The Open Eye Archive contains approximately 1600 prints by more than 100 photographers. Its holdings are diverse, ranging from works by unknown photographers to those by leading international artists. The archive is particularly strong on work made in and around Liverpool, including portraits, urban landscapes and social documentary.
The archive was started in 1980 – three years after the Gallery opened – by Open Eye’s first Director of Exhibitions, Peter Hagerty. Collecting has followed changing agendas over the years, but has remained closely linked to the Gallery’s commissions and exhibition programmes. The first works to enter the archive came from the open submission exhibition Open Eye 1980. Similar open group exhibitions continued, and fed works into the archive, until 1996.
Some of the archive’s earlier works date from the 1930s and 1940s. They include a substantial body of work by Edith Tudor-Hart, exhibited at Open Eye in 1988. Tudor-Hart was a Bauhaus-trained photographer from Austria who fled to the UK in the 1930s to avoid prosecution for her political activities. She photographed in the coal mining areas of the Rhondda Valley and in the industrial North East of England; from the late 1930s her work explored issues around social policy, housing and the care of disabled children.
In 1985 Neil Burgess (Open Eye’s Director 1982-86) organised an exhibition of the work of Bert Hardy, a leading British photojournalist of the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1940s Hardy was commissioned by Picture Post magazine to shoot photo-essays such as Chinese Hostel in Liverpool (unpublished, 1942) and Is There a British Colour Bar? (1949). In 2006 Getty Images donated the exhibited works to the Open Eye archive.
In 1983 Open Eye’s Liverpool Free Studio project set-up a temporary studio on the street outside the Gallery. Over a number of days the participating photographers, who included Tom Wood and John McDonald, photographed passers-by, who were invited to come back the next day to collect a print. From 1984-89 Open Eye’s Project Assistance Scheme helped local photographers create new work; each project contributed a set of prints to the archive.
A number of Open Eye’s exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s examined the wider roles of photography in popular culture. Works were collected from exhibitions such as Snap, Razzle and Pop: a History of Pop Photography 1955-83, including pictures of 1960s Merseybeat stars and of the wider UK music scene. The 1986 exhibition A portrait of Comedy was also a source of works for Open Eye’s archive and included portraits of UK comedy stars of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
In 2007 the Gallery commissioned and exhibited The Water’s Edge, a series of portraits by Michelle Sank of women who work, or worked, on the Liverpool waterfront. The project was produced in collaboration with writer and oral historian Joanne Lacey, who also co-authored the book (published by Open Eye Gallery and Liverpool University Press, ISBN 978-1-84631-084-3). Michelle Sank donated a set of prints to the archive in 2008.
Another major acquisition in 2008 was the exhibition Cities on the Edge, commissioned as part of the city’s European Capital of Culture programmes and curated by photographer John Davies. The exhibition and accompanying book (Liverpool University Press, ISBN 978-1-84631-186-4) explored Liverpool and six other European port cities through the eyes of leading international photographers. The exhibition was donated to the archive by Liverpool Culture Company.
Photographers represented in the archive include: Gabriele Basilico, Ian Beesley, Vanley Burke, Steve Conlan, Philippe Conti, Will Curwen, John Davies, John Edwards, Paul Fazackerley, Bruce Gilden, Steve Hale, Sean Halligan, Edward Chambre Hardman , Bert Hardy, Thurston Hopkins, Peter Kennard, Greg Leach, Peter Hagerty, Harry Hammond, Edith Tudor Hart, Mari Mahr, Peter Marlowe, Derek Massey, John McDonald, Neil McDowall, Rob Meighen, Joel Meyerowitz, Simon Norfolk, Paul O’Donnell, Martin Parr, Caroline Penn, Michael Robinson, Michelle Sank, Ludwig Schirmer, Samantha Seneviratne, Patrick Shanahan, Ewen Spencer, John Stoddart, Wolfgang Suschitsky, Jan Svenungsson, Ali Taptik, Ed van der Elsken, Sandy Volz, Wojtek Wilczyk, Rob Williams and Tom Wood.