Accurate portrait or thorough research?

I was chatting with one of  the Institue academics recently about the photographs in the exhibition currently in the foyer (The Outdoor Classroom, based on the photographs of the Architects & Buildings Branch). He particularly liked those that appear to document the everyday goings on of a school. Children running around the playground  and behaving, well, like children! He commented that they were very different to those taken in the same period (1950s-1960s) in the States, where most images show children in classrooms, sitting up straight in rows.

I think he might have been talking about this image among others

Girl jumping across a paved path in the playground, Woodside Junior School. c1960

Woodside Junior School. c1960. Crown copyright

While it’s true that the Research and Development department of the A & B Branch wanted to document how schools were actually used with regards to how children interacted in them, could it be true that at the same time our American counterparts were trying to foster a picture of perfectly behaved children?! Or do we rather have quite a special resource given that these were primarily research photographs, rather than promotional images? After all, there are a few more ‘staged’ photographs in the collection too.

For example

A class sitting in rows at Blackwell Secondary Modern School. c1950

Blackwell Secondary Modern School. c1950. Crown copyright

…and a particular favourite of mine

Young men in the library at Isleworth County Secondary School. c1950

Isleworth County Secondary School. c1950. Crown copyright

Photographs can be difficult for the archivist, the possibility of interpretation is infinite. It often helps to think about why the photograph may have been taken in the first place, and in addition to that, what it can tell us now. There is so much to think about with regards to the interpretation of images I might dedicate a post to it in the future…

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