Photographic Memories Workshop: a dialogue between past and present of photography

On Friday, November 27th, the E-Space Photography pilot organized in collaboration with the City Archive of Leuven and the Erfgoedcel the “Photographic Memories Workshop”.

The aim of the day was to revive the past history of Leuven and connect it with today’s life, all through the medium of photography. Citizens of Leuven and surrounding areas were invited to join for a voyage in time, through the stories hidden in the photographic heritage of the city, to a demonstration of an old photographic technique, and back to the present with the most modern digitization techniques, cameras, computers and tools.

The event took place in the City Archive of Leuven, which opened its doors for the three activities of the day.

DSCF1846In the first place, a spin-off of the exhibition “All Our Yesterdays” was set up, featuring the images that had been digitized during the EuropeanaPhotography project and shown to the public only once before and for a very limited time (February-March 2015). DSCF1986The archive’s daily life is characterized by its strive to connect to the inhabitants of the city. To this aim, it opens every day to the public and makes available for consultation many of its documents. Its photographic collections, however, are too delicate to be easily accessible to visitors and therefore they remain one of the least known parts of the archive’s belongings. During the workshop, participants had the chance to get to know these photographic collections and enjoy the beautifully digitized and exhibited photographs.

DSCF1896Secondly, an invite was sent to the citizens of Leuven: whoever held photographs, negatives and even glass plates that showed traces of past life in the streets, market places and squares of the city, could bring them along and get them digitized professionally by top digitization expert Bruno Vandermeulen and his collaborators, who would show how the digitization process works.  A group of students from the Master of Cultural Studies was also present to interview the owners of the photographs and get to know more about the places and people they captured. Throughout the day more than 220 photographs were collected and digitized under the licenses CC-BY-NC, CC-BY or Public Domain. Support about licensing was provided by colleague Barbara Dierickx of Packed.

The third activity took place from 14:00 to 17:00: photographer Frederik Van den Broeck gave a demonstration of the Wet Plate Collodion technique. This is an old photographic process that was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer and became widely used during the early second half of the XIX century. It takes its name from the Collodion emulsion, a chemical mixture that was used to make the plates sensitive to light in order to capture the images. After a detailed explanation of the process, the photographer proceeded to take few photograph on aluminium and glass plates, producing tintypes and ambrotypes.

The process was fascinating: it showed the strongly chemical nature of early photography and the major amount of effort and patience that were needed to take a photograph, as opposed to today’s easiness of the process, where a simple click is enough and most of the effort has shifted into post-production. The tintypes and ambrotypes were digitized right after their production and questions concerning the digitization process were answered by digitization experts.


In a dialogue between past and present, during the day participants had the chance to learn more about the history of their city, enjoy the demonstration of an early photographic process and witness how photographs today get digitized with the most modern techniques.

Clarissa Colangelo, KU Leuven

Images courtesy of Siya Gao and Fred Truyen