We have been extraordinarily saddened by the death this week of Pete James, a curator and researcher of enormous talent and influence within the field of photography, both within the West Midlands and far beyond.
Pete worked for 26 years at the Library of Birmingham to establish its internationally recognised photography collection, a position which allowed him to commission and develop projects with a wide range of world-class artists and photographers on site and at other galleries around the country.
A handful of the very many artists and collaborators Pete worked with over the years pay tribute to his generosity, dedication, achievements and the legacy his work leaves behind.
Pete James was an exceptional man. The efforts it took to build an internationally recognised collection of photography, working in a provincial and often precarious context, would be more than enough to warrant the huge respect everybody had for him. But actually, what Pete did was much more than that. He bought the collection to life. He did this through countless exhibitions, publications, commissions, residencies and he did this because he believed in people.
This outpouring of respect has been equalled by an outpouring of love and that comes from the way Pete did all of this. Always with a dedication to making things the best they could be but never at the expense of a personal investment in everybody involved in the project. He wanted to share the work with everybody and he wanted everybody to take a share in it, to have a stake in it.
I spent some time looking back over my emails with Pete this week. Two things stood out:
He always made a joke. Sometimes they were funny.
He never said no.
Pete supported me not long after I graduated by giving me some money from the library budget to buy some film and pay for developing costs. It was a modest amount but for me at that time, it was everything. It’s not dramatic to say that meeting Pete changed my life. Life with him not around will be a change again. For those of us who were lucky to work with him, his exceptional legacy goes someway to easing the pain of this change.
The new Library of Birmingham opened in September 2013 with a festival which included three days of Self Portraits. Prior to the opening Pete had commissioned me, Timm Sonnenschein and Graham Peet (then of The Public) to create 1000 Self Portraits for the opening and these were displayed on the huge screens in the lending area and can often still be seen.
We worked closely with Pete in the run up to the opening including consultation with the development team to get the screen specification sorted. Pete was a delight to work with – straightforward, caring and he negotiated the inevitable bureaucracy with a wry smile but a positive attitude.
But before this commission he always had a keen interest in the Handsworth Self Portrait that I had done in 1979 with Derek Bishton and John Reardon.
When Ten.8 photography magazine closed in the early 1990s, holding a range of exhibition material, he brokered the joint purchase of the original HSP prints by the Birmingham Central Library and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
Pete deserves enormous credit for this resurgence of Self Portrait work and it’s is so sad that we will not be able to work together as planned in Multistory’s Blast Festival in 2019 – marking 40 years since Handsworth Self Portrait. This is just a small part of his impact on photography in the UK and there are many other who will have similar stories to tell. His presence on the photography scene will be greatly missed.
Pete James was exceptional and I’m so grateful to have known and worked with him.
Reflecting back I can hardly believe we first met almost 15 years ago and that his quiet support was so generously available over all that time. Always open to new ideas and keen to promote innovation, he took risks in loaning me archive materials, gave me early platforms to talk at conferences, nominated me for awards, was a catalyst for the major Kern Baby commission and secured my works for perpetuity in the Library of Birmingham collections.
His support extended way beyond library interests and I’ll never forget the dedication he showed when he and daughter Nola slogged across Shropshire on erratic public transport just to be part of the Weighty Friend intervention.
The lasting benefits of feeling supported like that cannot be measured and I’m incredibly grateful to him, and to his family for sharing him even when they knew his health and energy was limited. My thoughts are with them all now.
It is with deep deep sadness that I heard of the death of a friend, one who has played a major part in my personal life and my photographic career.
His passion for photography was second to none, from his position as head of photography at Library of Birmingham he reached out to many academic, established and aspiring photographers helping to shape their career.
He opened up the city’s photographic archive and added new material making it more representative of the city’s diverse cultures. He was always traveling, writing, giving lectures on different aspects of the archive but more often on his passion which was the work of Sir Benjamin Stone. I was looking forward to catching up next when we would be in conversation at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (Who Is Birmingham), part of Collecting Birmingham.
Pete James you will be sadly missed. My condolences to the family, Heather, Nola, Evan – stay strong.