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Cornish Vernacular Photography Studies 1940 / 1990

Exhibition : Friday 15 July - Saturday 23 July

Open 11am - 5pm Fri/Sat (or by appointment)


Opening event : Saturday 16 July, 2-6pm. All very welcome 

The George Ellis collection is one of Cornwall’s foremost photographic collections.  It contains 95,000 glass plate negatives and 30 handwritten index ledgers, covering 1939-1982, and is an unparalleled visual record of the people and communities of central and east Cornwall.   


The archive covers four decades of rapid change and the images reflect the impact of national and global developments on Cornwall, its environment, and its people.  From photographs of the war to the modernisation of town centres and including subjects such as, for example, the county’s first ambulancewoman, it is a rich and intimate record of life in the mid-20th century.   


In 1999 photographer Colin Robins used the Ellis archive as a model to develop a photographic record of the people of Redruth.  Based in a redundant shop in the town’s West End and using Ellis’s work as a template, he photographed representatives of different occupations, trades and professions as well as examples of the various sporting clubs and social activities prevalent in the town at the time. These were supplemented by inviting people encountered in the Redruth streets to come to the studio to be photographed.


Robins’ interest in the work of Ellis coalesced an interest he has for the vernacular high street portrait studio. This was a form of practice that developed early in the history of photography and one which became ubiquitous on a global scale. The images in these studio environments often seem to exist somewhere between the formalised, flattering, and status-fulfilling tradition developed within European portrait painting and some form of stage where people present and display themselves in a kind of ritualised performance. These tendencies are clearly seen in the work of such diverse practitioners as Malik Sidibe in Bamako, Mali or Mike Disfarmer in Heber Springs, Nabraska or Jaques Tousele in Mbouda, Cameroon.


The photographic technique used by Robins was also developed in line with Ellis’s work – a certain improvised and ad hoc character to the studio (including the backdrop and floor) and use of a large format camera mounted on a tripod. The photographic technology, processes and materials used by both Robins and Ellis is consistent, although Ellis worked on glass plates rather than photographic film. 


Photography’s innate nature seems indelibly related to time, and as such it could be interesting to view both these bodies of work in some ways as a continuum, as a single project. They both record time periods receding incrementally into the past, but very likely they will outlive contemporary viewers of them as they have already outlived many of the individuals they depict. The project could potentially continue if an enterprising photographer chooses to replicate this work again in 2050 and a yet unborn photographer in 2100AD. 


This exhibition has been produced with support from Kim Cooper, Rowan Musser and Rebecca Ball of Kresen Kernow as well as the University of Plymouth.

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