The last few months seem to have passed in a whirlwind. After kicking the Raissa Page project off in November, and then enjoying the Christmas break, we joined the returning (to work) throng on January 2. Then, in the second working week of the new year, the Project Archivist (that’s me) was on the train to Paddington and a cosy bed in the Premier Inn at Aldgate East for 3 nights.
From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the wonderful Bishopsgate Institute where the Archivist Stefan Dickers and his ever so welcoming and helpful colleagues were there to assist me in having a peak at the wonderful Format Photographic Agency collection, of which Raissa Page was a founding member. If you do have a chance to visit the Institute, please do so. It is fascinating in and of itself, and it also holds the most exciting and diverse collections within its library and archives.
Format was (initially as a collective, and later a partnership) a photographic agency of women photographers which was active between 1983 and 2003. They felt that the work of women photographers was massively underrepresented in both mainstream and specialist media, and were determined to do something to address this. Format’s photographers (along with their administrative support team) tackled this under representation head on. As well as being women taking photographs in places and situations where they had previously not been well represented, it was also women taking photographs of women in roles that were not considered (at the time, by the mainstream media at least) to be ‘normal’. So, we have great images of women in positions of authority and strength: fire fighters, airline pilots, barristers, and the like, along with images of women becoming far more politically active through their participation in events like the Greenham Common movement and the Miners’ Strike.
It was so revealing to have Raissa’s work, which I am slowly becoming more familiar with through my initial box listing of the archive here at The Richard Burton Archives in Swansea University, contextualised through the equally thought provoking and revealing work of some of her incredibly talented Format colleagues.
In addition to looking at the Format Archive I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with Michael Ann Mullen when we met at the British Library. As well as being an Associate member of Format, and working with Raissa for many years, Michael Ann also undertook the British Library Archive oral history interview with Raissa (Nov 1994), which is a fascinating and revealing source of information about both her upbringing and her photographic career (this recording is accessible for UK Higher Education and Further Education institutions only). Since returning to Swansea I have also had an informative and helpful phone conversation with Anita Corbin, who was the youngest member of Format when it founded, and has gone on to a lengthy and acclaimed career in photography. Anita’s current work includes two major exhibitions – First Women UK and Visible Girls Revisited. I am immensely grateful to be able to talk directly to such renowned photographers and colleagues of Raissa (and have already arranged a further conversation with Maggie Murray – hopefully others will follow), and realise, of course, that this is an opportunity very few archivists working to catalogue specific personal collections are lucky enough to have.
All of this background research (which was an integral part of the Wellcome Trust funding application for this project) hugely assists in bringing me to a growing understanding of Raissa Page and her work. As I begin to consider potential cataloguing schemes for the collection, this can only be a benefit, and reinforces my sense of pride and excitement in finding such a wonderful archive with which to be working. The box listing of 25 boxes and portfolios of various sizes has just been completed. There will be more on this in future blogs, but just to give a snap shot of the amount of material we are working with, there are over 36,500 negative images within these boxes.
Keep an eye out for further updates as we progress, and don’t forget to follow the project on Twitter at @RaissaPage
Photos by David Johnston-Smith