With unrestricted access to one of the country’s most extensive photography collections, Getty Images Gallery is every photography lover’s paradise.

Imagine a warehouse in east London. Inside, shelves stretch for over nine and a half miles and are laden with hundreds of archival boxes, carefully arranged into over 1,500 individual collections. Inside each box, protective sleeves encase glass plate negatives, daguerreotypes, vintage prints and reels of footage. Alongside the boxes stand rows of tooled leather ledgers, each one recording thousands of images in elegant longhand. This, the archive of Getty Images, is one of Britain’s greatest collections of photography.

Introduced in the mid-19th century, few could have imagined the impact that photography would have on our lives. Today cameras are integrated into mobile phones and everybody can record the world around them. It is perhaps difficult, therefore, to imagine carrying a heavy wooden camera, coating a fragile sheet of glass with dangerous chemicals and then waiting patiently for exposures of several minutes. That is what makes Getty Images’ archive all the more fascinating, and a priceless tribute to the men and women who left us such an extraordinary visual legacy. A dedicated team of conservationists, darkroom technicians and researchers work to preserve and promote this vital part of Britain’s heritage.

As part of this team, Getty Images Gallery provides a showcase for the archive, making the images accessible to the public through a regular programme of exhibitions, which also tour globally to reach the widest possible audience. With exclusive access to the archive, each exhibition is curated using online research, delving into print files, looking through the day books, or reviewing negatives and contact sheets for that elusive never-before-seen frame. The same process is offered to interior design clients, tailored to fulfil each specific brief to the last detail.

Photo 1 of

But locating an image is just the start. To do justice to the photographer and produce the best possible print, each negative is meticulously checked by staff in one of the last remaining wet darkrooms in Britain. Here prints are patiently coaxed from damaged negatives or poorly exposed plates through the skill and expertise of the printers. After pressing, each print is passed to a retoucher, who uses the finest of brushes and specialist inks to finish it to perfection.

Getty Images takes the conservation of images very seriously – it’s an important part of preserving one of Britain’s greatest photographic legacies. No significant subject matter is written off until it has passed through the hands of the conservation department. Here it is assessed, and exceptionally skilled conservators work patiently to restore the negative. The department also restores and preserves albums and prints, ensuring they remain viewable for another generation.

Access to the images that form such an important part of our modern cultural history is not limited to the Gallery, or to interior designers. A vast picture library is available online, with everything from the famous faces that have defined our times, to lesser-seen social documentary and street photography, dating back to the 1850s. Hand-printed prints can be purchased, and frames can be arranged, but the content on the website is just the tip of the iceberg. And for those curious to know more, the Gallery offers a research facility, which grants access to the treasure chest of their collections, where specific images can be located, printed and framed.