Digitising the 1980s

Working through old community newspaper images held in Southwark Archives for the SE1 Stories exhibition inevitably got me looking at my own photographic archive from the 1980s. This consists of around a thousand black and white negatives neatly filed away, a smattering of prints (some now fading away) plus half a dozen processed colour films.

There are plenty of items for SE1 newspaper and wider community material such as Waterloo Action Centre events/leaving dos. But perhaps equalled by other subjects such as local play charity projects (Oasis Childrens Venture), cycling (a few LCC rides & campaigns, plus Bicycle Beano and holiday snaps), worker coops in action, a gig or two, an FoE ‘save the whale’ rally and other green flavours. Quite a lot will now be of little interest to anyone, but equally there’s plenty which could give back-story to organisations still in existence, illustrate some social history, or perhaps provide a window on how lives were lived. And there are one or two anniversaries to be marked soon.

Hence the acquisition of a new bit of kit (a specialist scanner) to process analogue negatives into digital positives, bringing them to light again, for me and whoever else. Using it is a less messy and smelly process than the old dark-room routine but the need to assess each image individually, to select the right settings, is still there. And consequently a little time consuming.

See Notes below for more on pre-digital practicalities.

Specimen pics

A few sample images have been created for the upcoming anniversary of Edward Henry House Co-operative, but to give more practice with the software (good excuse) it was down to selecting some others of personal interest. Where to start? How about at the beginning, on the purchase of my first decent camera? A Canon AE-1 with 50mm lens bought for £134 in January 1981.

More digitisations from the archive to come.



South Bank development proposal model at Waterloo Station, 1981

A model of proposals for the controversial South Bank development designed by Richard Rogers for Greycoat Commercial Properties, on display at Waterloo Station, January 1981. Bernie Spain in left background, a key figure in the Coin Street campaign for housing, not offices.

I’m rather pleased with this picture. Taken with the first roll of 35mm film and appearing on the front of the penultimate edition of the original SE1 Newspaper series, before it took a short break. Particularly pleasing to be able to bring out more detail through the extended digital processing available.


Playing chess on a computer was a novel idea at this time, especially on a desktop machine. Not the most dynamic of subjects but engrossing for some! Computercraft stall at the ‘London Coops Fate’ (sic) which had both housing and worker co-operatives attending. Held at Inter-Action in Kentish Town, 30th May 1981, a spin-off idea from a national event in Leeds later in the year.

Chess at Computercraft, London Co-ops Fate 1981


The next shot, taken from a sequence of at least 12, is of a town hall stop-off during a ’round London’ cycle rally organised by London Cycling Campaign. (“At least 12” as there is a missing negatives strip, featuring Ken Livingstone in an LCC t-shirt, forwarded to the organisation when he became mayor. Maybe it will emerge from their files sometime.)

No helmets or lycra in sight!

LCC round London cycle rally 1981, at K&C town hall?


Going through Birmingham on the canals in mid-April and it snows. Martin and the parents mooring up under a bridge for a rest from lock work. The film ran out on this frame, the right-hand ‘reflection’ is an artifact of that, and most of the white really is snow, not dirt on the negative!

Navigating canal through Birmingham in April snow, 1981.


Community photography in the ’80s

In the digital age the number of photos that can be taken is only limited by storage size (which can often be increased quite cheaply) and images can be shared easily. And a simple tool, the smartphone, is part of daily life and usually kept with you. Previously taking a ‘proper’ camera, rather than a cheap and cheerful basic snapper, would be a specific decision for a particular purpose. Followed by taking into account (to some extent) the cost of film, processing and printing in deciding how many shots to fire off.

Income was limited for most of the 1980s so this certainly applied to me. Reasonable costs could be reimbursed when taking photos for the community newspaper, but as the following receipt went outside the agreed monthly amounts I still have it, an unclaimed expense.

Grove Hardy invoice for developing 2 films plus contact sheets.

£3-20 for developing two films, a further £4-55 for printing contact sheets plus VAT, at this studio set up by well-known professional and local lad Bert Hardy. That’s black and white film and prints of course. Here’s one of the contact sheets in question, marked up in yellow to indicate the frames to be printed for potential use in the newspaper.

10" x 8" contact sheet
Contact sheet #23 in the filing system, a not uncomon mixture of subjects. Note frame number below each thumbnail.

For the first couple of years I did most of my own film developing and printing using Blackfriars Photography Project’s darkroom (at Blackfriars Settlement in Nelson Square), one of the topics in the SE1 Stories exhibition. For a while the project also got Kodak film in bulk and manually loaded it onto 35mm cartridges, a cheaper source than the shops. This is quite easy to spot from the negative strips, as the frame numbering was unlikely to start at 0 or 1 (as the example above does).

The processing involved quite a few chemical solutions and critical stages had to be done in a blacked-out room with only a dull red light. Watching the print appear in the developing fluid, after having used the enlarger to project the negative image on to the right photographic paper, could give a thrill. But you also needed to be careful on timing this and the final fixing bath. That’s where I tended to skimp a little, paying the price now with fading prints, giving another reason to digitally scan the most interesting sections of the negatives archive.

Typically the one time taking snaps of people using the photography project I messed up. These just about work …

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