The Camera as Witness
Meet Penny Marshall whose ten-book series of photographic books is now complete.
Penny Marshall has worked in publishing since leaving school. For the last five years she has been a freelance editor and it was in this capacity that Philippa Stewart of Macdonald approached her with the idea for a series of books for schools which would take ‘everyday’ subjects and examine their history through photographs. The original brief stressed that ‘the visual element must be strong’. As managing editor for Focal Press Penny Marshall had taken many illustrated books on technical subjects through the publishing process; this, together with her knowledge of ‘old’ photographs, made her a good candidate for the project. The first contract was for four books only: Going Shopping, School Days, Houses and Homes and Holidays appeared first in 1984. The success of these initial titles encouraged Macdonald to commission six more titles. The Royal Family, Railways, Cars, Rivers and Canals, Entertainment and Clothes are now all available and the series is complete.
The series’ subtitle is ‘A history in photographs, 1850s to the present day’. Penny Marshall confides that she finds this ‘rather presumptuous’. In forty-eight pages there was no way she could do more than give an outline impression of over a hundred years of change. She would have preferred ‘A picture history’ and speculated whether the ‘weightier’ choice of title implied that publishers were wary of an attitude in educational circles which still considers images much less seriously than written texts.
Decisions about defining an age range for a target audience are always to the fore in information books. For this series Penny Marshall had the eleven to thirteen age group in mind, although she had hopes that younger and older children might also find them stimulating. It was assumed that their main use would be in the school or class library where they would be a substantial resource for topic-based project work.
That decided, the next thing was to research, find and select the photographs. Such a huge task needs help. On each book Penny Marshall worked with a picture researcher who made an initial ‘trawl’ of images. The Camera as Witness series acknowledges an unusually wide range of sources for the photographs – far removed from the usual recourse to picture libraries. The County Record Offices and local museum collections were used wherever possible. At the outset this was to avoid the often highly priced royalties on picture library material but these less well-known sources revealed a wealth of ‘unhackneyed’ pictures and as a bonus also helped in achieving a spread of geographical locations.
Other criteria for selection were gradually evolved: there should be a balance of male and female figures in the pictures and a mixture of general views with more intimate portraits. Pictures with people in them, especially children, were a priority. It was particularly difficult, Penny Marshall explained, to find material of this sort for the Rivers and Canals book. In addition because this was a historical series there had to be a set number of images for each decade. The 1920s often proved difficult here though she has not particularly considered why this might be.
The emphasis was very much on finding pictures which contained ‘a wealth of information’. It was sometimes tempting to include ‘mood’ pictures, but most important were those photographs which showed something new for that particular time – like the one selected for the 1960s in Cars of a forest of parking meters – or those which seemed to be typical of an age.
The text which accompanies each photograph Penny Marshall says, ‘formed in my mind as I selected them’.
Her long experience as an editor of illustrated books has led her to very clear opinions on the relationship of image and text: ‘The words must add more information to the picture, or else it’s just a waste of space.’
Above all, though, she has an enthusiasm for ‘old’ photographs. She talks eagerly and expressively about how they have made history come alive for her, something she obviously wants to share with others. How would she like to see pupils using her books? ‘Oh, I want them to look,’ she says, ‘not glance.’
Local sources of photographs are largely unknown to the majority of teachers and so they remain a major resource which has not yet been fully used. One project which is exploring this field is based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Here a teacher on a one-term secondment is researching photographic archives in the area and aiming to open up their use in schools. Further details from: John Bradshaw, Film and Photography Officer, Northern Arts. 10 Osbourne Terrace. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE2 1NZS.