Exploring the George Rodger archive

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

image copyrightGeorge Rodger/Magnum Photos

Photographic archives hold a fascination for photographers and those interested in the medium, not just for the images they preserve, but the background information that goes with them.

One student who has been delving into a number of photographic archives, both online and hard copy, is Kate Green, who, for her course at Coventry University, has focused on the material held in the George Rodger Archive.

Rodger was one of the founders of Magnum Photos, and his pictures taken during his extensive travels across Africa following World War Two are a record of that continent at a time of political and social change.

image copyrightKate Green

Green's project is something of a teaser for the George Rodger Archive, as next year will see a number of anniversaries including 20 years since Rodger's death; 70 years since the end of World War Two, during which he took pictures in more than 60 countries (and his images from the concentration camps played an important part in the documentation of the Holocaust); and Jinx Rodger, his wife, celebrates her 90th birthday.

Green's aim is to look at the archive beyond the pictures and examine the notes, diaries, letters and of course interviews with Jinx, who Green notes is the key to this, the glue that brings the archive together.

Green writes: "Jinx shared George's passion for photography and saw her travel thousands of miles with him on assignments with Magnum.

"As their professional relationship turned to a personal one, marrying in 1952 and suddenly expecting a child in 1959, Jinx and George decided to make a base in the south of England. While starting a family, they also established what is now known as the George Rodger Archive. Collecting photographs, contact sheets, captions and publications and then cataloguing them soon became Jinx's profession.

"The beauty of a physical archive, like George Rodger's, is that you can sit there for days looking through all sorts of material trying to make sense of it." Of course, she is also aware that some of it is personal and not there for sharing, especially online. Yet letters to other founding members of Magnum, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, offer a fascinating insight.

"Jinx is the keeper of the stories which help us make sense of the collection of George's prints, publications, letters and diaries," says Green. "There is much value in the archive, of course, but there is little known about it. This is the nature of a lot of important archives; they are concealed and unknown."

Anyone who has watched Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past will understand how a photographic archive can get under your skin and reveal something you don't expect. Of course, that's a work of fiction, but the beauty of a physical archive is, as Green suggests, the randomness of it.

image copyrightKate Green

You can stumble upon things that you were not really looking for - a misplaced print, an overlooked negative. Not to mention the tactile nature of archive prints and notebooks, that contain not just the words, but were actually there when the work was produced, the handwriting a reflection of the moment.

Of course, the power of sharing this work online is vital, as you can reach a massive audience and that in itself can throw up those unexpected moments and encounters.

It's good to see the work of George Rodger being celebrated in this way and at a time when most projects seem to rely on the immediacy and social aspect, the thought of slowing down to dig into the shelves is an appealing one.

Kate Green is a member of IMG19 and her work and research was show along with other members of the BA Photography course at Coventry University.

For those of you who are not aware of one of Britain's greatest photographers you can find our more about the George Rodger Archive on its website and more about Kate Green's project here.

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