Werner Forman Archive at Fotofringe

Illumination from the 14th-century Flateyjarbok manuscriptFotofringe, a one-day event on May 11th at King’s Place in King’s Cross, was organised to showcase the collections of numerous excellent independent picture libraries and to introduce their knowledgeable staff. Exhibitors ranged from family-run businesses to corporate organisations and museum picture libraries. Fairs such as this offer an opportunity for agencies to meet clients they deal with electronically, many of whom they have never seen or even spoken to. I call this blog Pictures & Conversations in tribute to good personal relationships which sustained and characterized the pre-digital picture business of research visits and phone calls.

It is no secret that the way we work these days is a mixed blessing, not only for picture buyers and sellers, but for publishing as a whole. Digitising a print or photographic archive is so expensive that a number of smaller agencies simply couldn’t afford to do it, forcing them to sell edited highlights to one of the larger players, or to disappear altogether. Others are happy to scan their treasure troves of prints or transparencies on demand - though the need for an image to materialise instantly on a computer screen in response to a keyword search is increasing. It is of course true that when time is short, 24-hour digital downloads can be very handy.

As History Today’s picture needs are so specific, it can be tempting to be disheartened by this turn of events and the expectation of immediate free pictures on every subject, no matter how obscure. High-quality scans for our illustrations generally have to be obtained from commercial sources, including a number of exhibitors at Fotofringe. Werner Forman, a Czech photographer who died last year, spent much of the 20 century photographing all over the world and specialised in places and objects of historical importance, many not covered elsewhere. Several of his Icelandic manuscripts illustrate Janina Ramirez’ article Creating Terra Nova (May 2011) and the Werner Forman Archive also supplied a wonderful photograph of Old Sana’a in Yemen for Scott Macmillan’s article City of the Book (April 2011).