The new virtual life of early analogue photography: digitising Oxford University’s magic lantern slide collection.

The History of Art Department’s Visual Resources Centre makes its archive of glass slide photography available in an online database.

Dina Akhmadeeva

Figure 1 Anonymous Photographer  View of Constantinople The Department of the History of Art, Oxford

Figure 1
Anonymous Photographer
View of Constantinople
The Department of the History of Art, Oxford

There exist strong ties between the discipline of art history and the medium of photography, ties which were forged in the mid-19th century with photography’s development, and which still exist today. In 1947 France’s then-culture minister André Malraux described art history as ‘the history of that which can be photographed’, while more recently art historian Donald Preziosi remarked that, “art history as we know it today is the child of photography”. In lectures, books, classes or articles, art historians have come to rely on photographic reproductions of artworks – whether painting, architecture, design or sculpture – as essential components to the way the discipline functions.

The History of Art Department’s Visual Resources Centre at the University of Oxford holds, among other visual material, some 60,000 examples of late 19th– and early 20th-century photography in the form of magic lantern slides collected for the teaching of art history. These objects – made up of thin layers of emulsion trapped between two 3¼-inch glass supports – are held together with binding tape and are labelled with remarks that are at times extensive, and at times brief.

Occupying row upon row of heavy metal cabinets, the slides are both a fragile and a cumbersome example of a now-obsolete method of photography when compared with their modern-day digital counterparts. What was once familiar – the whirr of a slide projector that threw a beam of light across a darkened room, the sight of an image so temperamental that it refused to come into focus – has been replaced with the smooth and silent transitions of PowerPoint. The idiosyncratic world made visible in the slide archive might today appear all too limited compared with a vast digital image database, while the length of time it takes to search through the analogue archive might dissatisfy the time-pressed researcher used to almost-instantaneous offerings of digital image searches. Subsequently the slides have long been barely used.

Figure 2 Anonymous Photographer  Calton Hill, Edinburgh The Department of the History of Art, Oxford

Figure 2
Anonymous Photographer
Calton Hill, Edinburgh
The Department of the History of Art, Oxford

This summer, however, the Visual Resources Centre embarked on a project to digitise items from the magic lantern slide collection, to bring out their potential as resources and objects of research in their own right. Images on glass that have spent years lying dormant alongside collections of 35mm slides, mounted photographic reproductions and boxes of postcards, have been selected, cleaned and scanned into a quickly-growing publically accessible database of early photography.

The first 700 scanned slides focus on architecture, chosen especially for the wealth of information they offer. By virtue of buildings being especially difficult to photograph in isolation from their environment, the scanned images also include people, technology, animals and landscapes.

Moreover, the images offer a uniquely rich insight into a century-old world. In photographing architecture, the often-unnamed photographers also left traces of the way in which the built environment looked in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, much of which has changed considerably over time. The anonymous photographer of the city of Constantinople at the turn of the 20th century (Figure 1) timed the image so as to photograph the skyline of the city, with the 6th-century Hagia Sophia clearly visible, beneath the wings of a passing plane. The viewpoint chosen to capture Edinburgh’s historic Calton Hill (Figure 2) incorporates modern elements made visible in the foreground of the image in the form of railways that stand in harmony with, or perhaps in contrast to, the city’s past.

By contrast, the photograph of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (Figure 3) focuses on a tradition for which the building has long been a backdrop, a firework display for the Feast of St. James on the 25th of July. Yet the photograph is simultaneously a record of a development in imaging technology, which allowed the photographer to capture a low-lit scene. The white streaks of light that cut across the night sky and illuminate thousands of people in the square of the cathedral could not have been captured without chemicals sensitive enough for nighttime photography.

Figure 3 Anonymous Photographer  Santiago de Compostela The Department of the History of Art, Oxford

Figure 3
Anonymous Photographer
Santiago de Compostela
The Department of the History of Art, Oxford

In focusing on these information-rich images, the Visual Resources Centre hopes to make the archive’s categories – which include ‘Anglo-Saxon architecture’, ‘scenes of the Middle East’, ‘windmills’, and ‘French Gothic cathedrals’ – useful not only for scholars of photography and architecture, but also for all those interested in anthropology, costume history, and the development of travel and technology, to cite only a few examples.

The department’s images will form part of a much larger digital database of early photography entitled HEIR – the Historic Environment Image Resource, which has been put together by the Institute of Archaeology and is to be launched later this month. It will also include contributions from Oxford’s Archaeology Institute, the Department of Geography and the Radcliffe Science Library.

Meanwhile, the digitised HEIR images, including those from the History of Art Department, are part of an exhibition of early photography at the Ashmolean which launched on Saturday the 15th of November and which runs until Saturday the 22nd of November. More details here: The exhibition will culminate with a Victorian-style magic lantern performance on the 22nd. Book a free ticket for the magic lantern slide show here:

The archaeology HEIR website is to go live later in November. Meanwhile, read about it here: and here:

The History of Art Department’s collection of magic lantern slides is available to be viewed in its entirety (including yet-undigitised images) by appointment. Contact the Visual Resources Curator, Vicky Brown on .

A catalogue of other analogue image resources collected within the History of Art Visual Resources Centre – also viewable by appointment – is available via or

Dina Akhmadeeva is a former BA and Masters History of Art student at the University of Oxford, working on the history of photography. She worked on digitising the department’s magic lantern slide collection this summer. @DinaAkhmadeeva