In 1858, when commercial photography was in its infancy, Edward Reeves set up a photographic studio at 159 High Street, Lewes.
“He was apprenticed as a watchmaker, but had been describing himself as a Photographic Artist since 1855,” says his great-grandson Tom Reeves, still running the studio from the same premises, as his father and grandfather did before him.
Tom, of course, takes portraits and wedding photography as well as commercial shoots, meaning that the studio is almost certainly the longest running of its kind in the world.
What makes the business even more remarkable is that none of the original glass plates – or subsequent film negatives – have ever been thrown away, and each image has a written entry in a record book, noting the subject and date of the photo. So Tom – partnered in the business by his wife Tania – is sitting on a unique archive of local history, which keeps him extremely busy, when he’s not behind the camera.
“There are over half a million images from the pre-digital age,” he says, “and of the stuff I didn’t take, I reckon I’ve only seen 10% of it. There’s a lot of work to be done archiving it and digitising the images and notes. There are a lot of surprises in store. Some people call it ‘The Lewes family album’.”
In the last six years he’s been aided in the task by Brigitte Lardinois, a Lewes resident who is Senior Research Director of the University of the Arts in London. She has helped curate the acclaimed annual ‘Stories Seen through a Glass Plate’ lightbox exhibition, in town centre shop windows.
Tom regularly gives illustrated talks on different aspects of the archive, and in January is presenting around 100 images at the Lewes Little Theatre. The aim of his Lewes in Camera talk will be to present a history of the business “looking at how the different technology available through the ages affected the sort of pictures that were taken.”
“Great-grandfather Edward worked with wet-plate collodion negatives,” he explains, “which had to be processed immediately, in a makeshift darkroom; this made outside photography a tricky process. His son Benjamin inherited a thriving business in 1904, which was by then using dry-plate negatives, which made cameras more versatile. My father Edward took over in 1948, and his era saw the advent of roll film, colour photography and electronic flash, among other things.”
The big change in Tom’s tenure has been the birth of digital photography. “Wedding photography used to comprise a couple of group shots, usually in the studio,” he says. “Now you shoot and shoot and shoot.”
Ironically, the digital images are less easy to store than the old glass plates. “With those, it was just a case of putting them in a cupboard. Now you have to store them digitally, and continually back them up as technology progresses. They are much more at risk than the Victorian images.”
Lewes in Camera, Lewes Little Theatre, 5th Jan, 2.30pm