Derby’s Photographic Legacy - the impressive archive of WW Winter Ltd on show
- Credit: Archant
Nigel Powlson talks to artist and curator Debbie Cooper about the impressive archive of WW Winter Ltd, currently the subject of an exceptional exhibition
WHEN artist and curator Debbie Cooper first took a peek into the WW Winter photography archive she was warned that this treasure trove of old pictures was so captivating that she might never want to leave.
Debbie knew of the reputation of the Winter’s collection but was still unprepared for its sheer size and quality. ‘It’s an outstanding collection – a historian’s dream,’ she says.
‘I originally only saw it as a six-month project after putting in a bid to the Arts Council – but four years later I’m still fundraising, working with them and trying to find ways to archive and look after this collection.
‘It’s an amazing place. I can dip into any box of negatives and find inspiration and I could carry on doing that forever. They have not only captured all these amazing images but the quality of the photography is astonishing. The more I look at other historical images, the more the Winter’s collection stands out.’
WW Winter Ltd is celebrating 150 years at its historic Derby studio on Midland Road in 2017 and has received a grant of £45,800 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for an exhibition at Derby Museum to celebrate that landmark.
The project will be part of the FORMAT International Photography Festival, the UK’s largest biennial photography festival, which is organised and hosted by QUAD in Derby.
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For Debbie the latest edition of FORMAT is also the next step on the Winter’s journey.
She said: ‘For FORMAT 2013 I was running a project called “Derby at Work” and I asked businesses and the public to submit pictures of their working day and Winter’s sent a photograph of daylight printing from the early 1900s.
‘I was blown away by it and when I spoke to them they told me they had masses of unarchived negatives and plates. I arrived to find a cellar with loads of boxes of glass plate negatives with all these faces of people from decades ago – as an artist it was captivating to see all that.
‘So many people’s grandparents and parents have had their wedding photos, baby pictures and family portraits taken there. They have been a key part in people’s lives. These are very important memories.’
It was never the intention of a working studio to become an archive, but an accidental social history spanning more than 150 years has been created.
Debbie says: ‘That’s pertinent to many businesses across the area. Derby is quite lucky that it has the likes of Royal Crown Derby and Rolls-Royce which have very long histories. So many people’s working lives have taken place in these businesses that they have become accidental social historians.’
But nothing quite matches Winter’s, even though not all the photos are necessarily well preserved.
Debbie says: ‘The glass negatives are in a range of conditions. Winter’s is a working studio with the remit to photograph the Derby public day-in, day-out. That has given them no time to engage with their archive. It was also occasionally flooded as it was kept below ground.
‘I came along at the right time and I asked them if I could be their artist in residence. I said I would do it for free as I just wanted, as an artist, to delve into the archive. They let me start pulling out negatives and begin scanning them and eventually I took them to the dark room and for the first time in decades I started printing from them. I started making my own glass plate negatives as a response to that, rediscovering this lost technique and as very few people know how to do this I have started teaching it around the country.
‘For Format 2015 I did a call out across the city for anyone who looked like the original portraits I had unearthed in the collection and I met some fantastic people. I shot them with the same types of camera on the same backdrops, which were over 100 years old. There was something quite magical about recreating those moments.
‘Winter’s also used to create some enormous negatives as if you wanted a large picture that’s what you had to do. In the war they gave away a lot of these enormous plates to make greenhouses due to the glass shortages. In homage to that I made a negative greenhouse for FORMAT.
‘I was aware though that although I was an artist using this treasure trove they really needed an archivist to get in there. Fortuitously, the Heritage Lottery fund had just made funding available to private businesses for the first time. I wrote a funding bid and Winter’s became one of the first private firms to receive funding this way.’ This funding enabled us to work with archivist Jane Middleton-Smith to start digitising and cataloguing the collection.
Even then Winter’s had more mysteries to unveil to Debbie.
She says: ‘We discovered a false wall and behind it were tons of glass plates and even prints of Derby County players from the turn of the century. The plates stored in boxes were numbered but a lot of the paperwork was pulped in the Second World War due to the war effort. The ones behind the wall in the cellar we assume were rejects as they were never numbered so there is no way of knowing who is pictured.
‘Some of the plates even made us think again about how old Winter’s actually is. They have been saying for years that the firm was established in 1867 but these plates were older than that. We discovered that they had been around since 1852 but moved to the Midland Road building in 1867.’
W W Winter can now trace its origins back to 1852 when a photography studio was set up by Emmanuel Nicolas Charles. His assistant Walter William Winter took over the business on Charles’ death in 1863 and moved into new, purpose built premises (designed by Derby architect Henry Isaac Stevens) in 1867. It is believed that this date makes Winter’s the oldest photographic studio in the world.
Debbie says: ‘The purpose built studio opened 150 years ago and to celebrate that we put in another funding bid to the Heritage Lottery and have funds for another archiving programme and a retrospective exhibition that will be seen during FORMAT this year.
‘We are working with curator Greg Hobson and there will be two shows. The main space will look at some of Winter’s history and a selection of their work. It’s hard to know where to start. You could do a Winter’s show every year for a century and still not show all the collection – there are so many stories.
‘Greg has focused on People, Places & Things – that includes some of the earliest plates right up to some quite modern ones. They shed a lot of light on Derby’s past. There are pictures of prisoners-of-war from 1914-18 who were held just outside the city. There are cityscapes and street scenes and businesses that invited Winter’s in to photograph them. It gives a little flavour of the collection.’
In an adjoining room will be a recreation of a Winter’s photographic parlour with a backdrop made especially for the show that is a replica of one of the originals.
‘It looks as if it could have been Dovedale,’ says Debbie. ‘So visitors can have their picture taken like a Winter’s original.’
Debbie believes that the exhibition will put the Winter’s archive firmly in the spotlight. ‘There are very few collections like this. Many of the old studios have closed and what usually happens is their collections are broken up – the locomotive pictures go to a train museum and the Army pictures to the Imperial War Museum. So having a collection that is still whole and goes back this far is a unique social history. It also shows all the changes that photography has gone through.’
The sheer volume of pictures is both an asset and a major headache. Debbie says: ‘It takes so long to scan and archive these pictures that it is frustrating that there are so many stories we can’t give people access to yet. There has to be more fundraising to get more scanning and archiving done.’
Winter’s is now going through a trust process with Derby Museum to build a charitable arm that would enable it to preserve the collection long term. Debbie says: ‘Then we need to raise the money to get the collection digitised and catalogued. It’s so important to keep that work going. And while people keep going to be photographed at Winter’s they are supporting that continuing story and archive. It’s still a family-run business and they care very deeply about their place in the city. We also need to ensure the building is maintained as it’s a perfectly preserved Victorian studio – that’s rare. To have all of this preserved for the city for all time would be amazing. Hopefully the exhibition in FORMAT will help raise not only the profile of Winter’s but also of Derby – it’s great to have those stories out there on a world scale.’ w
W W Winter Photography Ltd was established in its present studio in Midland Road in 1867 and 2017 marks its 150th anniversary. To celebrate this milestone, photographs and items from Winter’s archive collection will be on display at Derby Museum as part of this year’s FORMAT Festival.
The new exhibition People, Places & Things, is a retrospective of W W Winter Ltd curated by Greg Hobson, previously Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum in Bradford. The exhibition will include a selection of the earliest surviving photographs; a series of early ‘glass plate’ studio portraits of Derby people made in the 1850s and 1860s. It will also include a display of vital, yet often overlooked objects, such as backdrops, studio furniture and props, alongside documents and items which tell the story of the studio and the wider history of photography. The exhibition will also present previously unseen items including business records, plans and layouts of the studio, as well as revealing the process of making a 19th century photographic portrait.
Besides the main exhibition, a second space will be used to create a Victorian Portrait Studio in the museum gallery, for the public to engage with.
The project will also feature a participatory exhibition about the photographic heritage of Derby, called Your Archive, showing images from W W Winter, Derby Stereoscopic Company, Richard Keene and others. The project will be asking the public of Derby for copies of their old studio photographs to add to this exhibition.
A series of workshops and talks about photographic heritage will also take place during the exhibition at various FORMAT venues, available to the general public. W W Winter’s will open its premises on several dates throughout FORMAT Festival, allowing the public to step back in time and experience the hidden treasures of a Victorian Portrait Studio.
People, Places & Things at Derby Museum & Art Gallery, will take place from 24th March to 23rd May. FORMAT International Photography Festival will take place in QUAD and other Derby venues from 24th March to 23rd April.