Thursday 12 December 2019

A Life in Pictures: Interview with Michael Hinch from Independent Archives

Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

With a career in pictures spanning nearly 50 years with Independent Newspapers, Michael Hinch is something of a photographic guru.

At the helm of the newly launched Independent Archives, a collection of over 4.3 million photographs from the past 100 years, his knowledge of photography, production and Irish history has been instrumental in cataloguing and assembling the digitised archives. 

From his early days as an apprentice, to overseeing the vast changes in industry for photography and production, his input has been invaluable in crafting the Archives.

‘I started 46 years ago as an apprentice. My first job was working as a photo engraver, which was making blocks from the original photographs so we could print them in the paper. So, from day one of being involved with Independent Newspapers, I’ve been dealing with pictures in one shape or another. Because we had our own dark room I was also very interested in photography, so I could look at it from both sides- from the photographer's point of view and what was required to reproduce that picture in the newspaper.’

The process of preparing photographs for publication in the newspaper was once a laborious task. Photographs were re-photographed through a special screening system onto either Bromide paper or lithographic film, resulting in a black and white negative made up of dots. These dots were sixty five lines per inch and made up the composition of the photograph. 

Considering the staggering technological advances in photography, wherein an image can now travel wirelessly from camera to computer, taking 45 minutes to prepare a single image before it is even published is unheard of in our selfie-centric society. The images in the Archives date back to a time where photography was a valued commodity, and a photograph was only taken after careful consideration and planning.

‘Because of the time constraint of producing them, we would have had about half of what we are doing at the moment. It's still considerable, but if you look back over the years, as we are at the moment going through the Independent Archives, everything went through phases. Just before the First World War you always had a picture page every day, and there were maybe ten to 15 pictures on it and little skinny columns scattered through the paper. The war came along, there were shortages and they went down to using just a few pictures. If you look at the 1916 Rising there were only ever about four pictures per day of that.

Over the years, the production has changed drastically, and the amount of images supplied by photographers again has grown enormously. I remember talking to one of our old photographers and when they started off first they had glass plates; they were given four to six for each job. If you went to a football match you had two pictures, one of each team, and two action shots, if you were lucky. So there weren’t a lot of pictures around.’

Scarce as they may be, what images were taken have been kept within the Archives. Now, for the first time, they are being released in collections to the public. Many of the photographs within the Archive have not been seen since they emerged as negatives, and Michael has directed the process of unearthing these negatives, assessing and researching them before adding them to the digital catalogue. 

With over four million images in total, this is no mean feat. Boxes emerge from the National Library, where they are professionally stored. Each box could contain any number of negatives and glass plates, with just a few notes on each box pertaining to what is inside. The value of the collection is immense, with Michael commenting ‘as a social history of

Ireland, it’s irreplaceable. It’s one of the only few photographic records that cover such a span of time, so from that point of view, it’s very, very important.’

Independent Newspapers moved from its premises on Abbey Street in 2004, and it was at this time that the photography archives were donated to the National Library. The staff at the National Library are credited with the maintenance and upkeep of the Independent Archives, ensuring they are stored properly and protected from damage. However, the full scope of the Independent Archives has really only come to light in recent years. Despite his 46 years in the job, even Mr Hinch was surprised at the scale of the Archives, saying ‘I knew with the 35mm negatives we would have loads of pictures, but I was even shocked by the amount up there.’

The Independent Archives is a unique and invaluable resource to the Irish people. Not only does it document the immense social, political and cultural shifts 20th century Ireland underwent, each photograph within the Archives was taken to document a particular person, event or moment. In the Archives you’ll find teddy boys gathered outside a Beatles concert in the 60s, young couples splashed across the 1970s social pages, the Tailteann Games in the 20s and aerial shots that cover the entire country taken in the 1950s. There’s JFK greeting family in rural Ireland, a young Bono rocking out on stage and a solemn portrait of WB Yeats. Ireland’s political history is also contained within the collection with iconic imagery from the 1916 Rising, the Civil War, the British withdrawal and the Treaty. Every Independent Archives image is available to purchase as a high quality print, with free shipping available worldwide.

The diversity of photographs within the Independent Archives is something that has struck Michael as he makes his way through the collection. ‘The one thing I recognized when I started going through the Archives is that every picture has a story to go with it. Because there were so few glass plates being issued that they were all used. So each photograph, if you look hard enough, there’s a story there.’

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