Playing detective feels good

The search for a photographic clue turned Billy Mann into a super sleuth. And he loved every minute of it

tony-cherie-blair
Smugs game: Tony and Cherie Blair

I started a new photographic project at the Guardian Archive today, which quickly turned into an exciting adventure into the world of forensic detection. Well, that’s how it felt to me.

My task is to log some stray negatives by veteran staff photographer Don McPhee, odd ones from a massive McPhee collection that lacked some of the information necessary for easy cataloguing. Some are UK political party conferences, others from the gatherings of institutions such as the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) and the TUC (Trades Union Congress). A lot of the shots were taken in northern UK towns and cities such as Blackpool, Southport and Harrogate.

Some of the images were not dated, in which case I went in search of clues as to when they were taken. Pictures of a smug and young-looking Labour Party leader Tony Blair alongside wife Cherie are suggestive of 1997. But a satisfied look is not proof. Harder evidence is needed.

In another set, again a Labour Party conference, I struggled. There were few clues other than that their location was Blackpool and they were in black and white. I was told that McPhee switched to shooting on colour film in 1995, so that narrowed things slightly. There were also some images of a person I believed to be veteran Labour politician John Prescott. But none of this really helped to properly date the set. 

Four or five frames showed the Labour Party press office area at the Blackpool conference. This was the conference at which fresh-faced Tony Blair announced his transformation of the party into ‘New Labour’ and the press staff are pictured working feverishly at computer screens and on very chunky laptops. They had their work cut out trying to win over old, traditional Labour supporters, let alone a sceptical press and public.

In one or two of the press-office photos the running order for conference speeches by various Labour luminaries is barely visible on a computer screen, but with a magnifying loup, it was possible to see that in the first column of a spreadsheet were the dates 04/09/1994 and 05/09/1994. This was the big reveal, the type of quality evidence that would put the crim behind bars, and I swelled with pride at spotting it.

‚óŹ Find out more about the Guardian Archive.

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