Warner.

The founding members of AHFAP were I believe ‘chemical’ photographers. They had worked for the whole of their careers in what is now known as analogue photography, but is better called, in my opinion, chemical photography. Most of these founding members had retired by 1995 or thereabouts, the time when digital, or electronic photography was starting to be adopted in museums.

My recollection is that 1995 was the time when we, at the V&A, started experimenting with electronic photography.

Our entry was via the Museum Picture Library. We installed a software database we called The Photo Catalogue. We had several thousand colour transparencies scanned to Photo CD so that visitors to the library and indeed the rest of the museum could search for images online. To use them for later reproduction they still had to go back to the analogue original.

It became clear to me that this was the best way forward when I calculated that digitally scanning transparencies and putting them into a database was cheaper than making black and white prints and sticking them into albums, a practice that had continued uninterrupted since 1856.

Somehow or other, in retrospect I cannot remember the whole sequence, and it doesn’t matter as the whole process was inevitable. We moved very quickly over the next few years to digital photography. The stimulus was the development of museum websites.  The first digital camera we had at the V&A was a Fujix DS-330. It was a rangefinder type camera, cost around £1,000 and was a 1M-pixel camera. Images were transferred to the computer by a 3.5-inch floppy disc adaptor. I think I may have been the only person to buy one.

According to Wikipedia, the first museum to go ‘online’ was the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, in 1995. I’m not sure if that is correct but it feels about the right time. About then most of the larger museums built their own websites and Museum Directors recognised that this was a good new way to make the collections visible to a new audience.

My own recollection is that it was not the technology as such that was forcing the change to digital imaging but a realisation that visibility for images could expand considerably and that efficiencies in workflow and production efficiency would improve.

Various international and nationally funded projects, mainly AHRC funded, started at this time to promote the use of large collections of digital images, images to tell stories about the collections. Early standards were proposed, a variety of formats made, and many short-lived websites created. Whether many of these early project websites still exist or not is irrelevant to us but they did create an understanding of the new medium. They were great exercises in developing new work practices and realising that image fulfilment could be speeded up. Once again individuals were asked to benchmark, sometimes even within the funding applications, so communication within AHFAP was at that time a good and necessary thing.

The second generation of AHFAP photographers at this time were hybrid chemical/electronic animals, myself included. Turning from looking at the world upside down to staring at minuscule flickering lines on a screen. There is not much to miss about spending weeks in the darkroom.

Now many of those photographers who were in AHFAP are also retiring and leaving behind a third generation of purely electronic photographers.

However I do not believe that the technology has yet matured to anywhere near its potential. There is still plenty of improvement to be made in 2D imaging and a great deal in multi-media.

What it has done, though, is to bring Walter Benjamin’s prophecy to fruition.

‘The illiterate of the future will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph.’ I wonder what level of literacy he was anticipating.

Museum collection management systems are now full of the work of visual illiterates, who think that because they can press the ‘photo’ button on their iPhone, they can make a picture. But they think they can, which is probably worse. Sometimes I can appreciate that any picture is better than no picture, if you are a researcher. But what is the impression of the museum when its shop window is full of poor and inadequate imagery. Poor exhibition and gallery displays are not tolerated. What is it that makes directors think that poor images do not do the same? I worry that some large collections will accept the standard of photography you might expect in the developing world.

Last year’s conference at the Wellcome was for me very encouraging, as it very clearly brought together photographers and computer graphics scientists.

As well as 3D imaging, which is still maturing, and may still have several decades to go—to me it does have inevitability to it for the accurate portrayal of solid objects and environments—there are also many other new developments.

I have seen proposals for non-lens aperture-only cameras, after-the-fact focusing and movement amplification in video. This last one was demonstrated on a Ted Talk.

Michael Rubinstein zooms in on movement we cannot see and magnifies it by thirty or a hundred times. His ‘motion microscope’, developed at MIT, picks up subtle motion and colour changes in videos and amplifies them up for the naked eye to see. The result: you can see a pulse in a wrist, a baby kicking in its mother’s womb. There were some photographs of tree rings converted into sound described on Radio 4 on Tuesday.

But where do you get news of these new developments? You don’t see any of them described in the BJP. I think that the way to see what is developing is now in the New Scientist and Ted Talks and such places.

There are other web technologies also being developed but not yet appearing in museums or elsewhere that I have seen.

Microsoft Seadragon browsing was demonstrated at TED in 2007,

FABRIC browsing developed 2010. Why have these great new ways of browsing and searching museum images not been taken up? I think that there is a problem with museum web development.

It is no use looking to website editors to support a creative vision. How many of them crop images to suit their restricted page designs. I get really get annoyed when I see heads of sculptures cut off! They seem to be led by a desire to make everything in museum websites into online games, seeking BBC1 and never getting to BBC4. When they do achieve some quality stories and videos they are well hidden below ‘what’s on and what’s to buy’. They are more like Daily Mail colour supplements than TED Talks.

Where does this leave the new developments in computer graphics? Why haven’t museums adopted new browsing techniques for their collections? Why aren’t we seeing the promised technologies of semantic web searching? Lots of website front pages, especially the new BBC web site remind me of LEGO.

For the professional we have probably reached the equivalent of the large-format transparency as a means to high-quality print reproduction. We have the resolution, colour quality control in FADGI and Metamorfoze, the equivalent of Q Lab, and the data transfer methods to get the images to the printer.  But do we have the final display necessary for this? There is a trend in museums to reduce their fine art publications’ printed output, to reduce the volume of their branded publications. Where will this leave the opportunity for creativity in the museum photographic studio?

I believe that Cultural Heritage photographers must adopt the new and developing technologies in a search for new forms of creativity. The price of them is coming down; many can be done on standard DSLR cameras. The movement amplification software of Michael Rubinstein can be downloaded free and used on any pc.

If I were a museum photographer now I would prefer to work in a smaller museum where there is greater opportunity to try new things. The large museums are full of middle management who find it very easy to say no! In a small museum you have to get on with your own thing and need to have a larger degree of self-management.

To finish I wonder now where the next generation of CH photographers will come from? Will they be those with the skills to adopt these new imaging opportunities, to be able to script code, to be at one with online media. I am not sure that they will come from the traditional photographic colleges which do not adequately teach the basic principles of photography. At this time in your career it is ironically very useful to understand fully chemical photography, which is the basis of all of the digital imaging principles.

Courses such as SEAHA (Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts Heritage and Archaeology) may be far better to undertake now rather than photographic courses. These courses understand the opportunities coming with new imaging technology. They don’t however yet have a component of basic photography and a full understanding of lighting, but they will do. Not only that but lighting and scene composition could very well become a post-processing issue.

So during the lifetime of AHFAP we have had;

First, Alpha or Analogue photographers; secondly, Beta or Bi-Technology photographers; thirdly, Gamma or Digital photographers who can now use linear curves, and, perhaps next, Delta photographers who will be able to record and show how cultural objects can change over time and in space.

The future for imaging should still be grasped by a new breed of professionals who can both make images, make the invisible visible and show cultural objects in many new ways and show their change in space and time. I am sure that AHFAP will provide a forum to discuss this.

James Stevenson

October 2015