It’s quite a claim. But after thirty years of rescuing, preserving and indexing archives of global importance, sixteen years of computer indexing, seven years of scanning these irreplaceable images and five years of merging these and many fascinating and specialist collections on to one major website, with a million pictures already on line, it is a claim that can be supported, particularly since, in February 2005, 100,000 pictures from the incomparable treasure trove which is Roger-Viollet of Paris (indexed in English) 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.
The Ancient Art and Architecture Collection, Fotomas Index UK, Heritage Image Partnership, the Werner Forman Archive and Woodmansterne are already on the site, placing 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 only one of the unique specialist agencies hosted at TopFoto. Ann Ronan Pictures covers the history of technology and all the sciences in the UK, Europe and North America. The Charles Walker Collection is the world’s premier archive of myth and magic and is the life work of Charles Walker, who has published more than fifty books on these subjects. The Fortean Picture Library, called after Charles Fort (1875-1932), was created in 1978 by Janet and Colin Bord, who are well-known for their numerous published books on mysteries and strange phenomena.
FirePix International has superb pictures of fire and firefighting and prevention and has won international distinction for its work. 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.
From the USA, The Image Works is the premier independent stock photo agency for all aspects of America, while Photri has a comprehensive collection specialising in space, aerospace, war and the American armed forces. Denmark is covered by Polfoto, part of the largest Danish media-group. For Russia and the former Soviet Union, from historical beginnings to the present day, where better than Novosti (the Russian information agency RIA Novosti).
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.
Topham, with Picturepoint, 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 Karsh, 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 Ken 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 fifteen 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 150,000 digital picture base is now part of TopFoto.co.uk, a six terabyte fibre optic web site 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 1.2 million pictures.