Library of Birmingham
West Midlands

Written by Oliver McCall

Several vitrines line one side of the softly lit gallery space at the Library of Birmingham. Their orderly arrangement belies their contents, for each holds an assortment of apparently random images gathered together. These cases contain a number of new works by Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl and they are a good place to begin exploring Album 31. 

Album 31 originated as a GRAIN commission in 2012, supported by Arts Council England.  Pete James, Curator of Photography at the  Library of Birmingham, introduced the Stone archive to the two artists and they decided to focus upon the miscellaneous Album 31 rather the more tightly catalogued albums from the collection.

The Benjamin Stone Photographic Collection comprises some 20,000 photographs produced by Birmingham-born industrialist and politician Benjamin Stone (1838-1914). Stone was an important early documentary photographer with a rather Victorian preoccupation with documenting and cataloguing what he saw. Born to a life of privilege, he was able to travel extensively in Britain and overseas, producing numerous cabinet prints and carte de visite depicting everything from state occasions at Westminster to historic traditional customs. The Collection includes over 50 meticulously catalogued albums of images, produced as historical records and organised according to subject matter.

For Rickett and von Zwehl it was not one of these orderly albums that captured their imaginations  but a collection of images entitled ‘Album 31: Miscellaneous’. In this album Stone gathered images that he wanted to collect but which defy his usual categorisations, the contents not seeming to fit in any other album. Its contents include images of exotic animals, portraits of Siamese twins and people with dwarfism, cartoons, architectural shots and more, all arranged in unexpected groupings. A selection of the pages from the album have been digitised and can be viewed outside of the gallery space, an important and fascinating addition to the exhibition.

For the artists one page in particular stood out. This page, with an oval-shaped portrait of a woman in the centre surrounded by four images of phases of the moon, seemed to relate to both artists’ recent projects – von Zwehl had been developing her work around portrait miniatures whilst Rickett had been working on a project related to astronomy. The juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images on this page and throughout the album opened up possibilities for the artists to revisit their own archives and collections of cast-off images. They developed their own Album 31, re-contextualising images from their production histories, exposing new connections and meanings.

The album pages that Rickett and von Zwehl have created reference both past work and current projects. They are visual treasure-troves. There are exquisite portrait miniatures by von Zwehl and the mysterious eye miniatures that she has been researching lately. One of Rickett’s famous ‘Pissing Women’ images sits on one page, whilst on another there are starry skies surrounding a photo of an observatory, referencing her Objects in the Field series, some of which can be seen nearby. There are also images of 60s tower blocks sinking into plumes of debris during demolition. These reference the recent life of the Photographic Collection itself, which was moved from the old Birmingham Central Library to the new Library of Birmingham during the project when the former was closed and cleared for demolition.

This theme is also explored in the extracts of texts which are integrated amongst images in the new album pages. In one text the artists recall the day that the escalators in the old library ceased working, never to be restarted: ‘We stop to read a notice that has been fixed with blue-tack “The escalators are permanently broken. Due to their age they will never be fixed”’. A mix of personal reflections and diary entries, these texts eloquently illustrate the passage of time during the project and the changes taking place for the collection and the centre of Birmingham during that time. They also provide insights into what the artists were feeling at different stages during the project – stressed, sad, intrigued – and explore how they worked collaboratively. Like the captions found in Stone’s albums, the text extracts help to make the album pages highly personal works.

The new works on show in Album 31 are complimented by other work from the artists’ archives, displayed on the gallery walls. Along one wall there’s a series of portraits by von Zwehl, larger versions of the miniatures found in the album pages. These portraits depict young children in amazing detail. The subjects seem unnaturally still, as if in a trance-like state. Nearby there’s The Death of a Beautiful Subject, a series of photographs produced by Rickett from the butterfly photographs of her father. The black and white pictures of the delicate creatures captured amongst ferns and other greenery are accompanied by a short, highly personal, text in which Rickett recalls photography trips with her and then goes on to discuss his leaving the family. On another wall you can see Objects in the Field, a series of images of the stars produced from negatives taken by a three-mirrored telescope. Again, these images are accompanied by a text in which Rickett begins with an account of an eye test she experienced as a young girl before discussing her experiences while working on this project. Both texts provide vivid accounts of episodes from the artist’s past and fascinating glimpses into her work. The works on the gallery walls feed into the pages of Album 31 and vice versa.

Album 31 is an exhibition that is highly personal, not just because of the images that Rickett and von Zwehl have used in their album pages, drawn from their production histories, but also because of the work around the gallery space and the text extracts. The exhibition highlights what can be achieved when a historic archive is opened up for exploration. Benjamin Stone would not have considered his photography to be artistic, although his photographs did involve a certain amount of staging, yet here two well known photographers have used his work to create new works of art that are thought-provoking and visually impressive.

Album 31 runs until 29 August 2015 at the Library of Birmingham.