An Interview with Pete James, Curator of Photography Collections at The Library of Birmingham

pete james - the sir benjamin stone collection - library of birmingham archive

Originally posted on October 18th 2013

Did you know, The Library of Birmingham has 25 miles of world-class archives?

The recently refurbished library is both a triumph of modern design and allows a larger audience to view the number of nationally and internationally significant collections kept by the library. As one of the National Collections of Photography, The Library of Birmingham holds an outstanding collection of over 3 million photographic images. For the first time, the library has the gallery space to exhibit and celebrate the archived collections alongside newly commissioned works.

“Reference Works” is the inaugural exhibition to be shown at Birmingham Library, as a tribute and a celebration of both the old and new libraries. The exhibition featured commissioned works by Michael Collins, Brian Griffin, Andrew Lacon and Stuart Whipps.

We caught up with Pete James, Curator of Photography Collections at The Library of Birmingham to ask him about the future of archives, his interest in photography and much more.

Genesisimaging: Hi Pete! Are you ready to talk photography?

Danguerreotype (P. James): Good to go.

Genesisimaging: Great!  Tell us about the most unusual image in the collection…

Danguerreotype (P. James): So many to choose from but Sir Benjamin Stone’s photos of Spanish Inquisition relics is always a favourite.

Genesisimaging: When did you first realise you had an interest in images?

Danguerreotype (P. James): The late 1970s when I was working at the Kodak plant in Harrow. Used to visit the Kodak Museum a lot during breaks.

Genesisimaging: How have your perceptions about photography changed in the time you have worked with the archive?

Danguerreotype (P. James): I have come to a better understanding about the relationships between all forms of photography.

Danguerreotype (P. James): Not all the ‘best’ photos are taken by the most famous photographers.

Genesisimaging: Couldn’t agree more! How has the archive changed since the introduction of digital technology?

Danguerreotype (P. James): Increased circulation of images, ideas and information leading to greater understanding and engagement all round.

Genesisimaging: Let’s talk about Reference Works – how do you hope it will be perceived by future generations?

Danguerreotype (P. James): Hopefully as a landmark project for us. It’s our biggest project ever. And as a legacy.

Danguerreotype (P. James): And as four extraordinary bodies of work, individually and collectively.

Genesisimaging: They certainly are four very individual and interesting bodies of work.

Genesisimaging: What were the biggest challenges in curating the four bodies of work for Reference Works?

Danguerreotype (P. James): Getting the works to speak to each other in the gallery, establishing visual dialogues.

Danguerreotype (P. James): And coming up with a title that covered the breadth of the project.

Genesisimaging: You have to curate an exhibition, now, with work from the archive – what’s the exhibition and which work do you show?

Danguerreotype (P. James): George Shaw, Birmingham’s first photographer.

Danguerreotype (P. James): Work in progress…

Genesisimaging: Thomas asks, what is the medium/long term strategy of the library with regard to the collection – vintage or contemporary?

Danguerreotype (P. James): Both, one informs the other.

Genesisimaging: David asks, how to you see your acquisitions and exhibition programmes changing in the next 10 years?

Danguerreotype (P. James): More digital prints in the archive and new conservation challenges that go with them too.

Danguerreotype (P. James): Keen to explore projects where artists and respond and revision the archive more.

Danguerreotype (P. James): Everything will depend on finding new sources of funding and new partnerships.

Genesisimaging: David asks, in the digital age, do you think more emphasis should be put on cataloguing exhibitions rather than collecting works?

Danguerreotype (P. James): We certainly need to digitise more of the collection and make it more accessible and available.

Danguerreotype (P. James): But both need to take place so we preserve and share our photographic heritage.

Genesisimaging: Pete – it’s been a pleasure… Thank you for providing us with such interesting answers and a great pic!

Reference Works is on at The Library of Birmingham until 29th December 2013.

Read more on Reference Works in our September blog.

Visit the Reference Works website

More information on The Library of Birmingham.

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