Conservation and Management of Photography (2a)

Seminar-Workshop on Asia-Pacific Forum for Library and Achives Management Training
Bangalore, India, UTC- June 1-30, 2004

Week 3: Conservation and Management of Photography (2a)

Paul Jenkins
Hon. Lecturer in Non-Western History
University of Basel

2A A chronology of key technical developments in photography
of importance for mission and church archivists, based on experience with the mission archive in Basel.

NB (1) Mission and church archivists need perhaps to know when the main technical developments in the history of photography took place. But they also need to be aware the application of new techniques in church and mission is often delayed by scarcity of money.

NB (2) producing a simple schema for the technical history of photography before 1914 is not easy. Different photographic techniques were being developed and in their competition with one another some were losing out. Indeed this is a time when there was acute nationalistic competition in science and technology at least between European nations. Also the general situation in the use of photo techniques was probably different in each of the major western nations. “Globalisation” in this field occurs only with the development of firms like Eastman Kodak in the early 20th century.

Stage one: 1839-ca. 1880. A photographer had to be his own chemist!

1839 simultaneous development of daguerrotype and calotype photography in France & Great Britain.

ca. 1850: development of a further and then very widely-used photographic technique: the wet plate collodium process.

All three processes demanded high technical skills......wet plate collodium photography involved ca. 20 separate hand operations with chemicals to produce a developed and fixed negative.

Nevertheless even while photography was a laborious and uncertain activity you find it being used in the framework at least of European missionary societies (What was happening in the U.S.A?) The first exponent of photography known to me remains the LMS mission executive William Ellis during his visit to Madagascar in 1852. From 1860 in the world of the Basel and Bremen missions each “mission field” (with the exception, as far as we can see, of China in the Basel Mission) had one missionary who was taking photographs. Any missionary society at work in the 3rd quarter of the 19th century must have had some sort of policy on photography: was it going to use photography? And if so how was this going to be organised?

In the third quarter of the 19th century it is also clear that photography was putting down roots outside Europe and North America. In the major ports from Madeira to Hong Kong professional photographers were setting up shop, and the colonial gentry was taking up photography as a hobby. Photography as an activity might penetrate inland, as in India, if supplies could be obtained and there was some sort of market. Someof these professional and hobby photographer were Europeans, but increasingly both groups of photographers included indigenous people. Indeed, if the history of missionary photography was completely unknown 20 years ago, now it is the unknown history of photography in the major regions of Asia and Africa which demands lots of energetic reseach!

Mission and church archivists should in any case be aware of the fact that important holdings of photographs from this epoch seem to have disappeared (photographs from some of Livinstone’s expeditions to Africa e.g.! No doubt there are Asian parallels).

Stage 2. ca. 1880 till ca. 1914. Industrially-produced dry-plate negatives are available for immediate use.

For the first time taking photographs seems to have become a relatively straightforward process. Judging by the Basel Mission the number of missionaries taking photographs increased considerably. In the expanding mission field in Cameroon e.g. it seems that a camera accompanied each major journey of exploration into unknown parts of the interior from 1890.

Stage 3. Development of simple snapshot cameras and wind-on film, especially from 1920 onwards.

In Basel we note a considerable loss of quality and significance in mission photography in the inter-war period. Taking photographs was widely practised. There were people working for the organisation achieving a professional or semi-professional level of photography. It seems, however, that most members of the organisation who took photographs did not have training at this level. The possibility of taking snapshots easily, stopped people from thinking about the composition and the message of their pictures as carefully as they had done in the past.

Stage 4: Improving cameras, increasing use of colour photography after 1945/50

At the moment in Basel the huge photographic holdings which were generated after 1945/50 have not yet entered the responsibility of the archive. But it seems to me to be generally true that during the second half of the 20th century large numbers of technically high-quality images will have been produced by missionary society workers,, and indeed up to the late 1990s there were, in the Mission House in Basel (as with the other German mission headquarters I know) professional photographers responsible for taking photographs, and also responsible for storing and making accessible the collection of recent and contemporary photographs (partly stimulated by new publication possibilities – see the parallel chronology on publicaton possibilties, para 3B). I wonder, incidentally, how many missionary societies you could find with significant professional photographers on their staff whose parents had been on the mission field?

P.J. Basel 8.6.2004

Contact Persons *

Mrs. Elizabeth T. Pulanco, Convenor, email:
Mr. Yesan Sellan, Secretary,,

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