Photo Archive Online

By Furtado, Peter | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Photo Archive Online


Furtado, Peter, History Today


Four large collections, together containing more than 50,000 historical photographs and paintings, have been put online with free access for educational usage. The vast Hulton Getty photographic library has joined forces with De Montfort University and St Andrews University in this new venture to create one of the world's largest collections of online historical images.

The Hulton collection was assembled by Edward Hulton, publisher of Picture Post magazine, and is the world's best source of photographs of the early twentieth century, especially of British history. It is built around the archive created by Picture Post from 1938 to 1957. During those twenty years, more than 9,000 articles were commissioned from photographers of the quality of Bill Brandt and Bert Hardie, for most of which dozens, or hundreds, of negatives were taken. Of these, only six appeared in the magazine (and only two thousand of the commissioned articles ever found their way into print). The Picture Post archive therefore represents a barely tapped resource of exceptionally high-quality images of British life in mid-century.

The Hulton Getty Picture Collection, as it is now called, has been gradually digitising this archive to improve access for commercial users. The new archive for students and scholars, known as `HELIX' (Higher Education Library Image exchange) includes approximately 15,000 of these images, many of them now available to historians for the first time.

The other collections involved in the HELIX scheme are St Andrews University's Valentine Collection, primarily of Scottish topographical images, which has never been publicly available before; and the British Arts Slide Library, now housed at De Montfort University but formerly known as the Fine Art Reference Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum; this includes photographs of a wide range of fine art images.

The fourth collection in the HELIX range has been assembled specifically for this purpose, with images chosen thematically by a group of historians including David Gilmour, Michael Hiley of De Montfort, and Robert Houston of St Andrews. This is selected from the entire Hulton Getty archive, and its 5,000 images cover thematic topics such as politics (personalities), labour history, feminist history, sport (selected by Wray Vamplew) and Irish history (Michael MacCarthy Morrogh). All these include images from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1970s.

The HELIX enterprise, which is partly funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (itself a part of the eLib or electronic library project) has a simple interface that allows the user to select images by name, type, date, topic or theme.

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