How did you become a picture researcher?
In 1976, when I was 16, I began work at The Royal Armoured Corps Manning & Records Office when it was situated in my home town of Whetstone in North London. I bumped into a tall, military gentleman in the canteen at lunchtime. Literally, walked smack into him. I was reading whilst walking, a pastime which can be fraught with peril. The gentleman was a soon-to-retire Colonel in the 17th/21st Lancers, a cavalry regiment of great fame in history. We got talking, as the book I had been reading was ‘British Regular Cavalry’ by Leonard Cooper.
He showed me the museum and I asked if I could help out in the museum during my lunch breaks. He agreed, and got me to have a look at some photos of the lancers that he could not identify, to see if a fresh pair of eyes and a younger mind might spot something, which I did. Using the rest of the collections considerable card index records and other photographs, I was able to identify the photos as being taken in Meerut in India in 1937.
After that, I was hooked on researching old black and white photos! Six months later I began work at the National Army Museum’s Education Dept, and one of the jobs was identifying images and artefacts that members of the public brought in or sent in to us. And, although I left the Museum in 1979, I have been involved in picture research ever since (with a three year break from doing it full time, during my time at University).
You’ve set up your own company in image identification, can you tell us more about this expertise?
I spent many years identifying images with no information on them, at The Photo Source and at The Press Association. I am a lateral thinker. If I cannot find the information one way, then I will seek all other possibilities for obtaining the information, no matter how unlikely they may seem. My clients contact me via my website and tell me as much about the photo or photos they want identified. If they can I ask them to send a High Res scan in of the image, front and back. I then research the image (s) and send them back as much new info as I am able to find. If they request a full search with all the relevant information possible, that takes more time, but can be done.
There is often so much information in an image that can aid in identification, it is just having the experience to be able to see that info and to know how to use it to further identification. A newspaper in a pocket may show the date; a building may have been destroyed by fire in a particular time, thus meaning that it has to be before that date. A type of car, horses on streets, shop signs. Many different ways of dating images and placing in their correct geographical location.
Most individuals want to identify a picture that has some personal connection to them or to another family member, such as a great grandfather during World War One, or the first car bought by a family member, in the 1910’s. Corporate clients contact me as a consultant, to identify large numbers of photos that have no information, little information or incorrect information. The more metadata there is, the more their clients have a choice, the more sales can be made.
Are you specialised in any specific area or era?
I specialise in Military History for all eras. I also specialise in transport of all types and criminal history, social unrest and espionage. For most photographs it is from the advent of mass photography in the 1850’s to the end of the dominance of the black & white era in the 1970’s.
What has been your most exciting discovery while identifying images?
Whilst working for The Photo Source I was responsible for checking the unopened crates of a library called Three Lions, from America. Several of the crates contained World War One images that had not been seen since the 1920’s, so that was rather fabulous!
And whilst working for The Press Association and compiling a photo-book on the history of Aviation, I came across a b/w neg of two men working in an early aircraft factory. The caption info was almost non-existent, with just the briefest of entries in the old log book. But the men looked vaguely familiar. After much research I was able to name both men as Wilbur & Orville Wright, the American aviation pioneers, in the new aeroplane factory at Shell Beach in Kent that belonged to the Short Brothers. The Wright Brothers had granted the Short Brothers a licence to manufacture The Wright Flyer in Britain, this enabling Short Brothers to become the first aircraft manufacturing company in the world. A very jolly find!
Can you give us a sneak peek into what you are currently working on?
I can! And it’s proving to be one of the most difficult I have ever worked on.
I have been given no information as there appears to be none. All I know for certain is that it is a tomb/memorial from either the later part of the 17th C or the early part of the 18th C, that the man is a military or naval man, from a wealthy and noble family. But the image is too grainy to get any of the wording or finer detail.
By the structure and the surroundings I am tempted to say European rather than English, and by the interior decoration I thinking maybe Italian, but I am far from certain. It is possible that the picture was taken before or during WWI. So it is possible that the cathedral or church that this monument is in, no longer exists as hundreds were destroyed in both World Wars. It is in postcard format, hence the poor quality of the image, but with no identification at all on the back, just the dividing line and the PS box. A tough one indeed. I love it! Nothing quite like a challenge before breakfast!
There is a great enthusiasm around image recognition and identification technologies: as a specialist on identification, what do you think about those innovations?
I must say that I am still learning about much of the emergent technology in this field, so this is my personal view only. Based upon technologies developed by the secret services and police of several countries, to try and track criminals and terrorists, it was perhaps inevitable that the technology would be adapted for use in both apps and other fields of identification and recognition.The ID tech is advanced enough to gather similar images together based on geographical locations, male or female and a few other factors.
I have considered what the application of such technologies would do for the photographic industry, both current, and in archives and collections. Can this technology be used for black and white photos? Of course it can and such basic software does exists in most archives online databases but mostly relies on keyword searches. So, using the new, emergent technologies and keywords should do the job perfectly, right? Not yet. I have seen the results from Google’s photo search, and the technology is not yet specialised enough to go into minute detail.
So much of what we Archivists and Image and Footage Researchers do is personal skills and experience. We know that an image or film stock is right for our client often at first glance. Experience is not something that can be replaced easily with technology. However, it will become valuable this field, once the intricacies of photo or footage have been input into the technologies’ matrix, and once a suitable algorithm has been written for the software allowing it to access a multitude of information databases: we could be looking at a whole new way of image and footage research and identification. The technology will come and it will, I hope, aid people such as myself and archivists and researchers do their job better, faster and with a greater chance of success.
As an identification expert what is the best advice you can give to archive researchers, filmmakers and producers working on historical docus?
Know your subject intimately. Find out all you can. When researching images or footage, make sure you are looking at the right images and the appropriate footage. I have seen many instances of the wrong image being used to illustrate a history piece and the wrong footage being used in the same fashion. Even worse is the captioning of images and footage. Spelling mistakes are bad enough but when you get a name wrong or place or object, it gives out false information to all who watch it or read it, many of whom will not know.
I am glad to say that this is happening less and less over the years, but still too much for the historical documentary industry to become complacent. And if in doubt over the historical veracity of something, then ask the archivists, they often know their collections inside out. Or contact someone who specialises in identification. But don’t put the wrong thing up on screen, please. It makes me mad and spills my gin and tonic…