My name is Keith Johnson and I have been working behind the scenes at Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives for the last few months, the majority of the time digitising photographic negatives by scanning and saving them to computer as high-resolution TIFF files.
Digitisation means creating digital copies of items from the archives with a view to increasing accessibility. Archives+ holds two key photographic collections, only one of which, the Manchester Local Image Collection, has been fully digitised and is available to view online.
The second collection, the Documentary Photography Archive (DPA) includes well over 100,000 images, mainly from family albums from across Greater Manchester. It captures the many varied aspects of ordinary people’s lives covering a time period from the mid 1800s through to the 1970s. However, only a fraction of these photographs have been digitised project-by-project. Those that have not yet been digitised are viewable by request, either in person or by requesting individual scans to be emailed. This digitisation process is continuing and those images that have been digitised so far are viewable on our Flickr photostream.
As part of a project to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WWI colleagues from the Archives+ team and I have been digitising images from the DPA. We have found a lot more than any of us expected!
The original photographs, and catalogue information which describes them, were created well before the digital age. This means that the photographs are not “tagged” in the way you might expect them to be nowadays (although we try to remedy this when we post them online.) For instance, a photograph of a soldier might be described simply as “Uncle Bill” in the catalogue, and there would be no way of knowing from an online search that he was uniformed, for what purpose, or when the photograph was taken – whereas now you might tag the photograph “soldier”, “1914”, “WWI”, etc.
An initial catalogue search produced a printed list of around 600 items “tagged” with the correct dates and search term variables. Two months later we’ve so far scanned over 2000 items and the end is not yet in sight!
The wealth and breadth of the material we’ve scanned already is astounding. There are lots and lots of studio-based portraits of soldiers about to set foot into the arena of battle, many of which bear the wear-and-tear of the passage of time. A lot of these are surprisingly well-preserved and skillfully taken. The digital scans capture a certain immediacy, almost bringing the subjects out of the past and into our age, at the same time making us realise we ourselves could have easily been in the same predicament. In addition there are numerous family portraits capturing wives and children alongside husbands and fathers about to leave and never to return, some of whom we know certain details about, and many we don’t know anything about at all.
There are certain portraits featuring men who did return, and we know this from the details provided with the photographs of them when the DPA was originally compiled – and from photographic evidence too. Lots of the family albums show soldiers becoming everyday citizens after returning from war, including photographs from throughout their lives in everyday jobs, holidaying in Blackpool, or becoming unsuccessful political candidates!
There are photographs of soldiers and sailors, pilots and their planes, platoons and battalions, of hospital wards containing the wounded, photographs of letters and postcards to and from the frontlines – even some of actual battle scenes, prisoners of war, and destroyed opposition tanks and biplanes. The battle scenes are not necessarily of the famous frontlines we’ve all heard about, but of those in Gaza and Egypt, for instance.
There are hundreds of photographs of the home front. Women feature overwhelmingly in these images – working in munitions factories, as land girls, and as nurses – lots of these in the guise of group portraits alongside the recovering wounded.
The images I’ve included here are a few of my favourites from those we’ve scanned and are available to view full-size and with further details on Flickr. They represent a small taste of a huge collection from which there is much more to come.
We hope to upload many more photographs over the next few years and to find out more about the people in them and their wartime experiences by getting involved in the Imperial War Museum’s Faces of the First World War project. If you can shed any more light on the images we’ve uploaded so far, please get in touch on email@example.com or leave your comments on Flickr.