Volunteering: Finding Inspiration in the Archives

Our first post from a project volunteer comes from Pamela Jane Wheeler,  a local photographer who has had experience in working with the Knights-Whittome collection as part of her final degree project as outlined below.   Pamela has been generous in offering her time alongside her day job and her skills are proving really useful to the project. We are pleased that she has been able to maintain her connection with the archives and that the collection continues to inspire her creatively.  The book that Pamela created as a result of her work with the Knights-Whittome plates;  Animate. Reworking the David Knights-Whittome Archive can be viewed on Pamela’s personal website below or can be viewed in hard copy at Sutton Library.

Pamela scanning and cataloguing plates in the Archives

Pamela scanning and cataloguing plates in the Archives

When I first met the Fossils  – Pamela Jane Wheeler, Volunteer
Back in 2012 my university course assigned us a work placement requirement. It had to be linked in some way to our project work, our interests and our future. I went with what I felt I was interested in at the time – organising and old things. In particular, old photographs.  Various family members suggested various things and I was directed towards my local library’s Archive centre, which I had not known existed. This could be the ‘career route’ that our photography tutors so desperately wanted us to discover. I got the experience placement for two weeks.

Whilst talking about my photography degree and interests in everything analogue, Kath Shawcross (the Borough Archivist & Local Studies Manager) and Sue Giddings (Archives & Local Studies Assistant) mentioned the Archive’s treasure trove. The secret gems that immediately caught my attention – would I want to take a look?! Walking through the building’s corridors and staff areas behind the library, down lifts and through locked doors, I was my own little version of Indiana Jones on a mission to discover something valuable. And boy did I do that.

After being shown a few of the glass plate negatives in the David Knights-Whittome collection, I was fascinated. Seeing the vast number of plates lined up in rows, surviving years and years in their brown envelope coats, I was hooked on their story and survival.

Going back to uni was fabulous and fun, and a year flew by. And going into my third and final year, I already knew exactly what my last, big thing would be. My Final Major was going to be my Knights-Whittome gem. I was going to meet the collection properly, create my own work from his, and attempt to revive some of the lost beauty.

So I went back to the Library Archive, stayed for hours and hours observing and admiring a small selection of the plates, taken at random, scanning their content and documenting their characteristics. I had created my own little archive of my discoveries. Around 50 plates and photographic print scans of David Knights-Whittome’s work, each with different characters and quirks, some damaged, some pristine – but all of them charming.  I was especially in awe of the detail in many of the plates, the crisp focusing and the intense looks in some of the eyes. They were looking right at me, from the negative glass and from the computer screen. They were preserved, living on as evidence of a past time, their own type of fossil.

I created a series of series using the scans of the plates as a starting point. Re-printing them in the darkroom using paper negatives, painting the new prints, manipulating them both on the computer and in the darkroom, ending up with a bulk of my own photographic work that was full of David’s original photographs. The project really had a life of its own, it was a journey that I travelled exploring the notions of these photographic glass plates as physical ‘beings’, lost memories, lost people, imprints of a past time. I found myself attached to these people in the pictures I was using, calling them by name and imagining who they may have been. Alongside the photographs I added personal creative essays to best annotate and describe the magic of the collection. I then put it together in a book, self-publishing it in a very short run, and subsequently exhibiting the whole project in Honeywood Museum, Carshalton for a short while in 2014.

The project, entitled ‘Animate: Re-working the David Knights-Whittome Archive’ is one of my biggest achievements as a photographic artist and a photographer, and I still look back at it sometimes and think, I made that?!  But I think that it is not over. That Final Major degree project was just the start.
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