SPH/Spaarnestad Photo archives in Haarlem, The Netherlands
Preserving the photographic memory of a Nation
After its foundation in 1985/1986, Spaarnestad Photo has been working as an independent institution at the preservation of the photographic archives of the former Haarlem based De Spaarnestad publishing company.From its beginning the task of SPH has been the preservation and disclosure of the abundance of the photographic contents of the archives - a century of Dutch and international documentary photography laid down in ca. 5 million photos at the time of writing - by turning the former company archives into an archive for the public. This is done, among other things, by making the photos available for (photo)historic research and educational purposes, by organizing exhibitions in SPH's own exhibition rooms in Haarlem or those of others and by stimulating photographic publications.The size and quality of SPH's collections make the archives one of the main photographic memories in the Netherlands. Without the swift act of the SPH Foundation in the mid-80s, the photographic landscape of the Netherlands and its social sphere would have been deprived of a large part of its history.By co-operating with professional photo-conservationists, SPH works continuously at the conservation of photographs. For this purpose, SPH not only depends on the possibilities of outside funding, but it also invests a substantial part of its own resources into the permanent conservation of the photographs.
Nowadays SPH works at being a source of inspiration for contemporary photographers, historians, artists and designers who use the archives for their own work in a way of which the original makers of the pictures and the archives could only dream.The educational possibilities of the archives are being explored and expanded. At the same time the opportunities of making SPH's cultural heritage available owing to recent developments of digitizing create a great challenge for a small organization such as SPH. Together with the preservation of the photos, its task for the public, organizing exhibitions and digital registration and disclosure, rescuing Dutch collections of documentary photography will be the focal point of SPH in the coming years.
The origin of the collection and its present use by SPH
The former De Spaarnestad publishing company was founded in Haarlem in 1906. About 1925 the expanding company started storing and organizing its photo material into its archives. The photos came from the company's own photographers and from photo press agencies in The Netherlands and abroad. During its existence the publishing company also took over other press photo archives in The Netherlands. Towards the end, by 1985, the company's collection contained some 2.5 million photos dating as far back as the late 19th century. During the period between 1925 - 1980 De Spaarnestad developed a refined and very effective system of classifying its photo collection, the benefits of which are still being felt in its present use by SPH.Because of the great number of titles of popular magazines that were published by De Spaarnestad and which had a wide circulation in the Netherlands, the photos that were used for these magazines form a part of Dutch cultural heritage and its visual contents.Pragmatization within the publishing company in the 1980s lead to the decision to dispose of the money- and space-consuming photo archives.Owing to the quick response of the SPH Foundation, the destruction of the enormous collection was prevented. In 1986 the photos together with the original magazines in which they were published were transferred to SPH. This was done in a period when photography in The Netherlands and especially documentary photography, outside of a small group of enthusiasts and professional photographers, was still considered to be of minor importance compared to other cultural and artistic disciplines.In 1997, due to co-operation with the municipality of the city of Haarlem, who guaranteed the accommodation of the collection, and with financial support of provincial and central government bodies and private sponsors, the collection could be moved to a special reconstructed building in the heart of the city. Located in the so-called ‘Museum Quarter' at the Groot Heiligland in Haarlem, SPH makes a valuable contribution to the area where other cultural organizations, like the Frans Halsmuseum, can be found. In the present building, the photo collections are stored under air-conditioned circumstances, which had never been possible previously. Also the SPH exhibition rooms in the building have been specially adapted to the exhibition of original and precious photo-material with respect to climate and the level of light.At the moment the collection contains some 5 million photos. Owing to donations - because SPH does not have the means to be able to buy collections - by photographers, private persons and companies, the collection has grown considerably since 1986. In addition to the main body of black-and-white prints there are some 400,000 colour slides plus several tens of thousands of (glass)negatives, together with small collections of autochromes and special prints.After the transfer from the publishing company to SPH, it turned out that the collection contained quite a large number of original prints by well known Dutch and foreign photographers like Aart Klein, Ed van der Elsken, Brassaï, Ansel Adams, André Kertész and Erich Salomon. These so-called 'vintage' prints, some 20.000 at the moment, are preserved separately from the main body of the collection.
Enjoying SFA's photographic collection
One of the stimulating aspects of the photo collection is the link between past and present which SPH enables to explore. By means of photo assignments and guest-curatorship with the purpose of producing exhibitions, SPH brings modern photographers and their work and the public into contact with each other and with the photography from the past.By working in this way, SPH brings to the attention of the public the different aspects of photography: documentary, autonomous, commercial and applied. In this way, the scope of the original documentary photos of the SPH collection has been expanded into a much wider field of possibilities.Keeping the collection together as a whole has increased the value of the photos, which goes beyond the value of the individual photo. The collection is a source of mass culture of the 20th century by well-known photographers as well as an even greater number of anonymous photographers. This enables future generations to understand how people looked at their surroundings in different times.The versatility of the collection allows photography to be dealt with in a much wider field than in the days the photos originally were published. SFA stimulates its collection to be used as a source of inspiration for many. Just preserving the collection has from the very outset been considered as too limited a goal.
The Impact of the work of SFA
During the years of its existence, SFA has made an important contribution to the preservation of the photographic memory. Without the vast collection of SFA and its many unique photos the photographic landscape in the Netherlands would contain many empty and barren spaces.The work of SFA is contributing to make the public aware of the values of the photographic memory to the community. Its collection is not only of interest to (photo)historians, but SFA stimulates its use by students, artists, designers and the use for educational purposes. With this in mind SFA is working together with researchers in the field of photo history and culture, state - and municipal archives, other institutions with photogrphic collections, professional and amateur photographers, social organizations, the business community, designers, artists, and teachers.SFA considers the making of temporary exhibitions as an important part of its activities. It enables the public to see photography from constant changing perspectives. This may range from creating a feeling of recognition by veterans who visited the SFA exhibition Focus op Korea (Focus on Korea), made in co-operation with the Section of Military History of the Royal Dutch Army, to public debates about the use of photography and its social impact as was the case with Eeuwige Jeugd (Eternal Youth; 100 years of children's portraits in Dutch Photography).
During the recent years, the exhibitions numbered over 20,000 visitors and got a good reception and enthusiastic reactions by the public as well as the press. This quality is achieved with only a small budget available.
The conservation of the photos by SPH has developed from nothing to the present standard, in co-operation with experts in photo-conservation in the Netherlands. The conservation runs parallel to the increase in knowledge of photo-conservation in the Netherlands in the past decades. As an example of mass culture, the collection requires specific solutions for conservation on a mass scale.By making its photographic collection available in so many ways, SPH has turned the originally closed company archives into a dynamic institution. The growing reputation of SPH has increased the number of fields in which the photographs are being used daily and by which they reach a wide, various and also a well-deserved audience.
Visitors' address: Prins Willem Alexanderhof 20
Postbox 90520 2509 LM Den Haag