Monday, May 23, 2011

Historic Photography of Africa from the UK National Archives

(old capital of German Kamerun)

Via one of my favorite websites, Things magazine, comes the UK National Archive, which has a digitized their much of their holdings onto Flickr. This includes a delightful project called Africa Through A Lens, which is a totally jaw-dropping treasure of historic photographs from across the continent, from Sudan and Somalia (I had forgotten there was any such thing as British Somaliland) to Sierra Leone to South Africa and Swaziland.

Views of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). Date uncertain.

The project has 25 sets arranged by country, both erstwhile crown colonies like Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe (Tanzania and Zanzibar are organized separately), and non-Commonwealth states like Togo, Mali and Madagascar.

Nothing from Liberia, sadly, but nearly 1,500 scans just from Nigeria and Ghana. In total there are nearly 5,000 images here of all variety of subject, mostly landscapes, and scenes, but some portraits. I've only just got a start on perusing.

Definitely check this out in full size.

Have a look around: there is a lot of great stuff here taken by hundreds of individuals over many decades. I've particularly geeked out on the many historic photos of settlements, cities, and architecture, which I've concentrated on relaying here. This includes some vivid shots of Antananarivo (bottom of post) and an incredible series of aerial shots of many of Nigeria cities from 1929 and 1930, including several overviews of Lagos from 1,000 feet over the water, looking down on a peninsular port city of perhaps 100,000 people. The utility of the early documentation of Nigeria's urban settlements evince the value of these records beyond simply intriguing visual artifacts.

Both images of Lagos, Nigeria, November 1929.

There's also a lot of work to be done: most all of the photos have scant labeling, without much attribution or even dates. That part I am a bit perplexed about, maybe I am missing something but I can't believe that nearly all of the pictures had no dates to them.

The Archive is actively seeking assistance on the project, crowd-sourcing input, and also has a warning that some of the transcribed notes might be offensive in terminology and the like. I didn't see any examples of this myself so far, but certainly the entire trove was transferred from the Colonial Office, and thus orginated through the bureaucracy of colonial administration. [Update 5/25: More on this issue from Scarlett Lion's post about the Archive from this past February.]

A huge bonus is that, given the age of the photographs and the Archive's general policy, all the photos are unrestricted by copyright. Enjoy.

Three images of Antananarivo, Madagascar. Dates uncertain.

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