Breaking New Ground is a 21-month project to digitise and explore the John Laing Photographic Collection. We are digitising, conserving, cataloguing and making 10,000 images accessible from this incredible collection of social history.
Carrie Marks, Imaging Technician Trainee for our John Laing Breaking New Ground project, decided to re-shoot some of the old photographs in the collection to highlight how the buildings have changed (or not) over time, recreating them right down to the camera, the lens and the film the original photographers used.
Here Carrie tells us how she retraced the steps of Laing’s photographers.
Stage One – Find the right camera
Whilst digitising the collection, I had noticed many of the images were taken on a Hasselblad camera as they had the unique triangular notches on one side of the frame.
I wanted to find out more about the camera equipment Laing used but had little luck until I came across an invoice from the 1990s. It shows that Laing owned several pieces of Hasselblad equipment, some of which I also own!
I attempted to find out which large format cameras were used although sadly, I was unable to find any information. Popular cameras used for architectural photography at the time included Graflex, MPP or Sinar. These may have been used by Laing, though as I cannot find any documentation, this shall remain a mystery.
Stage Two – Identify the locations
The next part of the project involved identifying locations to re-photograph. I searched for locations around Swindon and London and came up trumps! London has some wonderful locations – the Barbican, The British Library, The Empress State Building – I could go on!
Maps were made, walking routes were planned and COVID-19 was working its way around the globe. I decided to use Swindon as a test run before going to London to figure out how simple (with any luck) it would be to recreate an image.
Swindon is full of houses built by Laing. The Penhill site was earmarked for the construction of 1600 homes with the first contract for 168 easiform houses agreed in September 1951. By 1964 Laing had constructed more than half of all the post-war homes built in the Borough of Swindon.
I hoped to work out how long it would take per photo and whether it was possible – some sites have changed so dramatically and there was no guarantee I would be able to find the buildings where I did not have a street address.
Stage Three – Take the photos!
The BSFI houses – Northern Road, Swindon – were built as temporary housing following the Second World War but in many places became permanent. Laing built about 2000 of the steel framed houses in Swindon between 1946 and 1948.
The photographs of Swindon’s Easiform houses were originally taken on large format cameras (which I do not have) so I made do with a Mamiya 645 medium format camera.
I was a little nervous about any comments I may receive while out shooting but I spoke to several people who were very interested in the project. I had a lovely conversation with a lady and her granddaughter when I was photographing her house and as it happened, she had used Historic England to do some research and knew all about John Laing and Easiform!
I shot five locations with two other potential sites which unfortunately, I couldn’t locate when walking around. Recreating these photos was quite difficult as I didn’t know what camera or lens was originally used.
This meant that I couldn’t quite get the same angles and perspectives, so I experimented with different lenses until I got close to the original photo. Some sites have changed quite dramatically and were not so successful, but no less interesting!
Getting the right composition was tricky as my viewfinder showed the image in reverse. This meant I was working backwards – and guessing a little – when framing the images.
As we have evidence that shows the Hasselblad images were shot either with a wide angle or standard 80mm lens, I will recreate the ‘standard’ looking shots in the next round, which should enable me to capture images that are much closer in composition.
Stage Four – The outcome
This is where the project has come to a temporary pause. My initial plan was to scan and process the negatives using our equipment in Photo Services, but without access to the workplace, I decided to improvise.
I used a lightbox and my phone to capture the negatives and turn them into a positive black and white image. See some of the photos below.
We’re making over 10,000 images from the John Laing Collection accessible. You can browse the collection on our website and see if there are any images near you that you can recreate!
Find out more about the Trainee Programme.
You may be interested in a series of books produced by ‘After the Battle’. A 3 volume series photographed bomb sites in 1987 showing how/whether they had been redeveloped. It used wartime ‘after action’ images, found the locations and rephotographed them. 1987 is now quite a while in the past – might make an interesting exercise for someone to redo?
There’s also the good A London Inheritance blog where the writer re-shoots photos taken by their father in London’s docklands in c.1945.
Breaking New Ground is great and shows the importance of contractor archives as well as architects’ and clients’. My only little moan though is the way images are set out on the search page is very clunky – big thumbnails all on a single column, no apparent option for e.g. a matrix/mosaic etc.
I have been doing similar recreations for some time, digitally. I copy one image onto an empty memory card, using several cards. On location I first line in to get a correct zoom angle, and then try different heights. By flicking between new image and original I complete line up, then change card for the next shot. A knowledge of old cameras, lens angles and working viewfinder heights is useful
I think I might be tempted to use a modern digital camera with a zoom lense and make photos of each scene at 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 55mm, and 75mm. One of those focal lengths should come close to replicating the fixed focal length lenses used by original photographers; and the digital display may provide immediate feedback.