Library of Birmingham opens its archive to photographers

Friends since studying together at the Royal College of Art in the late 1990s, Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl had never collaborated on a project until an opportunity arose through the Library of Birmingham. Two years ago, von Zwehl was invited by the library’s head of photographic collections, Pete James, to look at and respond to the archive following an exhibition she’d had in Birmingham.

“I first met Bettina when she was part of the National Portrait Gallery/BT Road to 2012 project, [which celebrated the people behind the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games through photography],” says James. “An outdoor exhibition of the work was shown in Birmingham. Bettina gave an artist’s talk, and we started chatting about the library’s archive. I wondered if she would be interested in seeing more of the [photography collections], since she has worked in response to collections in the past. Bettina came back to me with the suggestion of collaborating with her friend, Sophy Rickett, and it went from there.”

Since the new multi-million pound Library of Birmingham opened in September 2013, James and his team have been keen to create opportunities for photographers to engage with the library’s photographic archive, which comprises more than 3.5 million items ranging from daguerreotypes to work by 19th century photographers and contemporary practitioners. “We wanted to be proactive by inviting photographers to visit the archive, and to think about how it could stimulate ideas and generate new work,” he says. “By doing this, it’s possible to look at the archive in new ways.”


For the project, which was commissioned by photographic hub Grain at the Library of Birmingham, von Zwehl and Rickett had access to one of the library’s flagship collections: the Sir Benjamin Stone Collection. Stone was a Victorian collector who lived from 1838 to 1914 and obsessively collected photography as a way to understand the world around him. He amassed more than 50 albums of collected photographs, which were classified to reflect his interests in anthropology, science, art, travel and customs of different cultures.

For their commission, Rickett and von Zwehl concentrated on one particular album – Album 31 – which features photographs that Stone wanted to keep, but that didn’t fit into any of his other albums. “The starting point for [our project] Album 31 came from a chance encounter with a page in the extensive Sir Benjamin Stone Archive,” explains Rickett. “Among the meticulously organised albums held at the Library of Birmingham is one labelled ‘Sundry Photographs’. Images [in this album] were collated apparently at random, as if the ‘rules’ that applied to the rest of the collection were waived. The subject matter, processes, time frames and approaches co-exist, creating a kind of chaotic spontaneity full of poetry and humour, and also some darkness. In Album 31, we pursue this idea, originally rooted in chance and contingency, as a theme in itself.”

Together, the artists produced a series of album pages using motifs they identified as being characteristic of Stone’s own album. The source imagery came from their own archives – from outboxes and abandoned projects that until now had not seen the light of day. The result is 10 newly created album pages, which are currently on display at the Library of Birmingham until 30 June.

“The artists had a completely open brief – we just provided access,” says James. “Within the pages they created are subtle references to their work and [elements of] Sir Benjamin’s album. For example, Stone was very interested in the permanence of different print processes, so the artists combined colour and black and white images.”

At its core, the project is about the nature of collaboration and the exchange of ideas, say the artists. Other themes touched upon include the notion of authorship, authenticity and visual style. They were keen to explore how different practices, processes, cultures and timeframes can be aligned, but also the dialogues that are created when these things clash.

“It took some time to find a way of working together that made sense and that allowed us enough space and time to continue with our individual practices,” says Rickett. “Ultimately, what we are doing is reappropriating our own work – repurposing it, recontextualising it. Perhaps playing with meaning challenges the possibility for any one form of interpretation. The implications of that, political and otherwise, are manifold.”

Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.