The opening of Argentea, a new gallery dedicated to contemporary photography in St. Paul’s Square this October marks a most welcome new chapter in the history of photography in Birmingham.
Situated in the heart of the city’s famous Jewellery Quarter, the gallery takes its name from the Latin word for silver. In addition to evoking strong associations with the history of the Quarter, the name also serves as a reminder of the camera’s dependency on silver nitrate, the compound whose light sensitive properties formed the foundation for most photographic films and papers prior to the digital era. It’s also perhaps a reminder of a time when Birmingham was noted for its leading role in the manufacture of the polished silver plates upon which early photographs were made.
Birmingham’s relationship with photography stretches back to the birth of the medium. In 1880 one local writer cast the town in the role of midwife to the medium when he declared that:
“If Birmingham cannot claim to have originated photography, she is at least entitled the merit of having assisted at its birth. She can also worthily claim the credit of having given it substantial help as it struggled through many difficulties to maturity. She can, in addition, claim that she gave the new art most welcome aid and sympathy; and that some of the most successful photographic discoveries and operators have been amongst those of her own household.”
In August 1839 Birmingham hosted one of the earliest exhibitions of photography in England. Some contemporary reports also suggest that a street view made in the town centre that same year was amongst the earliest daguerreotypes made in England.
Birmingham helped advance both the art and science of photography. It was a leading centre for the manufacture of photographic apparatus, becoming “one of the chief seats of camera manufacture” in England. It played a key role in teaching generations of photographers how to employ the power of the camera to a vast array of commercial, medical, industrial and creative applications. It also played a significant role in promoting the understanding and appreciation of photography to new audiences within and beyond the city.
Whilst a detailed history remains to be written, it’s clear that Birmingham’s special relationship with photography goes back to the very dawn of the photographic era. Some would argue that it actually goes beyond this moment, to the experiments made by Thomas Wedgewood and the members of the Lunar Society into the transformative relationship between light and silver salts in the eighteenth century. However, no matter how much or how little evidence eventually emerges to support these priority claims, one indisputable fact remains: over the last one hundred and seventy-seven years Birmingham made a substantial and significant contribution to the evolution of the medium which forever changed the way we saw, recorded, represented and thought about the world.