Striking images: the 20th century, as told by Guardian photographers – in pictures

·5 min read

It was in 1905 that the Manchester Guardian published its first ever photograph, of the Angel Stone in Manchester Cathedral. Three years later, the paper hired its first staff photographer, Walter Doughty. In many ways the story of photography at the Guardian mirrors the story of the 20th century itself. And it’s a story that’s currently being told in a new exhibition, The Picture Library, at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, opening this week.

  • Woman sitting amid rubble, Irish civil war, Dublin, 1922, photographed by Walter Doughty

Some of Walter Doughty’s glass plate negatives survive, most notably those he exposed in Dublin in 1922 during the Irish civil war.

In the 1960s, even after major editorial departments were established in London and the name “Manchester” had been dropped from the masthead, the picture library stayed put in the north of England while another parallel one was created in the capital. Both newsrooms maintained a roster of staff photographers and associated facilities such as darkrooms. In the 1980s, the Manchester library finally moved south but it still sat alongside, rather than being integrated with, its London twin.

  • Sir Anthony Eden speaks at Kings Hall, Belle Vue, Manchester, 1955

With the advent of digital technologies in the 1990s, the picture library became increasingly redundant; nowadays it is used, primarily, for obituaries. The entire collection – some 100,000 individual files – has been transferred to the Guardian Foundation where professional archivists have repackaged it, catalogued it and made it available for study and research.

The selection of photographs for the Photographers’ Gallery exhibition includes everything from vintage treasures and discoloured agency wire photos to classic examples of the work of numerous Guardian staff photographers. Examples by celebrated names – Bruce Davidson, Madame Yevonde, Yousuf Karsh and Cecil Beaton – get no special treatment.

  • Scouts from the British empire, 1929, photographer unknown … from left: St Helena, New Zealand, South Africa, Scotland, Isle of Man, India, Gibraltar, England, Ceylon, British Foreign, Australia

The entirely idiosyncratic classification system adopted in the early decades of the 20th century for the management of the picture library reflected the relatively sedate role of photojournalism at that time. The library was split into two catch-all categories: subject and personality files. Portraits of personalities tended to be unambiguous headshots – a good likeness – that would be used over and over.

  • Mrs Randolph Churchill (Pamela Digby) and six-week-old son, Winston, 1940, by Cecil Beaton

The exhibition includes more than 200 images across the full gamut of archive file types and all genres of photojournalism. The display of the photographs ignores both chronology and category. Hierarchies once imposed by the picture editor are, for the most part, collapsed. The audience is encouraged to question meaning when a photograph is far removed from its immediate context, when it now exists, primarily, as a cultural artefact in a permanent collection. Taken as a snapshot of the entire collection, the individual photographs provide a fertile space in which the malleability and porousness of these photographs can be fully appreciated.

  • Juniors at Grove School, Handsworth, 1967, by Eric Wadsworth

One run of files from the Manchester collection reads as follows: “Railway stations, Rain Scenes, Railways abroad, Rambling, Rats and mice, Refrigeration, Refugees, Refuse disposal.” New commissions and agency pictures were integrated with existing files where possible, otherwise a new file was created. Some file names are so arbitrary – “Russian Groups 1952-1956” – that they must have functioned as a kind of personal shorthand for the picture librarian.

  • Communist leaders Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev meeting at the UN general assembly, 1960, AP wire photo

With the advent of features sections and colour magazines in the 1960s – the era of the 35mm camera – photographs assumed ever greater prominence but the picture library carried on unchanged, albeit now dealing with huge volumes of prints and negatives. Nowadays, the picture editor and her staff access well in excess of 40,000 images each day with hundreds being used across all platforms.

The Guardian’s liberal stance is reflected everywhere in the picture library, evidenced by the endless files of demonstrations, marches, political rallies, wars and conflict, social deprivation, strikes, women’s rights and more. This is particularly evident in the Women’s Page, first started in 1922. The picture library itself has proven a surprising repository of rhetoric, persuasion and a tool for the articulation of these liberal values.

  • Top: Muriel Hillon, chief shop steward on strike at Brannans’ thermometer factory, Cumberland, 1972, by Robert Smithies. Left: anti-apartheid demonstrator being removed from the South African Airways office, Manchester, 1972, by Robert Smithies. Right: Sikh demonstration, Leeds, 1974, by Denis Thorpe

However, as Nesrine Malik highlights in her accompanying essay, the sad reality that becomes evident with an overview of these decades of documentation, is how resistant to change the British establishment is, even the liberal establishment. The placards held aloft 50 years ago, whether dealing with immigration and racism, violence against women or working conditions, carry much of the language and urgency of our equivalent contemporary renditions.

  • “Gatwick Airport, London, a morning scattered with frost, sun, fog and lamentations. More than 100 Asians from Kenya – British citizens – are due to arrive and their relatives and friends already in England have turned out to meet them ...” Photograph by Eric Wadsworth, 1968, filed under Immigration General

Photographs, despite their claim to objectivity, have a capacity to resist precise definition and the ability to morph over time – what was once regarded as liberal might now be seen as offensive. In much the same way that chemicals were used to fix the photographic image, the Guardian picture librarians sought to “fix” the meaning of the images they filed by means of information attached to the reverse – a caption, a byline, rights’ holder, cropping instructions, date of each publication, sometimes even the article itself.

  • General Goering the lion tamer, 1934, Planet News Ltd, showing the original caption on the reverse of the print

These were all working prints, and they bear the marks of their use and reuse over time. Not only do these marks shed light on the complex relationship between image and text, they provide a startling insight into many of the major cultural and political preoccupations that have played out in the UK in recent years – race, gender, feminism, post-colonialism, immigration, globalisation and the climate crisis. No longer buttressed by their original context, these photographs can now be read as complex historical artefacts in their own right.

• The Picture Library is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, 25 June-26 September. The curator, Luke Dodd, established the Guardian Archive and has published several books on the work of celebrated Observer photographer Jane Bown.

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