Identifying a wartime colour image from the RPS Collection

22 August 2018

Region: Headquarters

There are an estimated 250,000 photographs held within the RPS Collection at the V&A Museum. Many of the prints, negatives and slides are unidentified by either their subject matter or the photographer but this does not negate any interest in them: the subject, process and format can all be interesting in their own right.

All collections rely on visiting researchers or experts to provide specialist knowledge and assist curators in adding to the descriptions of what they hold. An example of that occurred recently.

The Guardian newspaper’s review supplement illustrated a book review by Andrew Motion of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight with an image from the RPS Collection. It sourced this from SSPL/Getty, the picture library that currently provides images from the RPS Collection for commercial use. The photographer was unknown and SSPL had it captioned as ‘Bomb damage to a London street, c 1943’.

© Google street viewEnter in to the story Patrick Keiller, Visiting Professor of Urban Design in the department of architecture at the University of Cambridge. Patrick emailed the Society and SSPL on 30 July, saying that he had been asked by a friend to identify the location which he did as the south end of Tennyson Street, Battersea, London, SW8 at its junction with Robertson Street. The well-known blue MAN gasometer (built in 1932 and demolished in 2017) and Battersea power station are just visible in the far distance.  A modern Google street view image supported this.

Dufaycolor

Its subject matter aside, the image is particularly interesting as it is in colour. It was made using the Dufaycolor process, a British additive colour photographic process, which had been introduced for motion picture use in 1932 and then for still photography in 1935. Dufaycolor never achieved the commercial success of the Lumières’ autochrome process did or, from 1935, Kodachrome with its stronger, sharper, colour rendition. But, in Britain, Dufaycolor achieved some popularity as it was cheaper than Kodachrome and it was easy for amateurs to process in a home darkroom. It remained in production until the 1950s.

Wartime damage

Patrick also noted that the website bombsite.org listed a high explosive bomb having fallen near the location between 7 October 1940 and 6 June 1941.

The curators at the V&A have now added the information to their files about the slide. There is clearly more research to do: precisely confirming the bombing and the date should be relatively easy from local newspaper reports. Trying to identify who the photographer was and why he or she was there photographing the bomb damage using scarce colour film is likely to be more challenging.

As Patrick noted in an email to me ‘it’s a remarkable photograph’. If there is anyone able to add more information about this image or the photographer please get in touch.

Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS
Director, Education and Public Affairs
e: michael@rps.org

Images: Google Street View; RPS Collection / V&A Museum, London / SSPL. The levels of the latter have been adjusted to show more detail.