The European Investment Bank (EIB) carried out a large number of infrastructural development projects in EC member countries in the late 1950s throughout the 1960s. The project files are housed in the Historical Archives of the European Union. They include a large number of digitized photographs (around 300) that were produced at the time to document and advertise the work of the EIB. The pictures show the construction work and the newly built factories, hydroelectric dams, refineries, and chemical plants, in Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, and Luxembourg. They are telling of the ways in which ‘nature’ at the time was perceived as a resource to be used freely and infinitely, mirroring the contemporary understanding that rural regions needed to be ‘modernized’ via industrialization. The ecological damage many of these interventions caused were not considered at the time, or not regarded as an obstacle. The visual images speak of the trust in the power of technology and the notion of the mastery of nature. As such, they present an important historical source that can help us to better understand current concerns with man-made environmental deterioration as they are captured in the notion of the Anthropocene.

Corinna Unger

Photo: unknown / HAEU, BEI-2144_06

The EIB and the Environment

The European Investment Bank (EIB) was founded by the 1957 Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community, and annexed Protocol, with the mandate to finance operations and projects contributing to European integration and social cohesion. In its early years, the Bank’s investment strategy was geared towards promoting industrial modernization and infrastructure development in the European Communities’ (EC) lesser-developed regions, with a view to reducing the disparities with more advanced areas. Although the projects financed by the EIB were indeed meant to change the European landscape, their potential impact on the environment was not specifically considered until the early 1970s, when the initiative of international organizations and the first steps towards an environmental policy taken by the EC placed the issue on the Bank’s agenda.

In the decades that followed, the EIB started directing a growing share of its investments towards environmental protection, expanding the Bank’s areas of intervention from air and water pollution control (which accounted for the main share of the loans) to reforestation, urban and industrial waste processing, enhancement of the urban environment, erosion and flood control, and protection of cultural heritage. By the end of the 2010s, the EIB fully committed itself to climate action and environmental sustainability by endorsing both the long-term goals of the European Green Deal and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, rebranding itself in the process as the “EU Climate Bank”.

The history of the Bank’s “turn to the environment” can be assessed critically through historical sources, which may shed light on the gap between narrative and its implementation, as well as on the reasons behind this shift, which included the evolution of the EC/EU legislation, the institutional examples of other multilateral financial institutions, the pressure from social actors like environmental NGOs, and the proactive attitude of some of the Bank’s management and staff. Through the lens of one of the world’s largest financial institutions, we can address the evolving balance between economic growth, modernization and environmental protection that was one of the keys of the EC/EU policy-making and overall integration project.

Visual sources like the photographs presented in this exhibition are essential to the story, as they show the transformative impact of the Bank’s activities on the natural and human environment. They stimulate us to reflect on the concepts of “environment” and “modernization”, and on the relationship between the two. They also motivate us to take a deeper look into the role of economic and financial actors as proactive players in the history of human interaction with the natural world.

Hence, this exhibition is organized around two main thematic areas: the environmental impact of modernisation and the history of industrial technology. The selection of the pictures held in the collection of the European Investment Bank (EIB) visually reflects these two thematic areas. Within these two thematic areas, pictures are also grouped into five subsection according to their main subject. However, these categories must be intended as permeable ones: some projects, due to their content, could fit in more than one, but we gave priority to their visual impact. A few maps complete the exhibition in order to help locate some of the place shown in the pictures.

Jacopo Cellini and Gilberto Mazzoli

Images and industrial development: the collection of the European Investment Bank (EIB)

The European Investment Bank's historical archives, deposited at the Historical Archives of the European Union, vividly illustrate the Bank's early activity from 1959 to 1971. The sub-fonds detail 134 projects across Europe and the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region. Each project is meticulously documented, its life cycle captured through a comprehensive selection of files. The photographic collection, featuring over 300 paper positives, was commissioned to record and communicate each project’s impact, showcasing the Bank's early achievements. With diverse authorship, including specialists like Baranger & Cie and renowned photographers such as Dino Jarach, the collection offers a rich visual narrative. While predominantly in black and white, some photographs were produced in colour—a rarity in the 50s and 60s that adds an intriguing dimension. The imagery consistently portrays contextual elements of each project, from machinery and interiors to construction processes. Human figures, though present, assume a secondary role, immersed in project work. The deliberate invisibility of the photographer suggests a commitment to objective documentation, reminiscent of photo-journalistic practices. The majority of outdoor daylight images were produced with classic 50mm or posterior focal lengths, maintaining superior clarity to images made with wide-angle lenses, generally avoided in this documentation. While aiming for objectivity, the photographers exhibit a profound respect for composition and demonstrate technical prowess. The collection’s perfect compositions, playing with perspective, transcend mere documentation. The diverse representation of authors, styles and geographical areas, rich in context and coupled with links to documentary evidence, transforms this collection into a captivating visual record of European industrial development in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It offers valuable insights about the history of industrial photography during this transformative period.

Juan Alonso Fernández

For more on the topic:
Fernandez Alonso, Juan (2021) “Image collections on finance and banking history at the Historical Archives of the European Union (HAEU)” , eabh Bulletin: Finance and Photography vol. 1, pp. 82-91.

Photo: H. Baranger & Cie / HAEU, BEI-2143_14

Environing Modernization

Exploring the photographic collection of the European Investment Bank

Mastering Waters

A Deep Dive into the EIB's Role in European Waterway Development

Modernizing Agriculture

Seeds of Change: EIB's Impact on Modern Agricultural Practices

Evolving Chemical

A Chronicle of EIB Investments in Dynamic Projects Shaping the Chemical Landscape

Manufacturing Industrialization

EIB's Contributions to European Industrial Revolution

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