The Civic Society column with David Winpenny
When Joseph NicÃ©phore NiÃ©pce set up his camera at Saint-Loup-de-de Varennes and took the world's first photograph in 1826, and when William Henry Fox Talbot photographed a window at his Wiltshire home, Lacock Abbey, in 1835 and produced the world's first paper negative, they opened the floodgates to a world of new images.
Now we live in a digital age, when almost all of us are photographers, and most carry round the means of making instant images of everything and anything.
Whether any digital images will ever become as precious as the Niépce and Fox Talbot originals is perhaps doubtful – but it is clear that photographs of the past have a special interest for us.
That’s why, for the past couple of years, Ripon Civic Society has been quietly running a very special project for the city – the conservation and preservation of approaching 10,000 photographic images, dating from the latter half of the 19th century to the later-20th century.
From original glass plates dating from the 1890s through to acetate negatives in a whole range of formats, these images document life in Ripon through the decades – the people, the places, the buildings, the industries, the major events and the everyday lives of the people in Ripon – it’s a truly remarkable record.
The project is called ‘Ripon Re-Viewed’ and its purpose is not just to ensure that the images are preserved for future generations but also to make them available to everyone.
To this end, the Society applied for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and was awarded £59,000 to undertake the work.
There was also substantial support from North Yorkshire County Council, Ripon City Council and a number of generous local supporters.
So thanks to Lottery players – perhaps you – and the other backers, the photographs have been conserved and scanned, and are now safely housed in the North Yorkshire County Record Office. But they are not hidden: a major part of the project is to make the conserved images publicly accessible online.
A new website – www.riponreviewed.org – will allow everyone to search the collection and to see the treasure trove of pictures from the past that has been uncovered.
The website will be regularly updated with new images, but there are already plenty for anyone with an interest in Ripon to find something to fascinate them.
The images will be available for purchase as prints or for publications, subject to copyright restrictions.
Not everyone, of course, will want to spend hours – however pleasurably – looking at these images on their computer, tablet or phone.
So there will also be two public exhibitions of photographs in the city over the coming weeks.
Anyone who has seen the large-size prints of some of these early images on the hoardings opposite the Workhouse Museum during the last year will have some idea of the impact such an exhibition might make.
Tomorrow (Friday 27 July) the first of these exhibitions opens in the Workhouse Museum and will run until 2 September.
Taking themes – like street scenes, shops, industry and working lives, and festivities, as well as World War I – the exhibition, in the Workhouse Dining Hall and adjacent rooms, will show the range of the images that have been conserved.
The exhibition is on show during Workhouse Museum opening hours. Although standard museum entry fees will normally apply, there are two special weekends when Ripon area residents can have free admission – the first weekend (28 and 29 July) and the last weekend (1 and 2 September) of the exhibition’s run. Just go to the Museum’s reception with proof of your address.
The second exhibition will be even more public, as it will be seen on the streets of Ripon.
Starting soon after the Workhouse exhibition, it will consist of large images from the Ripon Re-Viewed collection placed approximately on the route of the St Wilfrid’s procession.
The pictures will be as near as possible to the location that was depicted in the original.
As well as being in place for the St Wilfrid’s Procession on Saturday 4 August, these images will remain until Monday 10 September, to coincide with the Heritage Open Days weekend of 8 and 9 September, when a number of buildings in and around then city will open their doors to the public.
Although the Ripon Re-Viewed collection can’t boast images as early as those of Niépce and Fox Talbot, the photographs of the city are a fascinating collection and a window into history. And at the time when many of them were being taken, Ripon had its own photographic pioneer living here.
Charles Piazzi Smyth, who moved to Clova, Clotherholme Road, in 1888, is well-known for his fascination with the Great Pyramid and for his pyramid-shaped tomb in Sharow churchyard. But he was also interested in photography.
He invented a miniature camera, just 2 inches by 3½ inches in size, to take images inside the Great Pyramid.
Using his own invention for preparing the photograph plates (a complicated business involving wet chemicals in those days), he took his pioneering pictures using brightly-burning magnesium wire inside the pyramid’s chambers – among the first photographs to be taken by artificial light.
In his Ripon retirement he spent much of his time studying cloud formations, photographing them from the attics of Clova; some of his images include views of nearby buildings, including the Grammar School.
So Ripon has a long history of photography, and the Ripon Re-Viewed project has brought to light this great archive of images of the city’s past.
Do visit the Workhouse Museum exhibition, look out for the images on the streets and dip into the new website – but give yourself plenty of time to explore!