It’s quite a claim. But after thirty three years of rescuing, preserving and indexing archives of global importance, sixteen years of computer indexing, ten years of scanning these irreplaceable images and seven years of merging these and many fascinating and specialist collections on to one major website, with three and a half million pictures already on line, it is a claim that can be supported, particularly since 300,000 pictures, captioned in English, from the incomparable treasure troves of Roger-Viollet, Paris; Alinari, Florence and ullsteinbild, Berlin have been added to the site.
The sudden advent of new – and expensive – technologies, shrinking picture research departments and ever more intensive pressure on picture researchers have been making life difficult for specialist libraries and archives. Many have given up, or have disappeared into mega-agencies. Even when the specialist agencies have invested in their own websites it is not always possible for busy researchers to access several sites to find the picture they want.
TopFoto aims to provide a market place for the specialist and general agencies to remain independent and yet to compete on equal terms, while researchers can access a one-stop shop where they can find and licence just exactly what they want.
The Ancient Art and Architecture Collection, Fotomas Index UK, Heritage Image Partnership, The Punch Cartoon Library, the Werner Forman Archive, Woodmansterne, and the World History Archive place TopFoto firmly among the premier sources for cultural heritage. To these are added the files of the famous publisher George Rainbird, for whom many of today’s picture researchers worked. Rainbird shrewdly pioneered the printed integration in book form of colour and black and white pictures. His most famous coup, however, was persuading the Egyptian authorities to remove the glass cases from the Tutankhamun treasures before photographing them. ArenaPal Images, an unrivalled collection covering all aspects of the performing arts, is one of the unique specialist agencies hosted at TopFoto. The Fortean Picture Library, for man, myth and magic.
Crime and the Law in the UK are comprehensively covered by Photonews, based at the Court of Old Bailey in London. Professional Sport specialises in award winning sports photography. UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) shows staggering images of the world’s beauty but also massive environmental abuse and destruction. Visual & Written, Spain specialise in the rich colours of underwater photography.
The vibrant new Scotland and its matchless landscape and history can be found at Scotland in Focus and The Business AM Library. National Pictures provides a stream of pictures for the national press, UPPA has some 3.5 million pictures especially useful for personalities, including early pop and film stars. The archives of The Observer Colour magazine are an important source of rare colour for the look of the 1960s and 1970s. From the USA, The Image Works is the premier independent stock photo agency for all aspects of America. Washington DC based, Photri has a comprehensive collection specialising in space, aerospace, war and the American armed forces, while ClassicStock offers rare model released material from the 1950s and 60s and the in depth Granger Collection of New York have an extensive historical collection. Denmark is covered by Polfoto, part of the largest Danish media-group, Turkey and the new-Europe is been photographed by Seskim Photo. East Germany is revealed in the GDR archive of Culture-Images, Gemany and for Russia and the former Soviet Union, from historical beginnings to the present day, where better than RIA Novosti. World travel destinations in stunning colour and quality are offered by the AA World Travel Library, Dinodia, India, Caro, Germany and a number of professional photographers all over the globe. Closer to home, UK cities are being taken in high quality digital format by UK City Images.
Topham Picturepoint, the parent company of TopFoto, has six million pictures dating from medieval manuscripts to today’s digital files and can meet many difficult picture requests. It was founded in 1975, when Alan and Joanna Smith bought the Topham archive of 120,000 pictures. The photographer John Topham was working as a policeman in the East End of London when he sold a picture to the Daily Mirror for 5 guineas – a fortnight’s wage! – and decided to become a professional. He devoted the rest of his life to photographing daily life in the countryside and suburbs of south-east England. His most famous picture is of hop-pickers’ children sheltering in a trench in 1940, while the Battle of Britain raged overhead. This picture flashed around the world and when published in Life Magazine was widely credited with changing American attitudes and helping to bring the USA into the war.
The new owners were trained as historians, not photographers, and used their new resource to write books around the pictures. An early work, Memory Lane, a record of the way we were, became a best seller, much used by set designers at the BBC. Other books were We’ll Meet Again, Edwardian Children, The Day Before Yesterday, Yesterday, Those Were The Days, Village Cooking, Farm Your Garden and the 1979 winner of the André Simon prize for the best wine book of the year, The New English Vineyard. Perhaps because of their historical interest, the Smiths were agonised by the destruction of so much of the photographic heritage. It was a time when nobody wanted pictures, when Francis Frith negatives were used for cloches in the factory garden and when the sound of breaking plate glass negatives could be heard at night in Fleet Street. There was ample storage space at the Smiths’ Victorian vicarage in rural Kent, where a rescue collection seemed to arrive every month. At one time there were a hundred filing cabinets under canvas on the lawn, whilst the contents were sorted.
First to arrive was most of the library that had been built around Illustrated Magazine, started in 1936 by Staffan Lorant before he started Picture Post, and numerous women’s magazines.
The next huge arrival was the UPI (London) negative collection. U stood for Universal, P for Planet News and I for International News Photos. The span was 1932 to 1970. Planet News is particularly interesting for its coverage of 1930’s Soviet trials, the Spanish Civil War, the USA and England’s social life.
By 1980 the collection numbered many millions, but the incoming tide was unstoppable. Other arrivals included a large part of the Press Association negative library 1945-1960, outstanding for its record of daily life. The Library has continued a long relationship with both the Press Association and Associated Press.
Next came the early negatives of Pictorial Press, started by Tom Blau before he founded Camera Press. It contains outstanding photography, including work by Ken Russell and other young meteors, and the subject matter is of great interest covering everything from world famous musicians, composers, conductors and ballet stars to Russell’s brilliant reportage on Teddy boys and girls from the 1950s.
The last of the really big analogue collections to arrive was Picturepoint in 1994. Picturepoint was, and is, one of the big players in travel and topography.
Topham early embraced new technologies – it was the first UK picture library to use a fax – and it was one of the first to realise that computer cataloguing meant that collections could be accessed at a single point of reference, which avoided the necessity of integrating files physically. It sounds so obvious now, but it was not widely grasped sixteen years ago. Work started in earnest in 1992 and there are eight million records on the Topham database today.
Topham added to its already huge files sets of the classic illustrated magazines, Illustrated London News (the first hundred years is now indexed), L’Illustration, Punch, Life, Assiette au Beurre, Signal, etc., etc. Online demand was voracious but digitisation of the images progressed steadily and slowly. The answer to the machine has been provided by the machine. Topham’s core digital picture base is now part of TopFoto.co.uk, which is now the home to many firms who use the site to host their own websites for the convenience of their own customers and whose collections are also seamlessly integrated with a site of two million pictures.
Like an angler, Alan Smith still mourns the big ones that got away. But perhaps it is just as well that Topham failed to acquire the BBC Hulton Picture Library and the two gigantic Express Group libraries. Its bid, if accepted, would have necessitated the removal of 300 filing cabinets within 24 hours before the Evening Standard building was knocked down.
Today the problems are not so much photography as technology – how to beat the dreaded vinegar syndrome which is destroying 1945+ negatives which were previously thought safe from decay, how to work with many production agencies receiving their pictures on a 24 hour basis, to provide 24 hour access both to agents throughout the world and to publishers in the UK, and to provide opportunity for TopFoto’s skilled staff to research creatively whilst providing a scan-on-demand service for customers.
A major part of the collection has recently been moved to a substantial building in Edenbridge, Kent, whilst conservation scanning is done at other sites, linked by broadband. The Edenbridge site is also linked to over forty overseas agents and pictures move continuously around the world. Tom Blau told the newly formed Topham library that the reason he had such good photographers at Camera Press was that they knew that somebody, somewhere, every minute of the day, was selling their pictures. And, for the libraries they represent, that is true of TopFoto.co.uk today. This article first appeared in Montage, the magazine of the Picture Research Association