Photographers rally together to protest proposed Library of Birmingham cuts

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Little more than a year after unveiling the flagship building to crown Birmingham city centre’s 20-year redevelopment, the local council is proposing swingeing cuts to the running of its new library, which includes a world-class archive devoted to photography, and an accompanying programme that has been widely praised for its important work and innovation in bringing it to the attention of a wider public.

Campaigners have until 12 January to contest the cuts proposed by Birmingham City Council, which include making 100 of its 188 staff redundant – among them all those who work with the photography collections – and slashing funding by £1.5m over the next year.


The extent of the cuts

A budget consultation letter produced by the council outlines the extent of the cuts in plain terms. In the letter, reproduced in a blog post by Financial Times photography critic Francis Hodgson, the assistant director of culture at Birmingham Library and Archive Services, Brian Gambles, writes that the library’s opening hours will be cut from 73 to 40 per week from 01 April, and that events, exhibitions, community engagement and all archive services at the library will cease unless external funding is found. The budget to buy new books will also be reduced.

Photographers led by Paul Hill, who sold his collection to the library in 2004, have launched a petition calling on the council to rethink the cuts.

“When I, and other depositors – who include such renowned British photographic figures as Daniel Meadows, Martin Parr, John Blakemore, Brian Griffin, Vanley Burke, John Myers, Anna Fox, Nick Hedges, and Val Williams – agreed to the library acquiring our archives or collections, we were assured that they would be accessible to the public as well as specialist researchers,” states Hill in the petition letter. “As the proposal currently stands, there will be no photography collections team. Indeed, there may not be anyone left with any specialist knowledge of these nationally and internationally significant collections in the near future. There will be no conservation department to undertake the vital work of preserving these fragile treasures, there will be little if any cataloguing undertaken, and the exhibition programme will disappear entirely.

The emphasis in the new structure is on maintaining ‘counter transactions’ to the exclusion of other activities…. The public knows how important photography is to our personal and cultural lives, but it seems the council does not.”

“A tragedy for our staff”

Speaking to the Birmingham Post, Hill expressed his grave concerns about the consequences of the cuts. “The Library of Birmingham has a designated national photography collection. This means that they are recognised as having national and international significance. A condition of giving collections is to make the work accessible to the public. It is often also a condition of funders like the Art Fund. But what is being proposed is the complete disbandment of the photographic team – the experts involved in conservation, cataloguing and putting on the exhibitions. This is a tragedy for the dedicated expert staff. All we will have are collections, which are only available to researchers by appointment and that is not what we wanted.”

Gambles, who has been the public face of the new library over 10 years up to and including its opening, tells BJP they “are part of Birmingham City Council’s huge budgetary challenge, which is particularly acute for the coming financial year, and is part of nearly seven years of necessary cutbacks in the City Council’s expenditure because of the amount of money available to it”. Asked whether the severity of the cuts came as a surprise, Gambles says: “The severity of the financial pressure for the 2015/16 financial year has not been evident, or the way in which the savings would need to be made, [which] is obviously part of a political process and is subject to consultation at the moment”

“We’re actively consulting with as many members of the public as we can, and also with key stakeholders, in our case, as far as the library is concerned, consulting with all organisations and parties [that are part of] library operations… We haven’t reached the end of the consultation process so we can’t second guess what decisions the council will make. But we’re obviously very proud of what’s being achieved at the Library of Birmingham, and its photographic collections, and hope to find ways in which we can build on that for the future”

A source close to Gambles, who prefers not to be named, points out that the director “is as much a victim of all this as we are”. It is he reported that Gambles now plans to take early retirement. “He should be credited for getting the thing [the library] built and open; he is not responsible for the cuts. He is just dealing with what has been handed down to him from above.”

The only collection outside a museum

The Library of Birmingham holds one of the UK’s official national collections of photography. It is the only such collection held outside a national museum, library or archive, and the only one of such significance held in a public reference library in the UK. It comprises more than 3.5m items: negatives, prints, lantern slides, photographic albums, books and albums illustrated with original photographic prints, and a large collection of literature associated with photography.

The library brings a unique context to the collection, which is housed alongside a wealth of reference material and other special collections, providing a wealth of opportunities for its study and exploration by the general public and specialist groups alike outside of the national institutions.

Highlights of the collection include: 250 of Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War; The Sir Benjamin Stone Collection; The Francis Bedford Collection, including his portfolio, A Tour in the East, 1865; 11 volumes of Edweard Muybridge’s Human and Animal Locomotion (1887); a unique album of 66 vintage contact prints and 77 vintage Roliflex negatives by Bill Brandt, c1939; Nick Hedges’s archive; 450 prints commissioned by agencies of social change; the Vanley Burke Archive; the John Blakemore Archive; The Paul Hill / Photographer’s Place Archive; the Daniel Meadows Archive; the largest collection of works by Brian Griffin in the UK; the Exit Group archive; the Ten:8 Archive; the archive of the British Institute of Professional Photographers; the archive of the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain; The Val Williams Archive; and smaller collections of works by or relating to Stefan Lorant, Chris Steele-Perkins, Paul Fusco, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martin Parr, Stuart Whipps, Harold Edgerton, Felice and Beato, and John Myers, amongst others.

The particular strengths of the collection can be represented under a series of headings: Topography; Record, Survey and Documentary Photography; Portraiture; Theatre Photography; Birmingham and Midlands Contribution to British Photographic History; the History of Birmingham, glass lantern slides; books and albums illustrated with original photographic prints; Books and periodicals on photography.

From obscurity to international recognition

Over the last 25 years the team working with the collection have presented a range of important exhibitions of historical and contemporary photography both in and beyond Birmingham.  It has published a number of books, acquired major collections of national and international significance, held conferences and symposia relating to the collections, supported undergrad and post-grad research projects, loaned works to institutions and exhibitions around the globe and in so doing taking the collections  from a position of relative obscurity to one of international recognition.  The Library has presented a number of acclaimed exhibitions on its outdoor gallery system every year since 2008, including exhibitions by Sir Benjamin Stone, Magnum Photos, Brian Griffin, Tom Hunter and Mark Power.

The collections have been accumulating in the Library since the 1870s, however, the first serious moves to understand and think about and work with them as photographic rather than illustrative collections began a century later.

Headed up by curator of photographic collections, Pete James, the library’s team has for the past 25 years diligently built up the archive, sorting and acquiring historical and contemporary photography, as well as commissioning work by emerging practitioners. Gambles is known to have been very supportive of James and the activities of his colleagues at the library to bring together the unique and valuable collection (indeed, he is said to be as much a victim of the cuts as the many staff now under threat).

From a passive to dynamic resource

In an interview with BJP in 2013, shortly after the library opened, James recalled: “When I joined the library in 1989, I approached the material from the culture of photography rather than a library culture. Up until this point, the photographs had largely been collected as illustrative material in support of published resources. [Consequently] the photographic material was arranged in terms of subject matter and disaggregated across different floors in the building rather than as a coherent photographic archive. When I started at the library, I began to explore the potential of these resources and over the past few years our aim has been to shift and develop audience engagement with [various parts of] the collection. We’ve tried to turn the collection from a passive to a dynamic resource,” said James, for whom the collection has been a life’s work.

Part of the multimillion-pound build of the collection facilities included the installation of high-tech, temperature-controlled storage to house the different items, and there is also a gallery space to present a series of exhibitions all year round. Another key part of the library’s development and commitment to photography is Grain, a photographic hub and network funded by the Arts Council, which aims to provide opportunities for emerging photographers in the West Midlands through commissions, exhibitions, portfolio events, talks and the annual £4000 Grain Photography Prize.

In a public letter by Hill and photographer John Myers sent to Birmingham City Council and signed by Brian Griffin, Martin Parr, and Daniel Meadows, among others, who all have work in the library’s collections, the photographers write: “The recent news regarding the cuts across a whole swathe of services at the new Library of Birmingham is cause for great concern as it endangers one of the finest, much praised, and unique collections of photographs in this country.”

Hodgson has also pledged his support, lamenting the news of the impending cuts so soon after the library’s triumphant opening in September 2013. He writes: “It seems only moments ago that the opening of the fancy new library building was being touted as a symbol of Birmingham’s commitment to culture… that great new public library has had all sorts of flags waved about it; photography has been one of them… what will happen to the conservation of old and fragile photographic documents? Who will organise careful exhibitions of photography?”

Michael Pritchard, director general of the RPS is also campaigning to save the photographic department and its staff. In an email to BJP, he says: “The Library of Birmingham photography collections are of local, national and international importance, and they range from important historic material from the dawn of photography to the personal archives of contemporary photographers. To mothball the photography collections and to axe all the staff when photography is such an important medium in today’s society would be very short-sighted.”

The official consultation period ends on 12 January. Supporters of the library are invited to join the Paul Hill and John Myers’s petition, organised by Friends of the Library of Birmingham or pledge their support via a dedicated online survey:

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

UPDATE: This story has been edited since its first publication to make corrections and add further nuance to the context of some of the comments made by key participants in the story.

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.