Navy personnel tackling a sea mine washed ashore, October 1940, Frank L’Alouette
Photographers to Remember This year three commemorative plaques have been unveiled to photographers in Ireland and the UK. In February John Minihan was present for the launch of his own plaque on the exterior of Doyles bar in Athy. The bar is said to be his favourite and appears in his photographs. In May, in Bognor Regis, a plaque was unveiled to Frank L’Alouette on the site of his former studio, although he was being commemorated for his work as a wartime photographer. Then in July the Director of the V&A revealed an English Heritage plaque to Camille Silvy – a 19th century society portraitist – on the north London house that had been his studio. English Heritage runs the oldest scheme (in existence since 1866) with its distinctive blue plaques. These are limited to London but have been the model for many other schemes. To qualify, the subject must have been dead 20 years, a panel of experts must deem them important enough and finally the plaque must go on a building that they are associated with and which is unchanged from the time they were alive. Although all the subjects are nominated by the public, their selection is as much a matter of expert opinion and architectural record as, say, public recognition. Elsewhere the story is different. Between 2000 and 2005 English Heritage took an overview of plaque schemes and discovered there were 285 of them in England alone, of which 174 were active. They each have their own criteria, although the blue plaque template predominates; for example, the connection with a particular place is often important, as with Frank L’Alouette’s studio in Bognor Regis. However, a local civic society’s idea of what counts as ‘important’ may be different from that of English Heritage’s experts. Also, as with John Minihan (and David Bailey and Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen), some local schemes do not require
Marie, Princess of Leiningen (1860) by Camille Silvy their subjects to be dead. It is easy to see the appeal of a plaque scheme to a civic body. It is relatively inexpensive and low maintainance. It encourages popular involvement and local pride. Depending on the celebrity of the person commemorated it may encourage visitors. Similarly, for representative organisations like the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), who also sponsor plaques, there is an element of self-promotion involved. As Michael Pritchard explains ‘We have supported local initiatives where there has been a RPS connection i.e. a former member’. So there has been an enormous growth in the number of plaque schemes and something like competition over subjects to commemorate. The best example of this being when the British Film Institute (BFI) and RPS put up plaques to Eadweard Muybridge on neighbouring gateposts in the same year. Incidentally, English Heritage describe the BFI plaques as ‘orphaned’ because they are no longer being maintained and are prone to corrosion and the RPS plaque has faded badly. Meanwhile Kingston Museum have put a handsome ceramic plaque on another of Muybridge’s houses so they look like the current leaders in memorialising this particular photographer.
The growing number of plaques resembles the commemoration of saints and their relics. Some saints are known widely and people will travel to see what is left of them. The famous ones get mentioned for having stopped briefly in a place (Dickens has 55 plaques). Others are most meaningful in the town where they lived. The best thing about plaque schemes is their inconsistency. Samuel Smith isn’t even the best known 19th century photographer in Norfolk but he is appreciated in Wisbech. And anyone who becomes acquainted with the town will benefit from finding out more about his pictures. This does tend to favour photographers whose work is about the place they lived in, rather than about their private sphere, hence the number of topographical and studio photographers commemorated.
The lively jostling for reputation is also a spur for putting up memorials. The RPS may seek to burnish their place in the history of photography but when Cheltenham Camera Club put up their plaque to Hugo van Wadenoyen part of their motivation must have been to record his rejection of the RPS and Pictorialism in 1945. And, for me at least, it is well worthwhile to learn a bit more about van Wadenoyen’s role in post-war British photography, which I wouldn’t have done without seeing his plaque.
— Richard West