The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

“Increasingly, everyday amateur photography is a performative practice connected to presence, immediate communication and social networking, as opposed to the storing of memories for eternity, which is how it has hitherto been conceptualised” (Larsen & Sandbye 2014 p. xx)

At some point between the Marshall Mathers LP and the collapse of Leeman Brothers photography mutated and grew legs. Today everyday photos are no longer encountered sporadically reverently displayed on walls, tucked into hardback alums or folded into newsprint rather they are deeply embedded into the fabric of everyday life. As anyone who’s taken a picture of their lunch and shared it with the world (or alternately scoffed at an acquaintance who’s done so) can attest.

The short term implications of this shift are clear: photography in the 2010s is deeply, more so than ever, enmeshed with the technology through which it is created and shared with a photographer’s social networks. The ability to create and rapidly disseminate images has rapidly altered how individuals use images and the value that is attached to them. Whereas once a cherished snapshot shimmered miraculously in the face of everything that counted against its creation (cloud cover, motion blur, a finished film canister). Today’s images are evanescent, existing in the moment for the moment, showing both ourselves and those around us that we are in a moment and (whilst still performing a vital social function) are almost entirely supplanted a short while later when we next flick our phone out, open the camera app and hit the shutter button.

What the longer term implications of this are remain to be seen, but it is possible to see already how the instagramification of everyday life is starting to break out of the virtual part of our reality and impact upon the material world before us.

A couple of years ago, when I was temping at a large UK university, I was amused to notice outside one of the plusher campus buildings where my department had an open day stand, that the event’s organisers had set up a “selfie spot”. The “selfie spot” came resplendent with its own hashtag and open day attendees were being invited to stand on the spot and take their own picture. The purpose of the picture was clearly intended to encourage the prospective applicant to “picture themselves” at the institution, and just as crucially; share an image of themselves pictured at the institution with their wider social network and the world at large. A clever campaign, that probably seemed utterly bizarre to the parents and grandparents chaperoning the sixth form age attendees; but one which a scholar in the Department of Marketing at the university’s Business School could have taught as Social Marketing 101.

The snapshot in the age of the selfie, remains one of “visual culture’s cliches”, however, the inherently networked nature of everyday photographic practice makes it, if judged right, and incredibly potent marketing tool. There is nothing new about brands consciously trying to create an icon. As long ago as the 1950s, the popularity and public impact of Roland Barthes Espirt columns (collected and published as Mythologies) lead him to lucrative consulting work for companies, like Citroen; attempting to sculpt products that were irresistible to the public.

Timo Korpivaara - 1956 Rally Finland

A stylish mid-1950s Citroen DS rally car in Finland, Author Unknown (1956) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In architecture the urge to iconify goes back even further, what was the Acropolis if not a signifier for classical Athens? What were the Pyramids or the the Ziggurats of Ur? In the modern period both states and corporations hit upon the idea of using the buildings in which they were situated as physical symbols of their presence and power. From the earliest decades of the 19th Century banknotes featured pictures of the assets or offices of the banks where they were produced: an allegorical way of giving form to the abstract financial conjuring and transactions they represented. Goods producers as well, once mass advertising became a thing, began to put pictures of their premises (or an idealised set of premises) on their packaging and in information about their products. By the mid-20th Century in the words of Allan Sekula:

“Imagine the gaze of a stockbroker (who may or may not have ever visited a coal mine) thumbing his way [through a company annual report or a share prospectus] to the table of earnings and lingering for a moment on a picture of a mining machine… The concrete source of the abstract wealth being accounted for in those pages.” (Sekula in Wells eds. 1995)

Approaching our own time as sources of value have become ever more abstract (and in societies like the United Kingdom intangible values like prestige and spectacle have come to be as valuable as physical products) so the importance, for any public or private authority, of possessing an iconic building has only increased. Since the emergence of rollfilm in the late 19th Century it is hard to doubt that, slowly but surely, the “snapshot value” of a building has begun to be taken into account by both architects and those who commission them (interesting Kodak predates the Eifel Tower by a single year).

The great World Fairs of the early to mid-20th Century are a brilliant example of where this tendency began to emerge. To quote Douglas Murphy “it seems hard to believe now… But once whole families would travel to see the world’s fair”. From the clashes between the Axis powers and the USSR at the World Fairs of the 1930s to the last gasps of modernist optimism at New York in 1964 and Montreal in 1967 the pavilion designs at the World Fair were crafted with at least half an eye on the potential for them to provide a good backdrop for family portraiture.

Similar concerns can be observed on a more localised level. Writing in the early 2000s Tom Phillips recalled seeing a “tintype photographer”, hawking a primitive form of instant photography, at the Festival of Britain in 1951. A clear indication that the organisers thought it important that visitors were able to immortalise themselves besides their iconic displays, and of course; return home to share with their friends and family a memento of their trip to see Britain’s bright socialist future. Outside of Europe, doubtless a more modern impulse than a craving for shear gigantism, lay behind the leaders of newly independent “Third World” countries to build grand parliaments, convention centres and national monuments in their capital cities. From India and Brazil in 1950s, to the “Red African” countries in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Iran the middle east after they became mass oil producers, surely the desire that their people’s showcase their modernity through capturing snapshots of themselves in  Chandigarh, or Brasilia or posing before Azadi Tower, provided part of the impetus for their construction?

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

Azadi Tower Tehran, By Hooperag (File:Azadi_Square_in_Tehran,_Iran.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

All of these iconic constructions, however, are best suited to pre-digital photography. The bold statements that they make are perfectly shaped to fit the contours of an age prior to our own, when photography was not something that could be-in the words of Nancy Van House-done “any time, any place, without any prior planning” (Van House 2011). Twentieth Century tourists flocking to national capitals and coming home with a few dozen cherished frames, were relatively easily satisfied with a few sightseeing snapshots, a few intimate moments captured, maybe a frame or two providing a dash of local colour. Today’s highly networked camera phone wielder might still take “old fashioned” snapshots whether out of a sense of tradition or proprietary or for the sake of older relatives or acquaintances who are familiar with and comforted by the older style of picture (a similar logic presumably attaches itself to the lingering ritual, perhaps peculiar to the UK, of the posed school child in their school uniform). However, given how much a part of their everyday life photography is, it is necessary for the 21st Century iconic structure to offer a larger palette of photographic possibilities.

Tate Modern in London is a classic case in point. Designed in the 1990s at the tail-end of the traditional snapshot era, Tate Modern is designed to be encountered from the far side of the Millennium Bridge. Here the snapshot taker can arrange the objects of their affection, friends, family a lover, on the north bank of the Thames-opposite the squat gallery building with its distinctive chimney, the Millennium Bridge providing a graceful and easily legible way into the picture-and immortalise their own instantly classic shot.

Wobbly bridge 120600

Tate Modern opening day 2000, Wurzeller at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to this traditional, snapshot album friendly vista, the Tate Modern Extension-opened in the summer of 2016-is a mishmash of crazy angles, making it very hard to get the whole structure into the frame when trying to compose a shot. Which is surely the point. Whilst bracingly curved, anti-geometric museum and gallery structures; have been something of a fetish in the cultural sector ever since the Bilbao branch of the Guggenheim Museum appeared briefly on screen in The World is Not Enough just prior to James Bond abseiling out of a window, it is clear that the Tate Modern Extension has been designed for a very 2010s purpose: the selfie.

The Tate Modern Extension’s jagged form from its heavy dark bricked protrusions, to its gash like windows providing views over central London, is not supposed to offer a sense of the whole. Instead it offers up small individual chunks of itself and of London for the visitor to snap pictures of themselves against and promptly pass on to their social networks. The shear array of potentially interesting posing places offered by the new gallery (and many other buildings of the 2010s for instance the Library of Birmingham) is perfectly suited to an age when the “entry barriers to art [or merely artful photography” (Van House 2011) have crashed down. The purpose that the building’s endlessly selfiable aesthetic serves is similar to that offered by the optimistic national monuments of the mid-20th Century and the millennial naivety of the Millennium Bridge/Tate Modern vista: it allows for a certain limited kind of bourgeois self expression and self fashioning, whilst proclaiming the power of certain institutions. It also, thanks to the networks from which 21st Century digital photography gains its power, offers the Tate as an organisation, London as a “global city” and the United Kingdom as a worldwide brand brilliant exposure.

Tate Modern Switch House (27633103611)

By Jim Linwood from London (The New Tate Modern Extension – London.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for the 2016/17 academic year the University of Birmingham completed the switch from its old main Library, built in the late 1950s, to a brand new one. There were many reasons for the switch, many of them very good as the old library really wasn’t fit for purpose, however, one that wasn’t openly discussed was the potential for either of the University of Birmingham’s Libraries to serve as a photographic object.

20161205_124949

Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

20161205_125039.jpg

New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

It was clearly grasped in the 1950s that the University’s Library was a potent symbol of the institution and its values. There is for example newsreel footage of the Queen Mother opening Library in 1958. This is however, nowhere near as interesting as the role which the old Main Library came to play in one key aspect of the University’s life: graduation. When they have had access to cameras students have always been keen photographers, however, given the relative difficulty and barrier to taking photographs prior to the invention of digital photography and the camera phone, students until into the 2000s probably did not take all that many more pictures than the rest of the population. One occasion when photography was very likely to be present was at graduation right at the end of the students’ studies, when the family camera clasped in the hands of a proud older relative; would snap pictures of the proud newly minted graduate in their full regalia clutching their hardwon scroll.

At the University of Birmingham the sweeping rise of steps up to the terrace in front of the Main Library became the natural location for graduation photography. It is certainly a fairly well established tradition. My Mum and my uncle graduated from Birmingham Medical School in 1985 and 1990 respectively. Many of the half a dozen or so photographs from their graduations feature the Library and its steps prominently. Like a World Fair pavilion or the sweep of the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern the old University of Birmingham Library provides the perfect situation for the quintessential graduation picture. Its appearance solid, plain, vaguely modernist but with traditional flourishes, hewn from safely bourgeois redbrick (deeply evocative of the buildings built by the Edwardian Birmingham elite that created the institution) provides the perfect backdrop for a newly minted graduate about to step out into the world of respectable, comfortable employment.

20161205_124607.jpg

Frontage, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

 

The “visual cliche” (Berger 2011) of a graduate stood before a building that oozes with visual signifiers that connote the popular image of what a civic university’s buildings should look like carries with it the full weight of the expectations that are placed upon graduates. The photograph, once printed, framed and situated on the sitting room wall, carries with it the weight of the graduate’s expectations for their future, the family’s pride that they have achieved a university qualification (with all the social power that connotes) and on an ideological, level society’s wider investment in reproducing certain codes, values and behaviours in its middle class citizens.

20161205_124613

Entrance, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Birmingham’s new Main Library also lends itself to photography, but not of the traditional snapshot kind. As with the Tate Modern Extension it is very hard to fit the entirely of the new Main Library in one photographic frame. Suggests that the photo taker is not supposed to try and do so, as with the Tate Extension the granularity of the Library’s structure, the intricacies of its casing and its gaudiness lend itself to being the backdrop for a selfie.

20161205_105449

The author takes a selfie (completely unironically) outside the University of Birmingham’s new Main Library (all rights reserved, 2016)

Whilst there are certain angles from which it might be possible to pose a reasonable traditional snapshot with the new Library as a backdrop, in future graduates who want a classic graduation shot will have to make do with the Aston Webb, Law School, base of Old Joe or-if needs must-cross University Green to the Faculty of Arts Building. This suggests that if-viewed as a photographic object-serving as the site for a graduation photo is not its purpose.

Whether intentional or not the old Main Library building signified the end goal of western higher education: the reproduction of a certain kind of patriarchal bourgeois order. By contrast the new Library signifies and provides a backdrop for the higher education journey itself. To return to the “selfie spot” it can be read as a marketing tool with forty miles of shelving. On open days and school visits in the future it will act as a tempting canvas against which potential applicants will be able to picture themselves at University. Once they arrive the distinctive metallic cladding and gold fins will provide an infinite number of social media starbursts fleeting signifying the University to those who glimpse them on their newsfeeds.

20161205_105422

Frontage, New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Internally as well as externally the new Library provides a perfect playground for curating and cultivating certain images of University life. Countless Instagrammed, Snapchatted and Tweeted images of airy, well equipped, yet welcomingly informal study spaces, reinforce the (if not glamourous then at least worthily exciting) conception of university life that is the dominant code in popular discourse and the media. Social media posts provided for free do the work of the University Marketing Department more effectively than several Scandinavian forests worth of paper flyer and prospectuses thrust into wilting arms on a summer’s open day.

Reading the University of Birmingham’s libraries as photographic objects brilliant illustrates how networked digital photography and the emerging practices surrounding it has transformed popular photography. It is clear how the graduation photographs taken by generations of Birmingham students, and the countless everyday pictures of University life taken and shared by their successors, connote and reinforce certain key social meanings and messages. Today’s photography, like the photography that preceded it and like visual culture throughout time; speaks to the society in which it is created and the relationships through which it gains its meaning. It serves to illustrate a society in which technology has brought near infinite abundance and possibility in some spheres, whilst at the same time experiencing a sense that everything is ephemeral, provisional and liable to vanish into air.  

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s