Surviving the Slump

27 September 2018 | Ilford Limited and British Industry in the 1920s - 1930s

I have been wondering how Ilford Limited negotiated and survived the Great Slump of 1929–33, which followed the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent collapse in world trade. Eric Hobsbawm suggests that Britain had already fallen behind her rivals such as Germany and the US in the years before the Great War, because, being the earliest industrial nation, she struggled to modernize. Instead, Britain retreated into Empire, complacently relying on her colonies as export markets. Ilford relied on exports to the tropics. As competition from Kodak and Continental firms increased at the turn of the century, “Ilford weathered the storm of competition at home by increasing its exports, especially to India and the Far East. If it had not been for this, the company might not have survived the difficult period between 1899 and 1914” (Hercock and Jones 115).

British industry, Hobsbawm says, was largely characterized by relatively small, specialized family firms, and this is true of the photographic industry in the late nineteenth century, though from the 1890s a number of firms start “consolidating through takeover or amalgamation” (Pritchard 210). Michael Pritchard writes that “By 1914 the majority of British sensitised goods were being produced by a small number of large companies” (Pritchard 211). Generally though, it was only during and after the Great War that British industry started to concentrate into larger monopolies, a process accelerated partly by war, partly by the depression and “almost invariably fostered by a benevolent government” (Hobsbawm 193). Both Hobsbawm and David Edgerton see the development of industry in Britain as dependent on government support and the ending of Free Trade.

Ilford started to acquire other British manufacturers in the 1890s, but its main period of expansion and amalgamation is between 1918 and 1935. By the mid-1930s, its only real competitor in Britain was the British subsidiary of Kodak. In Germany too, increased monopolization characterizes the interwar period. Ulrich Marsch writes about the 1925 merger of the six big German chemical companies into IG Farben, the biggest chemical trust in the world (Agfa, which eventually specialised entirely in photographic materials, was part of this merger).

Initially, Ilford’s collaborations and takeovers were financial and managerial. Robert Hercock and George Jones write that “the main advantage of amalgamation — the opportunity to rationalize production between the various factories — was not taken” (Hercock and Jones 54). Similarly IG Farben did not immediately rationalize production, having separate facilities in each of the member firms until 1929 (Marsch 41). It took the Great Depression to force Ilford to rationalize, a process which involved closing about four of nine factories (Hercock and Jones 61).

Heavy industries based in the North of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales had been in a recession since 1921. Hobsbawm says that the slump did not hit Britain as hard as it might have done since “those who are already low do not fall so far” (Hobsbawm 191). Also, the Midlands and the South East, where Ilford’s factories were located, did not feel the full force of the recession, although Ilford,which had thrived in the 1920s, did experience a heavy drop in its profits, from £133,000 in 1930 to £95,000 by 1933 (Hercock and Jones 61).

Yet as Hobsbawm points out, through the 1920s and ‘30s, there was a growth in retail, particularly those “cheap articles of domestic and personal use” sold by Woolworths stores and the rapidly expanding Boots the Chemist (Hobsbawm 198). These shops sold the photographic industry’s new consumer products, such as Selo roll film. So the rise of the high-street chemist and the expansion of the consumer film market in the 1930s offers one explanation of how Ilford survived the effects of the slump. Certainly they were heavily promoting their consumer films and cameras: in May 1935, the Ilford Courier described King George’s Silver Jubilee as an “opportunity for every dealer to push camera and film sales”. Their giant competitors, Kodak and Agfa, also thrived: Marsch describes IG Farben’s sales of photographic materials as growing by more than 100% between 1926 and 1931 (Marsch 52-3).

Hobsbawm and Edgerton’s work also suggests another factor: the role of Ilford in supplying protected industries, notably, the military. Writers on the chemical industry and the photographic industry tend to treat the militarization of these industries in wartime as exceptions or aberrations to the normal run of things. Marsch does this in his essay on IG Farben’s research policy, which I find bizarre, because although his study ends at the point of the company's “Nazification” in 1936, after which it directly facilitated and profited from the war and from Auschwitz, it was engaging much earlier with the Nazi social and economic programme (Leslie 2005, 169-70).

In Britain too, military and industrial interests do not just come together in wartime. Even in the depression Britain had a growing and increasingly modern “state-sponsored field of armaments” (Hobsbawm 200). In a number of publications Edgerton has addressed this neglected aspect of British history, noting how the growth of a ‘warfare state’ happened alongside the growth of the welfare state. In a previous blog post I discussed Ilford’s supply to the RAF in the early 1930s. It is clear to me now that this is part of a larger picture: while Ilford profited from the growth of the picture press, of advertising and tourism, the entertainment industry and the amateur photography market, it was also part of an expanding military-industrial complex.


Hobsbawm, Eric, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day, London: Penguin Books, 1968/1999 (revised and updated with Chris Wigley).

Hercock, Robert J. and Jones, George A., Silver by the Ton: The History of Ilford Limited, 1879-1979, Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Pritchard, Michael. The Development and Growth of British Photographic Manufacturing and Retailing 1839-1914. PhD dissertation, De Montfort University, 2010.

Edgerton, David, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Marsch, Ulrich, “Strategies for Success: Research Organization in German Chemical Companies and IG Farben until 1936”, History and Technology, vol. 12 (1994): 23-77.

Leslie, Esther, Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry, London: Reaktion Books, 2005.

Avant-Garde and Kitsch

21 September 2018 | Photographic Advertising, Modernism and Sentimental Realism

Last week I took part in the biennial conference of the European Society for the History of Science (ESHS) in conjunction with the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS). It was held at the Institute of Education and at the Science Museum. Our round table was organised by Geoffrey Belknap, curator of photography at the National Science and Media Museum, and included Kelley Wilder, director of the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University, and Chitra Ramalingam, assistant curator of photography at the Yale Center for British Art. It centred on the interactions of photography and chemistry and how these might be represented in an exhibition. Geoff, Kelley and Chitra’s work offers fascinating insights into photography as a material practice, so I am keen to see and read the exhibitions and publications resulting from their projects.

In the archive at Redbridge I looked at a file of photographs compiled in June 1940, including photographs from the 1930s attributed to “Photographic Advertising”, which turns out to be a stock photography company founded in 1926. Helen Wilkinson has examined the sales ledgers of this company, which reveal that it supplied photographs both to advertising agencies and directly to manufacturers such as Ilford (Wilkinson 24).

Characteristically, the studio drew on “populist sources” such as cinema and older graphic traditions, and used a sentimental narrative realism, much like the photography competitions of the period which advised that every photo should have a “human element” and “tell its story” (Wilkinson 24, 27; Amateur Photographer, 1927, cited in Dominici 132). This seems to be supported by the examples in the Ilford archive: which include people smiling and playing on beaches, and a woman smiling at an excessively large dog in the back of her open-top car.

In the interwar period, photographic advertising remained subsidiary to drawn and painted illustration. Even the photographic companies such as Kodak and Ilford mainly used drawn and painted advertisements. It has been argued that photography was seen as a more literal, realist art and therefore less suited to fantasy and idealization than hand-drawn and often colour illustration (Brown 169, Dominici 154). Sara Dominici’s research also suggests that illustration was preferred over photography “because the latter was regarded as somehow less effective in directing consumer’s responses” i.e. photographs were more open to varying interpretation (Dominici 163).

Even so, Ilford did use photographs to promote their products. The photographs they selected operate partly as technical demonstrations, prints displayed in shops rather than reprinted as ads in magazines. Since they were taken on Selo film, they displayed the ability of its (relatively) fast panchromatic emulsion to facilitate short exposure times and therefore motion capture and, in 1936-1939, repeatedly show people at the beach caught in movement —diving, cartwheeling, even dancing.

These sample photographs use motifs and a style clearly informed by the modernist avant-garde, and reminiscent of, for example, Rodchenko’s photographs of divers. In a talk at Birkbeck earlier this year, I looked at Ilford’s use of modernist motifs in relation to ideas of flight and dynamism circulating in the period and centred on the figure of the female diver. I connected this to the modernist image of the female body in flight discussed by Mary Russo, in which flight and weightlessness represented a new individualistic and upwardly mobile notion of freedom (Russo 50). Such images of diving, cartwheeling, dancing bodies, contrast sharply with Charlie Chaplin’s jerky, maladjusted body in his film Modern Times. If the latter shows the human body as traumatised by mechanisation, these free and uninhibited bodies, I argued, stand as the very image of technological success, the body set free by technology, and specifically, by photography.

Yet Wilkinson distances Photographic Advertising’s approach from that of the more modernist advertising photographers, and it’s true that the beach photos from Photographic Advertising do not fit this mold. It occurs to me that perhaps Ilford used the more sentimental narrative images they had acquired from the agency as sources for their drawn and painted ads, which Wilkinson suggests was a common way that advertising made use of such photographs. This is something I need to check by comparing the photographs against the 1930s Ilford ads.

In the late 1930s, then, Ilford seems to have used two kinds of photographic image: the modernist ones and the sentimental narrative images acquired from Photographic Advertising Ltd. These need to be considered not just in relation to modernism but also in relation to other contexts: the continuing dominance of hand-illustrated ads; the beginnings of lifestyle advertising which Wilkinson identifies in Photographic Advertising’s images; the role of hedonism in advertising in this period as discussed by Dominici; the renewed enthusiasm for outdoor photography which had been practically prohibited in wartime; and the rise of a new suburban consumer class largely cushioned from the impact of the Depression who, even if they were not yet actually able to take holidays, were being addressed by new holiday imagery (Wilkinson; Dominici; Taylor).


Wilkinson, Helen. “‘The New Heraldry’: Stock Photography, Visual Literacy, and Advertising in 1930s Britain”. Journal of Design History 10, no. 1 (1997): 23-38.

Dominici, Sara, Travel Marketing and Popular Photography in Britain, London: Routledge, 2017.

Brown, Elspeth H.The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Corporate Culture, Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Russo, Mary, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity, London: Routledge, 1994

Taylor, John. “Kodak and the ‘English’ Market between the Wars.” Journal of Design History 7, no. 1 (1994): 29-42.

Cutting Through the Haze

11 September 2018 | Cultural Techniques and Ilford’s Aerial Film

In my last blog post, I explained that I am interested in imperceptible or obscure uses of photographic materials. I have been thinking about Bernhard Siegert’s phrase “inconspicuous technologies of knowledge” and Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey’s discussion of “grey media”, a phrase they use to describe the technical systems and operations that underpin the workplace and everyday life (Siegert 2; Fuller and Goffey). These writers are interested in mediating technologies that operate beyond the media (film, television, press). They emphasize, not audiences or uses, but operations, sequences, workflow and technical training. This seems to me very useful. These are the techniques, procedures and programs that precede and shape communication, knowledge and culture.

Siegert describes “cultural techniques” as the means by which “the symbolic is filtered out of the real”, the means by which signal is made out from noise, sense from nonsense, culture from nature (Siegert 13). Media work to exclude interruptions, disturbances, static or contaminants but these are actually the means by which culture and communication can happen at all. This is why Siegert says that cultural techniques are first of all filters, processing material and creating “order by introducing distinctions” (Siegert 23).

Film can be understood as a media technology. But I am particularly interested in how we might think about Ilford’s photochemical products from the perspective of technical procedures, and in relation to this idea of ordering or filtering. I will use the example of the 1933 Houston Mount Everest Expedition, which used Ilford’s aerial films and plates.

The panchromatic emulsion used on these films was produced using the same routine as every other emulsion: silver nitrate and soluble halides are added to gelatin, where they react to form silver halide and soluble nitrate, this mixture is then heated so that the silver halide crystals grow in size, the emulsion is shredded and washed to get rid of byproducts and impurities and then heated again to increase sensitivity. This process was described by the Ilford chemist G.B. Harrison in 1954, and he added, “all of these operations are capable of almost infinite variation and it is in the modification of these steps that much of the progress has been made, and emulsions of extremely diverse characteristics produced” (Harrison 10).

Another set of pre-ordained steps is used to coat the emulsion onto glass plates, flat films or roll film as required by the specific purchaser and dependent on what camera it is to be used in. Then there are specific instructions that determine whether / how the film is wrapped and whether there is a leader or not, whether the film ends are “pennanted”. They specify a set of procedures such as: to wind the film with the emulsion inwards, to seal it with brown gummed strip, and to pack it in a particular way. Such variable procedures turn an invention (or two: the celluloid film and the Ilford Fast Panchromatic Type 1 emulsion) into various innovative products, each differently labelled and branded.

The Everest expedition was not a military survey but was privately funded. It was financed by and involved “prominent members of the high-imperialist, often pro-fascist, far right” (Zander 2010, 304). Patrick Zander describes the expedition’s origins in this group’s anxieties regarding degeneracy and national decline, and a preoccupation with modernization through technology. Unsurprisingly, then, the air survey had an ideological purpose. Its main backer, the Mussolini and Mosley-supporting Lady Lucy Houston, hoped to see it “impressing a native population in India with the courage, endurance and vigour of the new generation of Britons” (Zander, 315; Clydesdale cited in Douglas-Hamilton). It was also a means to identify natural resources ripe for exploitation both within and without the British empire.

The survey took place over Nepal, at that time a closed nation, and therefore a source of frustration to a British notion that the world could at least be known and conquered through trade, if it could not be absorbed into the empire. The photographs and film would bring Nepal “under the dominion of the map” (Sheperd cited in Zander 321). And since innovation begets innovation, it is hardly surprising that the Army Council expressed interest in creating a military map using the expedition photos. Zander adds, “While Britain was not going to invade the Himalayas any time soon, working with photos from 30,000 feet promised a new potential for mapping any region on earth” (Zander 326).

The Everest exhibition demonstrates how uses are not the end-point of innovation or something that follows after a pure and neutral process of scientific research: the products developed by Ilford, the specially equipped planes, and the cameras used were all designed or adapted to meet the ambitions of this particular (far-right, Imperialist) project. What was pioneered was not only a new kind of film but a new set of procedures, a program, a sorting technique through which the unmapped and unknown, and the resistant (Nepalese) could be marshalled into order, mapped and made intelligible. The program begins in the wet chemical solution and includes the sorting, assembly and labelling and the trained aerial photographer loading and unloading spools and plates. It links the work of photochemists, developing emulsions capable of cutting through the bluish atmospheric haze, to political and commercial desires to cut through a different kind of haze, in order to render the world visible, analyzable and exploitable.


Siegert, Bernhard, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors and Other Articulations of the Real, New York: Fordham University Press 2015.

Fuller, Matthew, and Goffey, Andrew, Evil Media, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press 2012.

Harrison, G.B., “The laboratories of Ilford Limited”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 142, no.906 (1954): 9-20.

Zander, Patrick, “Wings over Everest: High Adventure, High Technology and High Nationalism on the Roof of the World, 1932-1934”, Twentieth Century British History, 21, no.3 (2010): 300-329.

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Roof of the World: Man’s First Flight Over Everest, New York: Random House 2013.

Into the Archive

7 September 2018 | A Dizzying Variety of Film

Yesterday I began my research project in the Ilford Limited archive. This archive is housed at the Redbridge Museum and Heritage Centre in Ilford. I had a long meeting with Gerard Greene, the Redbridge Museum manager, and the collections officer Dawn Galer (Dawn is the person you should contact if you are interesting in using the archive). The plan is to involve archivists and librarians in later stages of the project, so we talked about that, but the conversation was also useful because it helped me to understand aspects of the local context. For example, we pondered on the links between the Ilford factory and other businesses in the area, such as Howards and Sons chemical works, which produced aspirin, and also quinine for use by the British Army, in the treatment of malaria (Ilford Limited experimented with quinine as a preservative).

While at the archive I looked at packaging, especially labels, from the 1930s. This turned out to be one way to get a sense of the sheer variety of Ilford films being marketed in this period to different specialist markets. I am not clear yet whether each of these films is chemically distinct or to what extent the variety is principally in the branding, and the physical format of the film. In the 1930s, Ilford aerial film, for example, came coated in at least four types of emulsion and was supplied on spools, on Selo no 20 film (equivalent in size to 120 film) or on 4" high negatives packed into cartons and airtight tins. Another aerial film, produced for Rossi and co., Switzerland, used a metal spool that was 192 mm (roughly 7 1/2") tall. Colour film produced by Dufay-Chromex in Elstree but “sensitised for the manufacturer by Ilford Limited”, was sold in flat sheets in eleven different sizes ranging from 3 1/4" by 2 1/4" to 15" by 12". The thickness of the film base varied too, from about 0.0321mm to 0.127mm depending on the intended use (the Ilford records describe this in thousandths of an inch, but I find millimetres easier to visualise).

The books of labels also give a sense of the organisations being supplied film by Ilford Limited in the interwar period. Films are destined for the commercial markets but also for the RAF, the Admiralty, Nobel's explosives, and G.E.C. Birmingham (General Electric Company which was also a defence contractor). The role of photographic suppliers in war and the parallel between the photographic “shot” and the gun shot becomes explicit in the archive. Ilford supplied aerial film on Selo no 20 stock (equivalent in size to 120 film) to be used in a Hythe gun camera (You can see one of these cameras here .) I have written about gun cameras in my 2006 essay “Skins of the Real: Taxidermy and Photography”, but while the ones I was talking about were largely substitutes for the killing sort, the Hythe gun camera was actually a means to train aerial gunners and thus to enhance their accuracy with a real gun (a precursor of contemporary simulation technology).

Much has been written on the connections between media and war (and the origins of media in war) but this should not obscure the sheer variety of uses to which film and photographic materials were put. There was a specialist film for clydonographs, which optically record voltage surges, and for oscillographs, which also record oscillations in electrical current. There was film for optical sound recording (how this worked in cinema is described in great detail in this 1930s film from the Huntley Archives ) and phototelegraphic film, used in early television.

When photography theorists and historians think about photography we tend to think about photographic prints . This was point made by Geoffrey Batchen in his talk “Repetition and Difference: A Little History of the Negative” at the Photographer's Gallery which I went to after my visit to the archive. Batchen drew attention to the neglect of the negative, arguing that thinking about negatives moves us away from thinking about photographs as singular objects towards thinking about multiplicity and about the “otherness” of photography.

It struck me, as Batchen was talking, that what I had been looking at in the archive was an even more dizzying multiplicity and variety that complicated the idea of a picture as the final outcome of a photographic process. This variety is expressed in the range of “designer emulsions” that Kelley Wilder discusses (see my last blog post) but also the range of formats, each produced and adjusted for specific and often obsure and highly technical uses. For my purposes, this suggests the extent to which the photographic / photochemical was shaping social experience in ways that have barely been addressed in media histories and photographic histories.  

Photochemistry as second nature

4 September 2018 | Walter Benjamin and Sensory Experience in Modernity

In the interwar period I am interested in, the global photographic industry had massively expanded during the First World War and become a key producer and consumer of new, artificial chemical products. Along with other industries, photographic manufacture was materially altering the environment via new products, byproducts and pollutants, as well as via the construction of a global infrastructure, and new ways of organizing labour, all the while facilitating new ways of picturing and representing this altered world. Benjamin called the new humanly made environment “second nature”, and Esther Leslie has shown how this depended on the rise of organic chemistry and of new synthetic materials, such as aniline dyes (Leslie).

In my research, I am trying to identify how photochemistry participated in changes in sensory regimes, as part of a wider reconfiguration of the human senses in industrial modernity. This research question is fundamentally informed by Walter Benjamin’s claim that new media forms were met by altered sensoria, resulting from new industrial, urban experiences (Benjamin, Some Motifs, 314). However, while I am attending to photographic materials, Benjamin was talking about forms and structures: about how edited montages in cinema, for example, might match changes brought about by industrial environments (central to Benjamin’s argument in the Work of Art essay is the often neglected point that film met the spectator “halfway”) and how Baudelaire found a poetic form to match a kind of bored, numbed and shut-down sensibility that emerged in response to the jolting, abrupt and discontinuous aspects of modern technological experience (Benjamin, Some Motifs, 319).

It is nevertheless a Benjaminian assumption to claim that not only did photographs picture the world in new ways, photography was engaged in altering everyday situations, shaping new kinds of perception, sensation and feelings. Even so, while Benjamin draws on literature to diagnose these affects, I am starting with the production of photographic materials in an industrial context. While Benjamin situates photographic reproduction within the larger world of industrialization and urbanization, broadly defined, in my research I want to situate photography more precisely within its own industrialisation.

This began in the 1870s-90s with the introduction of mass-production, standardization, improvements in dry plate manufacture, new emulsions, the introduction of celluloid, and the growth of the global supply chain (Pritchard 115), and expanded in the First World War due to the growth of cinema and of the amateur market, and also to government investment in photographic materials as “weapons of war” (Edgerton 112). The war had boosted British production of sensitising dyes because it made German dyes no longer available to British manufacturers. By the 1920s and ’30s, the central period of my project, the photography industry was refining silver halide emulsions via the addition of specific kinds of sensitising dyes, which not only extended the visible spectrum registered by the emulsions, but more importantly made it possible to control photosensitivity (Wilder 166).

The introduction of panchromatic materials into the everyday made all sorts of other technical developments possible, and we can trace reciprocal effects. For example, faster gelatin and aniline dye emulsions facilitated handheld cameras, and these cameras reshaped darkroom chemistry. Their small negatives necessitated enlargement, which in turn necessitated finer grain in the negative, and therefore the introduction of new developing agents. This connects to the concept of innovation begetting more innovation, discussed in previous blog posts.

However, here I am concerned with how the new panchromatic emulsions might have both depicted new kinds of embodied experience, and co-produced these. A technology meets newly attuned bodies halfway, because it is already oriented toward them. We don’t have to make a choice between a consideration of representation and a consideration of affects, bodies, and materialities. Photography constructs, reproduces and communicates ideological content in the same moment that it facilitates a specifically embodied culture — a certain affective atmosphere, certain kinds of orientation and disposition, particular sensibilities, new temporalities, bodily rhythms, ways of inhabiting space.


Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” In Selected Writings, Volume 4 1938-1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 313-355. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Second Version” (1936). In Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. 101-133. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Edgerton, D. E. H. “Industrial Research in the British Photographic Industry, 1879-1939.” In Liebenau, Jonathan (ed) The Challenge of New Technology: Innovation in British Business since 1850, 106-134. Aldershot: Gower, 1988.

Leslie, Esther. Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry. London: Reaktion, 2005.

Pritchard, Michael. The Development and Growth of British Photographic Manufacturing and Retailing 1839-1914. PhD dissertation, De Montfort University, 2010.

Wilder, Kelley E. "Photography and the art of science." Visual Studies 24.2 (2009): 163-168.