Investigating and preserving the world's oldest photographic studio and archive.
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Edward Reeves took up the new art of photography in the early 1850s. He moved to 159 High Street, Lewes in 1858 and built a daylight photographic studio in the garden. That studio is still in daily use and the business he founded has passed through four generations of the Reeves family and is now owned and run by Edward’s great grandson Tom Reeves with his wife Tania Osband.
Edward Reeves Photography is now acknowledged to be the world’s longest established photographic studio.
Since the earliest days of the business all the negatives of the images have been kept so that ‘copies may be obtained at any time’. An archive room adjoining the studio contains around 250,000 negatives on glass plates as well as a similar number on sheet and roll film. The present-day output of the studio continues adding to the archive in the form of digital images. From the very beginning in 1855 all the negatives have been numbered and are backed up with ledgers listing client and subject in chronological order. There is also a significant amount of business records and correspondence dating as far back as the 1860s.
As well as the image archive and the studio itself, a large collection of photographic and lighting equipment, studio furniture and props and backdrops has been preserved.
The subject matter covered by the business has always been wide and varied; from studio portraits and weddings to industrial and commercial subjects throughout Sussex and beyond, as well as many pictures taken as ‘views’ for sale as cards and prints. The archive therefore not only represents an invaluable record of Sussex life, but also a history of commercial photography from its very beginnings.
Edward Reeves Photography has always been a commercial photographic business. Images have been kept and indexed so that clients can obtain reorders (mainly in the short term), and paperwork and equipment has been preserved in such large quantities partly by design and partly because of circumstance.
Over the years there have been many requests to research the archive, usually with specific aims in mind. It was generally felt that these approaches would significantly hinder the day to day running of the business and potentially disrupt the historical material, and so were routinely refused. In 2013 Brigitte Lardinois, Senior Research Fellow at the London College of Communication, was the first to propose a holistic project to collate and assess all the historical material held by the business and thence to find ways to preserve it and make it accessible. The project would concentrate on the work of the first three generations of the Reeves family in order to draw a distinction between the historical and the present day business.
The image bank itself and the basic negative number ledgers were the ‘knowns’ of the archive at the beginning. What soon came to light was that there was an enormous amount of very rare supporting business documentation, correspondence and ephemera distributed throughout the premises (which is also the Reeves’ family home), as well as historical equipment. This is now all being brought together so that its preservation ensured. It should eventually be possiblle to select a portrait from the 1870s, find from the ledger who is the subject, find from the business records where the subject lived and how much they paid for the photograph, and reconstruct in the studio the set up of furniture and backdrop which was used. This potential is unique. Professor Elizabeth Edwards, the eminent photographic historian, has called this project one of the most exciting recent developments in the history of photography.
In the long term, the project has many possible outcomes. The digitisation of the written records will allow the image archive to be searched by subject, and so will open access to an invaluable historical source. Together with the business records, this will shed light on the evolution of commercial photographic practice since its beginnings. An overall survey of the archive will allow us to investigate the way in which photography has become an integral and indispensable part of society over the last century and a half.
We hope that with every exhibition, event and talk we are helping to connect the present generation with its past and encourage an appreciation of the role of commercial photography in the history of the medium.