Photographic material held at The National Archives covers the historical time-span of this medium. It also covers a wide spectrum of photographic media, from glass plate negatives to colour Polaroids. Combined, the quantity of photographic material runs into millions of individual items. However, only a small percentage has been identified and catalogued. It is believed that the vast majority of photographs remain undiscovered in volumes, files and papers.
2. Aiding future research
Researchers are asked to assist The National Archives by notifying staff of any photographic material they find during the course of their research.
This may be done by:
- completing a 'photographs found' form, available from staff in the reading rooms
- noting the document references on a sheet of paper (mark the paper for the attention of the Maps and Photographs Team and hand it to a member of staff on duty in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew)
Your assistance will prove vital in expanding the provision of information for future researchers (it may be that you have benefited by using previously notified material, now described in our finding aids). By helping us in this way you are helping to ensure the long-term preservation of our national heritage.
3. Researching photographs
Photographs held at The National Archives may be found in either discrete series or enclosed within files and volumes of papers. A few of the discrete series comprise a specified collection. That is to say they were created as a specific photographic record. Rather more of the discrete series are photograph collations, usually created much later than the date when the photograph was taken. Many of the latter, and the vast remainder of photographs enclosed elsewhere in records, occur as an accompaniment to other documentary material. Typical examples may be the view of a road scheduled for a traffic flow improvement scheme, or a close-up showing physical deterioration in a building due to be renovated. They exist because they complement a paper-based record by providing pictorial evidence or confirmation of a statement or issue under consideration.
It is important to bear this in mind when undertaking research, particularly with records that have been open to public inspection for more than twenty years, because relatively few photographs are described in document descriptions. In many cases it may prove more beneficial to identify non-photographic material pertaining to the research topic and to work through these documents in a quest for photographs. It is also worth bearing in mind that, even with the prescribed discrete series, individual photographs are rarely noted in the document descriptions. More often than not there will be a general description of the material. For example a volume of photographs depicting individually named ships may simply be described as 'ships docked at port of...'.
A brief note of warning: the subject matter of some of the records may be of a distressing nature. Consideration should be given to the effects of inspecting such material, especially upon any accompanying children and young adults. Researchers should in particular note that records emanating from the War Office, Home Office, Transport Inspectorates, Director of Public Prosecutions, and Criminal Courts are likely to contain material that may cause distress. Wherever possible, the series and piece descriptions provide a warning as to content likely to cause distress but please note that this is not comprehensive. Many editorial amendments to provide such a warning are yet to be inserted into Discovery, our catalogue.
4. Finding aids
This research guide provides a general introduction to the range of photographic material available at The National Archives.
Other leaflets, covering a variety of subjects, may also include sections that give details of photographs.
4.2 Printed/database catalogue
Search by keyword(s) in Discovery, our catalogue, to identify full document references for 6,700 database record entries detailing more than 111,000 photographic prints and over 800 negatives.
An additional paper index to places and people/groups is still available for inspection in The National Archives at Kew.
4.3 Series lists
A large number of photographs is described in the series lists. Many descriptions of records will state simply that there are photographs enclosed. Where a file or volume is made up entirely or partly of photographs a general description of the content will be given. Few photographs are specifically described. There are two exceptions to this rule. The first being some of the discrete series of photographs. The second being bundles of photographs registered at Stationers Hall (COPY 1) where some pieces have individual forms and attached photographs described at item level within the printed and online catalogues.
Please note that while The National Archives now provides an indication of photographic content in its descriptions, this has not always been the case. Researchers should not take the absence of this statement as accurate for any items that have been open for more than 15 years.
To ensure continued preservation of photographic material, The National Archives' Photograph Conservator undertakes a number of protective measures. One of these is to remove photographs from documents where they may otherwise be threatened with permanent deterioration or damage. Photographs removed from their parent document are placed in protective folders and given an extraction reference. These form the CN record group.
Each CN record series will contain material from a specific parent record group. (For example: CN 1 holds material extracted from Admiralty (ADM) records). The CN record series are described in greater detail in the accompanying research guide, an inventory of Photograph Series in The National Archives.
Subsequent to the extraction process photographs are more fully described, often to individual item level, in both printed and online series lists. All extracted items are also fully cross-referenced with their parent document. Researchers are, therefore, able to inspect these descriptions to identify specific photographs or to use them as an indicator of other potential sources.
Staff on duty in the reading rooms, fully acquainted with these finding aids, will be able to assist your research. If you need more detailed advice please ask to speak to the Assistant Curator of Photographs.
4.5 The National Archives' image library
The image library, amongst its substantial selection of slide and print copies, has numerous reproductions of photographs. Staff in the image library will be happy to advise on this material and to arrange orders for copies.
5. Government derived photographic material held elsewhere
5.1 The Aerial Reconnaissance Archives (TARA)
The Aerial Reconnaissance Archives holds millions of photographs, the bulk of which have been deposited by the UK Ministry of Defence. There are over five million Second World War aerial reconnaissance photographs of western Europe.
These photographs were originally produced by the Allied Central Interpretation Unit (ACIU), based at Medmenham. The techniques that were developed then gave intelligence officers the ability to view the enemy's activities in 3D, and make highly accurate assessments. To this collection have been added a large selection of photographs taken by the Royal Air Force in later conflicts.
The archive has now been transferred to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. The move will enable TARA to be preserved, further digitised and made accessible to the general public.
5.2 Central Registry of air photography for Wales
The Central Registry of air photography for Wales indexes all aerial survey cover of Wales flown by the RAF, Ordnance Survey and commercial air survey companies. The register is the only comprehensive source on aerial photography of Wales and advises all interested users. The Assembly holds an extensive collection of aerial photographs covering Wales from 1940 at various scales.
The base of the collection is the RAF national survey flown predominantly between March and July, at 1:10000 scale from 1945 to 1952. To this has been added other RAF cover such as:
- 1940-1945 obliques of south Wales towns and Welsh coastal regions from RAF Medmenham
- 1945 to 1952 and 1959 to 1961 obliques of the Welsh coastline
- Ordnance Survey rectified photo maps of 'Glamorgan' enlarged to 1:10560 scale from 1949 RAF 1:29000 scale originals
- National survey of 1969 at 1:60/62000 scales flown during June to July
- National survey of 1981 at 1:50000 scales flown April, July, August
There are around 350-400,000 prints.
5.3 Imperial War Museum department of documents
Containing over six million images, the Imperial War Museum photograph archive is an enormously rich source of material on the two world wars. In addition, its coverage spans the entire twentieth century and is international in scope.
It includes around 40,000 British, Candian and Australian official photographs forming the basis of the national record for the First World War. Also images taken by Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy and Cecil Beaton among many others.
5.4 National Maritime Museum picture library
The National Maritime Museum pictire library forms an historic photograph collection, dating back to the beginnings of photography in the 1840s. It comprises approximately 270,000 negatives including glass, nitrate and safety film negatives, one million prints and 1463 albums.
A large proportion of the printed photographs in the collection are reference material that due to copyright restrictions cannot be copied.
5.5 National Monuments record centre
The National Monuments record centre houses the largest reference collection of air photographs in England, around four million in total.
The collection includes over 600,000 oblique air photographs, predominantly of archaeological, architectural and landscape subjects dating from the 1930s, the Aerofilms collection and over three million vertical air photographs talen by the RAF in the 1940s.
In addition, there is also a large collection of images of buildings and historic sites. Details of each photograph, including location, date and format are held on the Photonet database.
5.6 Royal Air Force Museum
The RAF Museum photograph collection covers the history of British military aviation. It contains about 250,000 images in a variety of formats but most are black and white prints.
This includes work of aviation photographer, Charles Brown, active from the 1920s to the 1960s and the BA Kinston collection on the hostory of the Sopwith, and Hawker-Siddeley companies.
6. Other major photographic collections
Within the United Kingdom there are also significant private collections of photographs. The following institutions may also be of assistance with photographic research.
6.1 British Library prints, drawings and photographs section
Photographs form the largest collection in this section of the British Library. Subjects covered include archaeology and architecture, topography, ethnography, engineering projects, historical events, social scenes and portraits.
In addition to their documentary value, these collections comprise a unique resource for the study of the early history and development of photography in South Asia.
Representative material by the most significant amateur and commercial photographers is included, among them Frederick Fiebig, Linneaus Tripe, Dr John Murray, Felice Beato, Robert and Harriet Tytler, Samuel Bourne, ED Lyon and Lala Deen Dayal. A collection of Fox Talbot's photographic work is also housed with this repository.
6.2 Fox Talbot Museum
The Fox Talbot Museum holds images and artifacts collected by Fox Talbot, the inventor of modern photography, and his family.
6.3 Hulton picture library
The Hulton Getty photograph collection is one of the largest in the World containing some 14 million pictures. The collection is based around the store of photographs built up by the publication Picture Post.
6.4 National Galleries of Scotland
National Galleries of Scotland established the Scottish National Photography Collection in 1984 to collect and research photography with a particular interest in Scottish work, and a remit to collect and exhibit international photography. It was established in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which already held the critical collection of photographs by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, amounting to some 5,000 calotype negatives and positives. The National Collection has around 27,000 photographs from the early days of photography in the 1840s to the present day. This growth is principally due to the generous collectors and photographers who have given work to the nation and includes 19th century work from the collection of Peter Fletcher Riddell, 900 negatives and positives from the 1840s by John Muir Wood, the Edinburgh Photographic Society collection, and 1970s and 80s work from the dispersed Scottish Arts Council collection.
6.5 National Library of Wales
Since its foundation in 1907 the National Library of Wales has collected photographs, concentrating on pictures that document people and places in Wales or Welsh life in general. The collection now numbers about 750,000 images dating from the earliest days of photography to the present. It is the largest and richest collection of photographs of Welsh interest in existence and represents the foundation of a Welsh National Photographic Archive.
6.6 National Museum of Photography, Film and Television
The photographs collection of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television contains key images by numerous influential historic and contemporary practitioners such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Anna Atkins, Sir John Herschel, Martin Parr and Eve Arnold, and includes the world's first negative and the pre-eminent Fox Talbot Collection. Its extensive collection of photographic technology contains equipment tracing the evolution and impact of photographic apparatus from the pre-history of photography, the camera obscura, to current innovative practice. It contains The Kodak Museum Collection: a major collection of equipment characterising the history of photography and film, with the emphasis on Kodak products and popular photography. The Museum has also recently acquired the world-famous Collection of The Royal Photography Society.
6.7 National Portrait Gallery
The photographs collection of the National Portrait Gallery consists of more than 220,000 original photographic images of which at least 130,000 are original negatives. They date from the 1840s to the present day. Among the earliest significant photographs in the collection are the three large format volumes of collotypes (salt prints) made by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson between 1843-1847. Other significant works include Roger Fenton's historical portraits photographed in the Crimea during 1855, an album of over 200 prints by Herbert Watkins, also from the 1850s, over 100 prints by Julia Margaret Cameron from the 1860s and 1870s, works by Lewis Carroll including The Christ Church Album, and 12 volumes of Camille Silvy's Daybooks, containing a collection of over 15,000 studies of figures in society and visitors to London including Queen Emma of Hawaii, taken between 1860 and 1866.
6.8 Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum photograph collections, comprising around 250,000 images, are one of the best documented and most forward-thinking of their kind; accordingly, while being far from the largest, they are one of the most important collections for visual history and anthropological research in the world. Amongst the most notable are those taken during the earliest days of photography of Native American peoples. Although many different styles of photography developed, the vast majority of photographs were taken to serve the interests of the white American population.
6.9 Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales
Air photographs taken by Royal Commission staff form part of a larger collection available for public consultation at the National Monuments Record of Wales. It includes oblique air photographs taken by Cambridge University (c 1950-70) and vertical air photographs of most of Wales taken by the Ordnance Survey (from mid-1960s) and the RAF (c 1945-63). The early date of many of these archive photographs makes them a valuable source for studying landscape change over several decades, often prior to more recent afforestation, urban expansion, coastal erosion or intensive farming. Royal Commission staff can provide assistance to members of the public in consulting or interpreting the air photograph collections.
6.10 Royal Commonwealth Society Library
The Royal Commonwealth Society Photograph Collection contains over 100,000 images from all over the world. Dating from the mid-1850s to the mid-1980s the photographs provide insight into the history of the Commonwealth, documenting developments in a wide variety of fields including medicine, education and industry. A biographical dictionary of photographers, featured in the collection, is being developed.
6.11 Royal Geographical Society
The Royal Geographical Society Picture Library provides an unrivalled source of over half a million images of peoples and landscapes from around the globe. Photographs and artwork date from the 1830s onwards covering a wide variety of subjects including climbing, the Colonial Empire, deserts, exploration, indigenous peoples, landscapes, remote destinations and travel. The Picture Library has a significant collection of work by Captain WHI Shakespeare (1878-1915), images by Jean Claude White, official photographer of the Younghusband Mission to Tibet in 1904, memorable photographic images of the 1901-1904 Endurance expedition; Frank Hurley's dramatic images of Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 showing Endurance trapped in the ice as well as all the material from the 1955-1958 Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Vivian Fuchs.
6.12 Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum photography gallery highlights works drawn from the National Collection of the Art of Photography. The Museum began acquiring photographs in 1852 and its collection is now one of the largest and most important in the world. It holds over 500,000 images, by both classic and contemporary photographers, and illustrates a wide range of processes, techniques and subject matter. Photographers whose work forms part of this collection include Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick Sommer and Frederick Hollyer.