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Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Keith Medley's Archive: Double Take

The highlight for me of Liverpool Look/13 was Double Take, a collection of double images made on glass plate negatives in Keith Medley’s studio near Liverpool. The pictures are quite astonishing, with pictures showing the same subject with different expression – sometimes it’s a very different expression, sometimes it’s just a subtle shift. But those subtle shifts transform the person in the left hand image into somebody quite different from those on the left.
The collection on display in Liverpool was edited by Ken Grant and Mark Durden. I put a few questions to Ken about the archive and his answers are below.

There's a book out too - which is available at the Walker Art Gallery where Double Take is currently on show. You can buy one (not sure if this is only from the UK or if you can order from overseas) from the  Walker Art gallery Shop on 0151 478 4199 and there will be online sales from next week.

But how great are these pictures - they are captivating!

How did you find the archive?
Keith Medley's son held the work after his father's death and approached Liverpool John Moores University. They have a number of collections and a very good research archive but until that point, photography hadn't featured in it. Keith Medley's work, which comprises of over 30,000 glass plates, is now housed there. Because of their local nature –and because it was photography- I was invited to look at the archive and appraise it, along with Mark Durden. I'd lived in New Brighton, not far from where Medley's studio was and I was familiar with some of the history of the Medley studio in that part of Merseyside.

What's in the archive?
Keith Medley ran the studio meticulously. We've been able to benefit from the many ledgers that are hand-written of course, and which detail the appointments that took place each day. From that point it was easy to see that the working day included portraits, calls to photograph on location, civic events, awards dinners, shop fronts, still lives of domestic products. We also noticed the letters 'PP' were added when Passport pictures were required. It's noteworthy that the first package holidays to leave from Manchester, an hour away, was established in 1961 and it's probably widely known that the Northwest was a major point of departure for many journeys throughout the 20th century.
Looking at the glass plates, it was clear that the cropped end result was one outcome - but the wider frame, relating what people wore, how they addressed the camera and the further details that contribute so much to our understanding of the moment in which the pictures were made, betrayed so much more. Mark and I began to get excited by the Passport pictures, once a few samples were scanned and printed though all those other aspects exist in the archive and should be given consideration as things move forward.

How did you edit the archive?
We looked at the portraits that were at the heart of the collection and then realised that most of those we were interested in were made through a sustained spell in the 1960s. It was apparent that the changes taking place in the region (and amongst them we could imagine the rising waves of popular culture, through the music that most of us are familiar with) were becoming apparent in the pictures, haircuts were changing, styles of dress echoed the new fashions happening across the country but nestled amongst portraits of elder sitters who seemed to remain in hand made clothing. Some younger children look as though the influence of their parents, who would have been adolescent in the 1950s, remained, in their choice of quiffed hair and Brylcream. Amongst all of this though there is the sense of the Wallasey and New Brighton area as a mixed and engaging district. It was (and still is) a place where commuters return to after days working in Liverpool, a place surrounded by docks, river and sea, a place where working and middle classes coalesce… if those terms are relevant any more. It was important to try and articulate something of this rich mix when editing the work.

Why did he make the pictures on glass plates?
Keith Medley had a long and distinguished career that involved film making as well as the many daily responses he would make to appointments at the studio. The short answer is that he learnt on that technology and it was easy to get hold of pre-sensitized glass plates throughout his career. In the archive, there are some rolls of roll-film, but they are modest in number and seemingly made later in his career. The camera used was a wooden studio camera that dominated the ground floor of the studio. I imaging a long established process is hard to change.

Why did he do the split pictures?
If you spend time with them it's clear that there are a number of occasions were the sitter was to change across the two exposures. I imagine using the first picture to put the sitter at ease and the second to make the more sedate Passport response must have made sense. The are examples in the book where sitters just couldn't compose themselves and going to studio was I'd imagine quite a big deal –a rare appointment to sit for a picture that will stay with you a long time. Our relationship with photography is more gregarious these days….then there's the question of economics, re-using the same plate instead of doubling the expense may have been a consideration. I particularly like the exceptions, where the sitters change and cousins are photographed together –and when a husband and wife take half a frame each –as if they couldn't bear to be apart…that stops you dead.

How did he divide the pictures?
The process was achieved through an adapted dark-slide. There are commercially available ones known of, and research will often take you to America where enthusiasts use 19th Century cameras. However the sting in the tail is that after the studio closed, the camera disappeared and, with it, the materials and equipment Medley used.

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