Observing portraiture through the eyes of Anthony Kersting
When I first started my internship, I was in awe at the large collection of archives kept everywhere around the Witt and Conway library which is situated in the basement of The Courtauld Institute. I was so intrigued that I simply wanted to open every archive box I could without being tagged as the new nosey intern. I am happy to say that I now proudly hold that title even before I opened all the boxes. However, being nosey can somehow have its perks! After asking so many questions regarding the stacks of blue labeled boxes around the staff section of the Conway, I was introduced to the mysterious and yet enchanting world of the British photographer Anthony Kersting. What struck me most was the number of boxes labeled with the name of one person, and also the number of countries mentioned under his name on the boxes. I was curious about how much this man achieved, traveled and explored throughout his life.Anthony Kersting was a photographer whose interest around the world focused on religious monuments, landscapes, portraits and sometimes private homes. Tony, for short, was born on the 7 November 1916 and died on 2 September 2008. Although frequent traveling was still unusual in his early years of activity as a photographer, and the breadth of his travels rather hard to believe, his photographs and journal entries represent irrefutable proof of his gallivanting around the world. I was really impressed by the number of places he visited in a short period of time, especially in the 1930s when traveling was expensive and, more often than not, hazardous. Indeed, he traveled to places such as Norway, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco and The Bahamas. Kersting’s photographs perfectly find comfort within their habitat. I was quite intrigued as to what methods he used to create this effortless relationship between him and his subjects. I chose to analyze portraiture as a theme because it reflects reality through the eyes of the beholder; as it is, in effect, a window to Kersting’s personality.
In these images most of the subjects are either smiling or carrying on with their daily duties, not being wary of Kersting’s presence. Were the people portrayed already familiar with photography? Or did Kersting have a particular ability to create a reassuring bond with his subjects, a method that he skillfully implemented as any masterful photographer would?
In investigating Kersting, I remembered Ibn al-Haytham, a Muslim scientist who talked about the theory of invisibility, a theory forever present in my memory as a science-fiction/fantasy obsessed child. I used to believe that Ibn al-Haytham actually had a way to remain invisible whenever he desired, although in fact Ibn Al Haytham was describing how objects are identified by rays of light entering the eye. The reason Ibn al-Haytham came to mind so strongly while looking at A. F. Kersting’s portraits is that, much like Ibn al-Haytham in my childhood imagination, Kersting as a photographer had the ability to disappear, his presence undetectable in the eyes of the people he chose to capture, even those who might have never seen a camera before (or even a westerner). Becoming invisible through his humanity in creating a comfortable atmosphere for his subjects, and through his unseen and unbelievable footsteps around the globe. This still haunts me.
In 1939, Kersting volunteered for the RAF and made use of his time in the Middle East to take photographs. Later, he continued to travel in the Middle East and beyond, documenting his travels in great detail. Whereas travelers before him documented what they witnessed in words, Kersting, it would seem, already believed that a picture speaks a thousand words. He put his impressive skills in choosing the themes and subjects of his photographs to reflect reality as it is, making his subjects look truly at home. His photographs also show great instinctive, almost natural awareness of and respect for local customs. The emotions of the subjects being captured reveal the complexity of the relationship between the subject and the master, and the narrative behind the shot. There, a wall of culture subtly dissolves amid the two.