Es­teemed city photo ar­chiv­ist dies aged 60

Pays trib­ute to Li­brary of Birm­ing­ham pho­to­graphic his­to­rian Pete James whose pas­sion put the city in the pic­ture

Birmingham Post - - NEWS -

PETE James, the award-win­ning for­mer head of pho­tog­ra­phy at the Li­brary of Birm­ing­ham, has died at the age of 60.

He had been suf­fer­ing from a rare liver dis­ease for a num­ber of years but had con­tin­ued to work as a free­lance cu­ra­tor and pho­to­graphic his­to­rian since leav­ing the li­brary in 2015.

His most re­cent project was Thresh­olds, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with artist Mat Col­lishaw, seen at the Mu­seum & Art Gallery last year.

It used cut­ting edge vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy to re­con­struct a pi­o­neer­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs by Wil­liam Fox Tal­bot held in Birm­ing­ham in 1839.

Mr James moved to Birm­ing­ham in 1984 to take an MA in the his­tory of art and de­sign at the then Birm­ing­ham Polytech­nic.

His su­per­vi­sor sug­gested he should look at the li­brary’s pho­to­graphic col­lec­tions, and what he dis­cov­ered there be­came his life’s work.

The city was sit­ting on a trea­sure trove of pho­to­graphic ma­te­rial, amount­ing to an es­ti­mated three mil­lion items in­clud­ing orig­i­nal prints, neg­a­tives, lan­tern slides, al­bums and books il­lus­trated with orig­i­nal pho­to­graphs.

But it was largely in­vis­i­ble be­cause many of the pho­to­graphs had been col­lected as il­lus­tra­tions by var­i­ous dif­fer­ent de­part­ments, and were spread over seven floors of the build­ing.

He made a pre­sen­ta­tion to the then city li­brar­ian, Pat Cole­man, who was suf­fi­ciently im­pressed to create first a part-time and then a full-time post for him. Over the years he con­tin­ued to re­search the col­lec­tion and pro­duced nu­mer­ous ex­hi­bi­tions and pub­li­ca­tions based on it.

Com­ing to Light, a book pub­lished to co­in­cide with an ex­hi­bi­tion of the same ti­tle in 1998, gives an over­view of its breadth, rang­ing from Roger Fen­ton’s im­ages of the Crimean War to then re­cent work by Birm­ing­ham pho­tog­ra­phers Matthew Mur­ray and Peter Max Kand­hola.

Sir Ben­jamin Stone, the Vic­to­rian Birm­ing­ham MP and a na­tion­ally im­por­tant fig­ure in es­tab­lish­ing a tra­di­tion of doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy, was the sub­ject of a ma­jor out­door ex­hi­bi­tion held in Cen­te­nary Square in 2008.

As well as work­ing with the ex­ist­ing col­lec­tion, Mr James ac­tively added to it, com­mis­sion­ing or ac­quir­ing work by se­nior liv­ing pho­tog­ra­phers like Paul Hill, John Blake­more, Daniel Mead­ows and Van­ley Burke.

Mr James’s en­ter­prise made him a much-liked and ad­mired fig­ure not only on the Birm­ing­ham cul­tural scene but na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

This was of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edged in 2009 when he was pre­sented with the Colin Ford Award, named af­ter the cre­ator of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Pho­tog­ra­phy, which recog­nises ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to pho­to­graphic his­tory.

Sadly, his vi­sion of a ded­i­cated pho­tog­ra­phy gallery in the new Li­brary of Birm­ing­ham never quite came to pass.

Even worse, the fi­nan­cial cat­a­clysm which slashed staff and open­ing hours shortly af­ter the new build­ing es­tab­lished it­self as the lead­ing tourist at­trac­tion out­side Lon­don also swept away his post. Nev­er­the­less, his achieve­ment is re­mark­able, and it re­mains for oth­ers to build upon if Birm­ing­ham’s cul­tural life can ever re-emerge from the shadow of aus­ter­ity.

> Pete James, who was head of Pho­to­graphs at Birm­ing­ham Cen­tral Li­brary

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