RAMM showed Life Through the Lens – an exhibition of historic photographs – in 2012.
When photography was invented around 170 years ago, it gave people the opportunity to record the world around them. Scenery, families, buildings, birthdays – millions of photographs are now stored with museums, archives and individuals.
What images have survived?
What can historic images tell us about past people and places?
What should we preserve for the future?
Exhibition of historic photographs
Most of the photographs in this exhibition are digitised prints taken from historic glass plate slides in the museum’s collection. Mostly dating from the 1900s to 1930s, they reveal a world which echoes our own. But the slides are easily broken and damaged. Many have no title, no details of the subject nor the photographer’s name.
What value do they have?
What should RAMM do with them?
The physical exhibition in 2012 also included cine film loaned by people living in Devon. They were digital copies made by the families to preserve the footage for the future, and are a personal record of the world from the 1920s to 1970s. In addition, inspired by RAMM’s collection of glass plate slides, a diverse group of local young people recorded their world using digital photography. During a series of workshops, they considered how the immediacy of digital photography affected their decisions about the images they took. They reflected on whether the quick and easy nature of digital photography mean modern photographs are less valued than photographs from the past. These photographs and the cine film are not reproduced in this collections story.
Glass plate slides in RAMM’s care
These lantern slides are from the museum’s collection, and date from the 1910s – 1930s. They are just some of the original photographic images from which prints in this exhibition have been taken.
Glass plate slide technology began in the 1850s and they remained popular until the 1950s. The photographic image was developed onto a piece of glass, with another piece of glass placed on top to safely encase the image. Each slide could be projected from a magic lantern projector for large audiences to view.
The slides are not as permanent as people thought. It is easy to crack or break them. Written labels, where they exist, become torn. Reference numbers are meaningless without their associated catalogues, which often no longer exist
Who are we?
Madge. W. Weaver Baker. 1935, glass plate slide. was a prolific photographer of Exeter historical buildings including the Cathedral and the Guildhall. This intimate portrait is therefore a surprising image from his collection. The subject is probably his wife. William Weaver Baker
Autochrome by Geka flashlight. Photographer unknown. 1911, glass plate slide. This slide is one in a series showing women in formal dress in different room settings. The title of each image records the different lighting and materials used. For this photographer the person in the image was seemingly less important than the process.
S.P. 574. Alfred Rowden. Early 20th century, glass plate slide. Alfred Rowden was an Exeter resident who served in Asia during the First World War, and later worked in Iraq for the Navy and Army Canteen Board. Many of his photographs record the people and daily life he encountered. The image title is his catalogue reference; unfortunately the whereabouts of this catalogue is unknown.
Untitled. Photographer unknown. Early 20th century, glass plate slide. The development of cheap photography in the early 20th century allowed families to photograph their relatives before they went to war. This image probably dates from the First World War. The insignia suggest this soldier served in the Australian forces. While this soldier’s image survives for perpetuity, we do not know his name, his fate in the war, or how his image came to be in the museum’s collection.
F.R. Rowley Esq. FRMS. Probably Alfred Rowden. Early 20th century, glass plate slide. This image, showing a photographer at work, is an unusual early record of the process of photography. The man in the image is Frederick Rowley, Curator of RAMM 1901-1934 and member of the Exeter Pictorial Record Society. The EPRS was established in 1911 to record the history of the city through photography.
After tea at Myrtleberry. Photographer unknown. Around 1911, glass plate slide. One of a series of images recording a family holiday in North Devon. The holiday makers’ travels were extensive which may explain their tired expressions in this photograph.
Peat-cutter’s cart, Dartmoor. .Photographer unknown. Probably late 19th century, glass plate slide. In contrast to formal posed photographs this image shows a man at work. Images such as this record ways of life that no longer exist. Without any record of where exactly on Dartmoor it is, or even how old the image is, it can only ever provide limited information.
The political dog. Photographer unknown. Probably early 20th century, glass plate slide. This image seems to be a ‘snapshot’. The image is not well framed and the top of one of the boy’s heads is cut off. It seems to show children out on a political campaign, but where and when is not known.
Cat study number 6 (Xmas card). Photographer unknown. Late 19th or early 20th century, glass plate slide. This image is a reminder of the person behind the camera – their interests and sense of humour. It is part of a set entitled ‘Cat study’. Further series by the same photographer include ‘Kitten study’ and ‘Dog study’. Each image shows an animal in a pose more commonly associated with human portraiture.
Where are we?
Newlyn fishing boats. Photographer unknown. Early 20th century, glass plate slide. This records a typical South West industry of the time. It raises questions about fishing and the practice of photography. Does the picturesque setting reflect the reality of the fishermen’s lives? Where was the photographer standing?
Sunset Exmouth. Photographer unknown. September 1911, glass plate slide. These three images bear the same title. Photographer possibly captured them on the same evening. As individual images they are picturesque, but taken together they show the photographer experimenting to create the ‘perfect’ romantic image.
Seaside fun Exmouth. Photographer unknown. Around 1911, glass plate slide. Images like this remind us that photography as an art form has not evolved in isolation. The setting and composition of this image is similar to many Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings which were produced in the same era as this photograph.
Dartmoor. T.A. Falcon. Around 1910, glass plate slide. From a series of slides recording the archaeological monuments on Dartmoor. The photographer had a passion for the Dartmoor landscape, meticulously recording archaeology in a series of notebooks and publishing a book of photographs. Unfortunately he did not record the name of this site, nor the man in the photograph, but it is a wonderful record of an Edwardian antiquary at work.
Untitled. Photographer unknown. Around 1905-1923, glass plate negative. The exterior of the museum is recorded here during a time of rapid social change, typified with a motor car on the left of the picture and a horse and cart at the right. The ‘ghost’ figures are a result of the technology which required long exposure times to capture the image.
Untitled. Photographer unknown. Late 19th or early 20th century, glass plate slide. Many historic photographs record important events or places of historic interest, yet this image records a domestic scene of a room in a house. It is a record of the everyday – photographs on the wall, coal in the scuttle, knick-knacks on the mantelpiece. Despite its apparent familiarity it remains a mystery. No records survive of where or when this photograph was taken.
Untitled. Photographer unknown. Late 19th or early 20th century, glass plate slide. It is perhaps possible to guess the motive behind this image – recording a scene of daily life. Today it provides a glimpse into the realities of this woman’s world. We do not know who she was, where or when she lived. We can only guess why she waits in the doorway.
On the way to Lynton. Photographer unknown. Early 20th century, glass plate slide. This photograph is from a series recording a family holiday to Lynton and Lynmouth. It shows part of the narrow gauge railway between Lynton and Barnstaple, which operated between 1898-1935. While today the image may seem rather mundane, it represents the earliest type of holiday snap.
Untitled. Photographer unknown. 1891-1896, glass plate negative. This image records the ship Lorna Doone moored at Ilfracombe. The destination board states she is heading for Weston-Super-Mare and Newport (Wales). It is one of the earliest photographic images in RAMM’s collection. At the time of capture, leisure time and travel were becoming more common for the working classes. There is no record of the photographer, but it would have been someone with sufficient money to afford the equipment.
What do we do?
Exeter Camera Club group, Stoke Woods. Alfred Rowden. 15 April 1924, glass plate slide. The Exeter Camera Club was established in 1890 when photography was becoming a popular leisure activity. By the time of this image photography was an acceptable hobby for women and young adults. This photograph presumably shows the group on a field trip as the men are holding tripods, an essential part of their photographic equipment.
In the darkroom (artificial-light photography). Photographer unknown. Date unknown, glass plate slide. This image shows a photographer at work in the dark room. The red colour, represents the red light needed for the developing process. To achieve this the photographer placed a red filter between the image and the glass frame it is mounted in.
Mr Ayers Farm, Black Dog. Sheep shearing contest 1st prize winner. Photographer unknown. 20 June 1938, glass plate slide. This is one of two images showing these farmers at work in the mid-Devon village of Black Dog. Even though it was taken at a time of social change before the Second World War, it shows a scene familiar to modern farmers.
Frozen River Exe. 1917, glass plate slide. The freezing of the River Exe was a memorable occasion in the city, and perhaps provided some small distraction from the horrors of the First World War. The slide is labelled ‘Walburn, Heavytree, Exeter.’
Whipton Coronation Procession. Photographer unknown. 1937, glass plate slide. Recording an event or celebration is a common motivation for photographers. Yet in this image the houses in the background also provide information on the process of the expansion of Exeter, as its suburbs encompassed outlying villages.
Morning dip. Photographer unknown. Date unknown, glass plate slide. This image raises more questions than answers. Are the boys washing or playing a game? The tin-shack building in the background is not a typical Devon building. Where and why did someone take this photograph? Without any surviving records about the photograph these questions are likely to remain unanswered.
Untitled. Photographer unknown. Early 20th century, glass plate slide. In this photograph a group of children from the Church Of England Temperance Society Hoopern Street Band of Hope gather together outside the West front of Exeter Cathedral. The image is poorly framed suggesting it was taken in the moment – an unusual practice as equipment was expensive and took time to set up.
Old parish registers damaged by damp. Photographer unknown. Early 20th century, glass plate slide. In the early 20th century photography was seen as a solution to the problem of the disintegrating past: photographing historic documents and monuments was thought to provide a permanent record. However glass slides break easily, images fade and associated information lost. These images were not as permanent as people believed.
Grampus Griseus; E side of Straight Point near Exmouth. F.R. Rowley. 6 November 1908, glass plate negative. F.R. Rowley was Curator of this museum and a keen amateur photographer. Here he records a Risso’s dolphin washed up on a beach in Devon. He subsequently brought the dolphin to the museum and its skeleton is in the Natural Sciences collection.
Untitled. W. Weaver Baker. Early 20th century, glass plate negative. Photography provided a medium for recording museum objects without the subjectivity of drawing. Accordingly the Exeter Pictorial Record Society was given a room in this building for their use. Their members photographed important artefacts such as this Roman bronze object from Sidmouth.
Untitled. Possibly W. Weaver Baker. 1930s, glass plate slide. Museums have recognised photography as a useful method of display for many years. This image shows a RAMM gallery about 80 years ago. In the foreground is a display of glass plate slides of Devon stone crosses, carefully back-lit to enable visitors to see them. They provided a different way for visitors to encounter the past.