View of excavator machines at work.
View of excavators at work during the construction of the M1 motorway in about 1958-9. © Historic England Archive John Laing Collection, image reference JLP01/10/00113.
View of excavators at work during the construction of the M1 motorway in about 1958-9. © Historic England Archive John Laing Collection, image reference JLP01/10/00113.

Picturing Construction, Constructing Identity

Research into the John Laing Photographic Collection.

Architectural history student Tony Presland gives us a preview of his developing research into the John Laing Collection, which is being curated and made accessible by the Historic England Archive.

In architecture early photography found the perfect subject matter, something that was static, allowing exposure times of minutes or hours as necessary to enable an image to be captured using the materials available with their very limited sensitivities. It is thus natural that photography has played a vital part in architectural history and this is nowhere more evident than in the John Laing Photographic Collection.

The development of the collection

The company that would become John Laing and Son Ltd was founded in 1848 and by the early 1890s was already making use of photography to record the works that it was undertaking. Over the course of its 170-year history the company would go on to build a photographic record of the business and its output that would grow to more than 230,000 prints and negatives. The photography started to be more formally managed as an archive from 1985 when the company’s first archivist started work to bring this information together.

A report by English Heritage - now Historic England - notes that there are few photographic collections created by a single company which have such scope and breadth, and that ‘the collection contains unique visual evidence of twentieth-century structures and construction methods’ (Little and Bevan 2013).

Exploring what stories the collection tells

While significant research has been undertaken on some aspects of the company’s output, most notably the M1 motorway, no research has been carried out on the Collection as a whole (Merriman 2007; Wall et al 2012). This has given me the opportunity to undertake a PhD based on this rich source of material which combines architectural and construction history woven through discussions on photographic representation and archival theory.

An important part of this work will be to understand the story that this archive tells and how that story may be a reflection of Laing’s corporate goals rather than a complete and comprehensive account of all its works.

To test this argument the Collection will be compared to other archives which deal with similar subjects such as the S. Pearson & Son archive which provides an alternate view to the work carried out by Laing at Gretna in World War I (Santana 2018).

It will be important to understand what processes may have been in place to determine which documents were preserved and, if possible, how decisions were taken on what to capture. Harley’s idea that ‘silences could be regarded as positive statements and not merely as passive gaps’ is useful in this regard (Johnson et al, 2017).

In particular I will argue that Laing was instrumental in the creation of a ‘modern Britain’ following the cessation of hostilities after the Second World War.

The company was involved in many large-scale works and a wealth of domestic architecture from housing estates to shopping parades and industrial estates, often using innovative building techniques and materials.
The Collection demonstrates how the company documented these works and created both an external and internal identity which foregrounded the ideas of teamwork permeating all aspects of the business. Laing appears to have been conscious of the power of brand from an early stage and workers and machinery feature the company logo prominently.

Heritage as part of corporate identity has been defined as including ‘corporate competencies, cultures, philosophies, activities, markets and groups etc. and may find, in addition, expression in distinctive visual identities, architecture and service offerings’ (Balmer 2011: 1385). The yellow colour that was a cornerstone of the Laing logo was considered so important that it was retained for the combined Laing O’Rourke company on merger in 2001.

I am interested not only in the images themselves but also in the process by which they came into the Collection, considering the nature of archives generally and photographic archives more specifically. For example, within Laing, what protocols were used for accessioning, attribution and managing its archive?

Breaking new ground

Also important is the idea of an archive constantly being refreshed though its use in many contexts, not least the ongoing digitisation and cataloguing of 10,000 images from the Laing Collection as part of Historic England’s 'Breaking New Ground' project. This project will make the images accessible to the public through the enhanced archive search facilities on the Historic England web site.

An engagement programme is being delivered as part of the Breaking New Ground project to ensure that different audiences learn about the Collection.

Historic England staff and former Laing employees have visited school children in Swindon, Bristol, Coventry and London to explain how Laing shaped the built environment of the students’ local areas. Three films are being made which will detail these interactions. In addition to this, a short film entitled ‘Building Britain’ has been commissioned; this will include interviews with former Laing employees at iconic Laing sites such as the Barbican and the Second Severn Crossing.

Changing forms of representation

I will be considering how the Collection demonstrates changing forms of representation. Aesthetics, the use of colour and the evolving technical landscape all offered photographers opportunities to approach their subject in an increasing variety of angles and approaches. This will be linked to considerations of whether the types of buildings being documented impacted the way in which they were represented.

Much of the Laing Collection can be characterised as progress photography, and its ability to act as a record will be considered, linking the photography of individual architecture to a wider documentary approach. Photography has been viewed as ‘truth’, with photographs ‘seen to have the force of evidence: they are taken to be unmediated conveyers of architectural experience’ (Higgott and Wray 2012, 2). I will be exploring this idea, linking it to considerations of a wider documentary photography practice by looking at work such as Eugène Atget’s record of Paris and Berenice Abbott’s work in New York (Nesbit 1992; Weissman 2011).

I am interested in how the photography of construction and architecture can be viewed as both human and inhuman. Buildings are primarily built for human habitation but much of construction photography, and indeed also more general architectural photography, is relatively devoid of people. But buildings, and records of buildings, tell stories, and Elizabeth Yale makes the important point that archives allow a range of histories to be told depending, on the desired message or outcome, suggesting that ‘archives and archival practices have stood at the heart of empires, nations, commercial companies, and religious orders, institutions that have defined the modern world’ (Yale 2015, 333).

Using this idea I will consider how the Laing Collection sits at the heart of our understanding of the company, what image the company wished to project and whether alternative narratives can be constructed from the Collection to complement the company’s version of the building of modern Britain.

Imagining the past more vividly

Joel Smith describes how ‘the history we inherit in buildings is no comprehensive archive’ but a ‘patchwork of survivals, a discontinuous and evolving collage’ (Smith 2011,14). The material that is retained in the Collection is the result of a series of survivals and understanding what is missing may help us understand what was important for the business at many stages in its history and offers a unique perspective on an important period in architectural history.

Peter Burke suggests that images allow us to ‘imagine the past more vividly’ and research into photographic archives of the built environment can take advantage of that power and it is hoped that this research may provide insights for others looking to investigate photographic archives, especially those relating to a single business, by describing the strengths and weaknesses of such archives as an historical source (Burke 2011, 13).

About the author

Tony Presland MSc MA MSt

Head of IT for Historic England

Tony is a part-time doctoral student with interests in a wide range of subjects from Victorian portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron to the Boeing B-314, the first commercial transatlantic passenger aircraft. He is currently studying Architectural History at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He now manages the teams responsible for Historic England’s internal IT services.

Contact Tony Presland MSc MA MSt

Further information

Please note at time of writing due to the coronavirus pandemic there is no public access to the physical Historic England Archive.

For more information on the John Laing Photographic Collection see Historic England’s Breaking New Ground project

Balmer, J M T, 2011, 'Corporate Heritage Identities, Corporate Heritage Brands and the Multiple Heritage Identities of the British Monarchy', European Journal of Marketing, 45, 1380-98.

Burke,P Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001)

Higgott, A and Wray,T, 2012, Camera Constructs : Photography, Architecture and the Modern City, Burlington: Ashgate Pub. Co.

Little, H and Bevan, K, 2013,'John Laing Plc Collection Project Report', Swindon: English Heritage, 2013

Johnson, V, Fowler,S and Thomas,D 2017 Silence of the Archive, (London: Facet Publishing) p. xx.
Merriman, P, 2007, Driving Spaces: A Cultural-Historical Geography of England's M1 Motorway. Oxford: Blackwell

Nesbit, M 1992, Atget's Seven Albums. Yale University Press
Santana, N 2011 Engineering and the Corporate Photographic Archive, (Royal Holloway, 2018).

Smith, J, 2011, The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Art Museum; New Haven

Wall, C, Clarke, L, McGuire, C and Muñoz-Rojas, O, 2012, Building the M1 Motorway. London: University of Westminster, PRoBE

Weissman, T, 2011, The Realisms of Berenice Abbott: Documentary Photography and Political Action. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press
Yale, E, 2015, 'The History of Archives: The State of the Discipline', Book History, 18, 332-59.

John Laing gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

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