And furthermore ...

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Friday, 5 April 2013


Frith & Co and the English Survey projects

“People take pictures of the Summer, 
Just in case someone thought they had missed it, 

And to proved that it really existed.”
Ray Davies, “People take Pictures of Each Other”, from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

 All but one of the photographs in this post were taken by Frith & Co in the 1880s, but they aren’t the real point under discussion. A relatively new book (May 2012) by Elizabeth Edwards, The Camera as Historian, takes its name from a part manifesto, part manual of the same title written by H. D Gower, Stanley Just and W. W Topley and published in 1916. They were members of the Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey, which had been set up in 1902. It was one of dozens of similar groups across England that encouraged amateur photographers to go out and document the historical sites in their counties. By amateur we mean in the 19th century sense; non-commercial but owning their own darkrooms and often more interested in technique and aesthetics than commercial photographers were. The Survey and Record photographs match what you see in the subject matter and standard of the Frith photographs.

The archives weren’t lost; some of them have been available on online databases and have been discussed in journals dedicated to local history and heritage for years, so you might wonder why it has taken this long for someone to see the value of the survey groups as a whole. I think I might have just given the answer to that. By tradition, local historians have always been more interested in the vicinity so if they were working on Suffolk, Norfolk and Yorkshire didn’t hold their attention. Blame the social historians then for being slow off the mark. And maybe the situation was that local and social historians were the wrong people. It would take a photo-historian to realize that thousands of photographers documenting heritage across the country was a phenomenon worth investigating.

 Edwards talks about the disruption in time the late Victorians felt and how this tied in with renewed interest in history. It’s a common interpretation, and dubious, there being very little on record of people describing a sense of time slipping from their control. What we do get a lot of, especially up to the start of the 1914-18 war, is the notion that Britain is the greatest empire in history and will be for decades to come. It is more logical that with this to inspire them, ordinary citizens tended to read their history as an inexorable march of progress, from the ancient Britons through the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods and onwards. A photograph of a ruined church was a milepost showing the people how far they had come.

But awareness of empire explains only part of it. Frith & Co and the survey groups appear at the same time as transport is making the country accessible. It’s no coincidence that dozens of small books dedicated to churches in Nottinghamshire, ancient monuments in Wiltshire or rural walks through small villages are being published. People have the opportunity to get out and visit them and heritage is the big attraction. Whether they are aware that the new modern world means their whole response to history will change is uncertain. There is a  range of jobs for example that people think of as traditional that will soon vanish. Quite a few of them aren’t, traditional, but, like the nuclear family today, it’s reassuring to think they’ve been with us a long time. They provide a sense of identity, especially regarding rural Britain, which as a population statistic is rapidly diminishing.

There are photos online of groups of survey photographers standing around charter buses, outside churches or on country lanes. Edwards mentions how symbiotic cycling clubs and camera clubs were – you owned a camera, you probably rode a bike too - and the various councils and camera clubs also organized exhibitions of survey photographs. Clearly it was a social event as much as a documentary project, which might also explain why it slipped from critical attention. There’s something about the British on local heritage tours – they need to know this, really – that immediately evokes images of toothy grins, horn-rimmed glasses, argyle socks and shouts of “Jolly good!” Some of the group photos of them outside churches give this credibility. They look too quaint to be involved in serious work, even though the records in The Cameras as Historian show that photos were annotated in detail, giving names dates, printing processes and even the aperture and speed used.

Back to Frith & Co. At a glance it is hard to see much difference between their work, other companies like Valentine’s and the general imagery of the surveys. Subject was the first consideration and this was inextricable from the idea of place as memory. The title of both books makes clear that the camera was the historian, the photographer was more or less a passive functionary whose only necessary role was to set up the view so that the essential information was recorded. The V&A has a print by Frith of the Norman Stair that is almost identical to this one with the one difference being a mound of rubble by the lower step. That suggests that Frith returned to Canterbury with the image already in mind. He or his staff knew exactly where to stand to get the best shot. There was little notion of interpretation in the photographs.  

Like any good documentary project the survey project went beyond its brief. Though the original idea was to photograph buildings, some groups found England’s heritage in disappearing rural occupations and local festivals and traditions. During the war the Norfolk Survey photographed soldiers before they went off to the front. Some photographers even allowed a touch of pictorialism to creep into their pictures. The best of them transmit an idea of what mattered to the photographer about the heritage, which wasn’t merely that a building was old, an exceptional example of architecture or that it was significant to some historical episode. It is best described as an abstract sense of Englishness.

Which brings us to this photo. It is a snapshot, taken in the 1930s, of a house on the corner of Long Mill Lane and The Street in Plaxton, Kent. The building, or most of it still stands and you can find it on Google Maps. No idea who took the photo but it has that abstract sense of Englishness we mean. The house and the sign contain the whole idea of an English village. You know at once what country you are in and you can imagine the kind of people you are likely to meet on the road. This is just one of the legacies of the survey projects; they were supposed to be a straightforward documentation yet they helped reinvent the England of our imagination.



  1. Glad your site is viewable again -- as I mentioned, for some months, all I could see were the archives, but couldn't view any posts. These architectural photos have an atmospheric granularity about them.

  2. Thanks for letting me know, Jonathan. I have no idea what was going on there. Chase down Edwards' book. It tells a forgotten story from photography's past.


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