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Snapshots in time.

Joanna Wright, Curator of Photography at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, takes us on a geographical tour through the photography archives at the Society

The Royal Geographical Society and photography share a history. The Society was founded in 1830, while photography was invented and its techniques refined during the 1830s. But not only do they share a history, both disciplines share a 19th-century belief in the objectivity of science. Geography and photography were both part of the new sciences that allowed the Victorians to document and study the world with empirical authority. Many early Fellows of the Society were also important contributors to the development of photography; men like Sir John Herschel, inventor of the Cyanotype process and Francis Galton, instigator of the composite photograph.

From the outset the Society has sought to collect books and maps and, as the Royal Charter states "advance geographical science and improve geographical knowledge". Once photography was established as an empirical recording device, the Society began to actively encourage its use by members and also to collect the photograph in all its forms. In the Geographical Journal, another publication produced by the Society, from the 1880s onwards, a note was included asking Fellows to forward copies of the photographs they took on their travels to the map curator of the Society. Thus the photographic collection began, and its form ranged from original prints, negatives or lantern-slides. Today, some 170 years after its foundation, the Society estimates its photographic holdings number over a half a million objects. A unique attribute of the collection is that much of the material has been donated and that many donors have been the actual photographers, even if they saw themselves as primarily travellers, explorers, surveyors, geographers or government officials. The camera was the instrument by which they faithfully recorded and documented their experiences of the world, its people and landscapes.

Photographs are only fragments of life, but they allow us, the viewer, a means by which to connect with and locate events, places and people. It is interesting to think of the early geographers and photographers using the science of photography to record their world. Would they have had any idea that future generations would want to use these images, to, as art historian John Berger writes, "refer to that which historical time has no right to destroy".

Haitian Woman with children, Haiti 1908-1909 by Sir HH Johnston

Johnston was a dynamic man who saw himself as an anthropologist, geographer, diplomat and artist. His use of the camera was prolific and today the Society houses over 1,000 glass plate negatives taken by him during his career in East Africa and the Caribbean. In 1908-1909 Johnston journeyed through the southern states of the USA and the Caribbean thoroughly researching the area's history, environment and society and recorded his journey in photographs. His images capture people in their everyday surroundings; they show the hustle and bustle of everyday life and are a unique historical record of Caribbean life

Cane Bridge, Tibet 1933 by Frank Kingdon-Ward

Frank Kingdon-Ward, botanist, traveller and winner of the Society's Royal Medal, specialised in the study and distribution of plants in Indo-China, particularly rhododendrons, primulas and lilies. He located the rare blue poppy and brought back its seed to Kew, where it can still be seen today. His forays led him to travel in remote regions relying on the hospitality of the local people he met. This image shows a local porter carrying a small puppy across a suspension bridge made of cane, and Kingdon-Ward presents this event not as a Romantic vision, but as part of his everyday existence

Watering pool, Solomon Islands in the 1870s by Sir JB Thurston

Sir JB Thurston was High Commissioner in the Western Pacific and Governor of Fiji during the 1860s and 70s. This image taken in the Solomon Islands shows European children at home in a tropical setting and allows us a glimpse of how these geographers and photographers viewed their world

Thami U arranged for her Fete (first-born girl) by Max and Bertha Ferrars

The Society holds 467 original glass plate negatives taken by Max and Bertha Ferrars who lived in various parts of East India over a 25-year period. Max held various posts in the Forestry and the Colonial Educational Services. Together Max and Bertha rigorously recorded the people and landscapes of Burma and published a book titled Burma in 1900

Mother and Child, Burma c. 1900 by Max and Bertha Ferrars

Portrait of Sir Ernest Shackleton on the Quest 1921 by Frank Wild

Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild shared a long Antarctic history together as both men were on the Discovery 1901-1904 expedition. Here, both men learned valuable skills which were to be so important to later expeditions, including the Nimrod, Endurance and Quest. Shackleton left the capable Wild in charge of his men on Elephant Island while he sought rescue after the Endurance was crushed. Together they returned to Antarctica on the Quest and Frank Wild took charge of the expedition after the death of Shackleton in January 1922. Shackleton was known simply to his men as `The Boss'

Robertson Bay, Discovery Expedition 1901-1904 by Captain Robert Falcon Scott

The RGS was instrumental in the pioneering Discovery expedition and today holds the original glass plate negatives taken during the three years that Scott and his men were away gathering valuable scientific information about this terra incognita

Lieut E Shackleton, Capt RF Scott and Dr EA Wilson before departing south on the Discovery Expedition 1901-1904 (Anonymous)

The expedition set out to map as much of the interior of Antarctica as possible and after a freezing three-month journey the men reached the then `furthest south' ever reached

Paddlers on Lake Kivu, Belgian Congo by AFR Wollaston

Wollaston devoted himself to travel and scientific pursuits. In 1905 he was a member of the British Museum expedition to Ruwenzori, where his main object was the collection of plants and animals. He was the first to ascend what was then supposed to be the highest peak of Ruwenzori, now known as Wollaston Peak. He wrote a book about the expedition, From Ruwenzori to the Congo

Everest from a Camp at 20,000 feet, Mount Everest Expedition 1921 by AFR Wollaston

Taken on the first official Mount Everest expedition of 1921, this image shows Everest, majestic in the background with a small inconsequential camp in the foreground. Lt Col Howard-Bury wrote about how he and the other members sat and watched the extraordinary sight of Everest from this camp for some time, transfixed by the mountain and the `plume of smoke' the wind creates at the summit.

Photography was an important element of the expedition. This image was taken by a Hare camera, on loan to the expedition and which for a short time attained the record of reaching the greatest height for so large a camera, at 22,500 feet. The members all had problems with the photographic equipment they took. Mallory famously put,the negative plates back to front, and Howard-Bury was `gassed' by fixing agent fumes to such an extent that he lost his voice for several days. These early images of Everest taken as a scientific record are quite astonishing in their ability to transport the viewer to another time and place


A limited number of all images are available for purchase and are part of the exhibition `Photographs from the Royal Geographical Society Picture Library' and can be seen at Atlas Gallery from 3-26 May 2001 at 55-57 Tabernacle Street, London EC2A 4AA. Tel: 020 7490 4540 for full details. A catalogue of images is available from Atlas Gallery. Cost 4.00 [pounds sterling]

Joanna Wright, Curator of Photography at the RGS-IBG will be giving a lecture about the Society's photographic collection at the RGS-IBG on Monday 30 April 2001. Open to Fellows only.

One lucky Geographical reader has the chance to win one of the limited edition prints of Everest from a Camp at 20,000 feet, by AFR Wollaston (shown above) worth 250 [pounds sterling]. Send your answer to the following question to Everest Competition, 47c Kensington Court, London WD 5DA

Q: In which year were George Mallory and Andrew Irvine last seen within 600 metres of the summit of Mount Everest?
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Title Annotation:geographical tour through the photography archives
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2001
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