Camera buff stages Newcastle photographic festival

Newcastle festival will be tribute to North photography pioneer Joseph Swan

Joseph Swan
Joseph Swan

It was a lightbulb moment for Paul Cordes as he sat in the rarefied atmosphere of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society library.

Paul, who lives in North Shields, had recently joined the Lit & Phil and was reading up on Joseph Swan, the inventor who was born in Sunderland, worked in Newcastle and lived in Gateshead.

Swan is best known for his incandescent lightbulb, which he demonstrated to an astonished audience at the Lit & Phil in 1878.

But Swan was also a pioneer in the field of photography, making it both more affordable and accessible. Altogether, over 70 photographic patents were taken out by Joseph Swan.

This was of particular interest to Paul, who deals in classic and vintage cameras and images.

Study of a group in Elswick, Newcastle
Study of a group in Elswick, Newcastle

It sparked the idea in Paul to mark this year’s centenary of the death of Swan and his photographic achievements with a Newcastle festival of photography.

This will run from Monday, October 20 until Sunday, October 26, at the Lit & Phil, the Side Gallery and cinema and Newcastle College’s Blandford Square gallery.

Paul has managed to stage the festival with only a £250 grant from the Royal Society of Arts.

“We have done it on a shoestring. People have given their time for free and their generosity has been fantastic,” says Paul.

One of Swan’s advances involved improving “collodion” – a mixture used in wet glass plate photography, while working with his brother-in-law and business partner, the Newcastle chemist John Mawson. The technique was used from the 1850s until the 1880s.

“Mawson and Swan were said to make the best and most consistent collodion in the world,” says Paul.

Present-day boat builder Tom Newstead – picture taken using the wet plate technique
Present-day boat builder Tom Newstead – picture taken using the wet plate technique

In an age of digital photography, Paul has teamed up with Newcastle photographer friend Jonathon Keys to practice the art of wet glass plate photography, using a 19th-century camera called Thelma, which was bought at auction.

Their studies range from a fisherman on North Shields Fish Quay to an image of Seaton Sluice boat builder and wood carver Tom Newstead, with his trademark battered hat, looking as if he has stepped straight from a Dickens novel. “Glass plate photography evokes a different era, and gives a totally different quality,” says Paul.

“It gives you an understanding of the amount of work which photographers had to do at that time, when now digital is so convenient.

“You have to have an understanding of light, chemicals and optics. It’s an in-depth process which pulls a lot of things together, but when people see the glass plate result, they love it.”

In 1862, Swan patented the first commercially practicable process for carbon printing in photography – in which Paul has taken a course.

Swan invented a dry photographic process leading to a huge improvement in photography and progress toward the development of modern photographic film.

He later patented bromide paper, developments of which are still used for black and white photographic prints. “The more I read about Swan the more I was amazed by him. He is the inspiration for this festival,” says Paul.

“It will also highlight the fact that we have some great photographers in the North East and that there is some great material being produced in the region.

“The festival aims to create a platform for photography in the North East while celebrating one of photography’s greatest local sons in Joseph Swan.”

19th Century wet plate image of Newcastle Quayside
19th Century wet plate image of Newcastle Quayside

One of the events on Thursday, October 23 at the Lit & Phil will be a collodion studio to give people the rare opportunity to have their portrait produced on a glass plate.

The cost is £30, to include the plate, and booking is essential on 0191 232 0192. The Lit & Phil will be displaying a couple of outstanding items  from its archives, one of which is Francis Frit’s Egypt, Sinai and Jerusalem – a series of photographic views published in 1860.

Between 1857 and 1860, Francis Frith made three trips to the region. The results of these travels were published in a series of books illustrated with original photographs.

Other festival events include:

Monday, October 20 at Lit & Phil:

2pm – a talk by Geoff Lowe on Tyneside Victorian photographer Lydell Sawyer.

7pm – a Victorian-style show by magic lantern enthusiast Derek Greenacre. £5.


Opening of the Newcastle College exhibition Playing with Light featuring the work of six local photographers.


A street photography workshop, a talk on crafting digital prints. and a play on Joseph Swan by local writer Barry Quinn, all Lit & Phil.


Internationally recognised documentary photographer Leah Gordon will give a talk at 6.30pm at Side Gallery on her latest project.


Lit & Phil 10am-4pm – Dr Twist’s Photographarium, using equipment and chemistry of the day. 7.30pm – Screening of What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann.


2pm – Side cinema: Remembering Jimmy by Juan Fitzgerald on Newcastle West End photographer Jimmy Forsyth.


Side cinema 2pm – screening of Finding Vivian Maier, on the nanny who took over 100,000 photographs.

Foer more details visit


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