Photographic Library Digitisation Project Archive

Mia Gainsford: Utopia or Incubator? Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation as Photographed by Lucien Hervé

La maison du fada, or rather “the madman’s house”, is the colloquial name given to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles. The name arouses intrigue and renders the project a diversion. It has a childish appeal, like the building itself, which jumps out of its surroundings and sings colour from its windows.

Image in colour of housing project

CON_B04326_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

L’Unité d’Habitation was Le Corbusier’s attempt at a utopia. Completed in 1952, it was an architectural project which sought to heal the wounds of post-war Marseilles and incubate the next generation. In photographing Le Corbusier’s housing project, Lucien Hervé made children his focus. However, it is important to stress just how rare human subjects are, of any age, in architectural photography; if people are photographed, they are photographed with a purpose. Thus, in Hervé’s photography it is important to ask whether the focus of children intends to enhance the optimism of Le Corbusier’s architectural utopia, employing them as a symbol of hope, or if instead, they are chosen as subjects susceptible to the “madman’s” diverting.

Young girl pushing on the door

CON_B04326_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In discovering Hervé’s photographs amongst the Courtauld’s Conway archive and participating in the broader volunteering scheme, I could not help but reflect upon the act of labelling and giving something a name. Each image has its own code which refers to its box, folder and then place in a sequence. This act of labelling creates its own narrative; the code tells the wider story of the Courtauld’s efforts to organise and digitise the Conway photographs with the help of hundreds of volunteers, and in this, humanise the archive too.

Although this narrative is of a second order to the narrative of the photographs themselves, the Courtauld’s emphasis on retaining the physicality of the photographs, from the fibre of the brown paper they are mounted upon to the spidery annotations around an image, means that no narrative is prioritised over another. The Courtauld is striving to aggrandise the photograph’s status as object, rather than objectifying an image completely on the institute’s own terms and erasing its history. The Conway digitisation project honours how an image has been objectified in the past, and with this, creates a layering of meaning and proffers a plethora of stories which frustrates the idea that labelling is an industrial process and therefore a reductive or homogenising way to treat the photos.

In the Marseillaises’s nicknaming of Le Corbusier’s work “the madman’s house”, we see a similar supplementing and creation of narrative to that of the Courtauld. However, here the name personifies the housing project, rather than objectifying it by commenting on its physical form, like its other name “the Radiant City” does. This character of the “madman” disrupts Le Corbusier’s naïve, attempted narrative of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia. The invocation of madness becomes confusingly human. We can imagine this mythologised figure in the same vein as Carroll’s Mad Hatter, dancing with joy and performing his hospitality, but if “madman” is to be taken more literally, he becomes a victim of the trauma of war too, a man haunted by the contemporaneous austerity, as well as the past, and still suffering below his colourful pretence. Le Corbusier saw L’Unité d’Habitation as a remedy to «les maladies de villes» but for the Marseillaises, the project, as a person, was still ill.

Black and white image mounted on card of the building's profile.

CON_B04326_F001_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The two narratives of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia, as well as a place of great instability and pretence, are in opposition. The full extent of the connotations which derive from naming a housing development “the madman’s house” unsettles Le Corbusier’s idealistic vision. The colloquial label is more understanding of the history before L’Unité d’Habitation; it is an interaction with the past, which acknowledges the preceding trauma rather than reacting to it like Le Corbusier’s project does. It is this idea of interacting over reacting, and subsequently overwriting a narrative, which founds the Courtauld’s sensitive approach to handling the Conway archive too.

Old Man staring out of window

CON_B04326_F001_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Moreover, as subjects in Hervé’s photography, the children probe at the dual nature of L’Unité d’Habitation. The child’s indiscriminate and unassuming qualities mean that their interactions with the housing project are not marred by history like the adult’s. In Hervé’s work, adults are clearly preoccupied, turning away from the camera and staring listlessly at that which lies outside of the development. However, the children do not remember that which Le Corbusier is trying to forget with L’Unité d’Habitation. By consequence, they simultaneously complement the utopian idea of starting again, but also offer a vulnerability to the photographs, akin to believing that this so-called “unity of living” is the norm.

Children playing in light

CON_B04326_F001_026. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Hervé’s photographs which comprise children chasing each other between shafts of light and shadow come to represent the housing project’s competing aspects of the hopeful and the haunted. To the children, contradiction becomes a game, the light and shade facilitate play, they are suspended in L’Unité d’Habitation’s utopian narrative, creating imagined stories of their own, only related to Le Corbusier’s project through location. Through play, the radiance of the housing project with its floor to ceiling windows is equated to shadows created by the sun overhead. Here, the implications of the two names are not in opposition for the children; the children’s presence in the photographs becomes rehabilitative of competition and divisions in all their forms and thus inform the most pertinent of all the post-war reflections to come from the housing project, that unity can be found anywhere.

In July 2016, Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation project in Marseilles and its other iterations in major cities such as Berlin and Nantes were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. This accolade adds yet another label to Le Corbusier’s work and develops the narrative further. It is Le Corbusier’s utopia which meets the criterion of “providing an outstanding response to certain fundamental architectural and social challenges of the 20th century”, rather than the public’s “madman”. However, again, through Hervé’s photography of children and L’Unité d’Habitation, we see a visual recalibration and simplification of this criterion, as for a child, the project has succeeded if it makes him or her feel safe and content.

Children playing on roof terrace

CON_B04326_F001_050. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I was very moved by the happiness captured in this photograph by Hervé. The mother, who stares directly at the camera playing with her child, bypasses the adults’ preoccupation seen elsewhere in Hervé’s work; she is present in the moment, laughing and diverting the children herself. The skyline in the background creates a heavenly quality to the scene, the community of mothers and children are propelled above their surroundings, no longer contained by their apartments. Whilst the climbing frames themselves, with their abstract shapes and sloping angles, suggest another world entirely. The euphoria of this image becomes unearthly. The children and mothers are in a place together which supersedes the tangibility of Le Corbusier’s utopia and the “madman’s house”. They are genuinely happy and bolstered by a new-found sense of safety and longevity in this contentment. In this image, Hervé recognises that happiness alone is unchartered territory in the wake of the war, before we begin to consider the new spatial sensation of housing projects like Le Corbusier’s.

Ultimately then, Hervé’s work is no more about the children propagating an ideology of hope as it is about them being distracted from the outside world by an eccentric figure who himself, is somewhat afraid of the outside. Rather, I want to say that the photographs centre on a notion of individual transportation, a building of a habitat within above slotting oneself into a pre-packaged utopia. Whilst Le Corbusier’s architecture is certainly instrumental, and credited so in Hervé’s photography, to facilitating the contentment of the children, it only does so on a superficial basis. The children care for the light and shadows created by the huge windows and the paddling pool on the roof terrace, they do not care for, nor have need for the ideology behind their way of life. Children can make themselves happy through the living out of their own narratives, in both times of adversity and security. Furthermore, as with the Conway archive, narratives surpass labels in their power to evoke real emotion, and it is Hervé’s subversion of his own label, “architectural photographer”, which gave way to such touching and thought-provoking responses to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation.

Black and white image of children heading to the roof swimming pool.

CON_B04326_F001_042. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Mia Gainsford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: The Oxen of Laon Cathedral

Laon, a town in North-East France, has an immense and beautiful cathedral on top of a 200-metre hill, the location of the medieval walled town. It is one of the most important examples of early Gothic architecture.

Sixteen life-size statues of oxen look down from the top of the two western towers. As far as I can ascertain, such a number and size of sculpture is unique.

An image of the front facade of the Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral taken in July 2009 on a sunny day. The Cathedral is a pale yellow stone colour on a bright sky blue background.

Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral in July 2009. Image by Martoss8 [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons.

Medieval scholars mention them as an afterthought in their analysis of the cathedral’s architecture and history of development. Laon tourist web sites start with them, as if to say, hey, come to Laon and see the cows in the sky!

There is no documentation to explain the oxen’s presence. Local custom explains that they recognise the importance of oxen in the building of the cathedral, given it’s on top of a high steep hill. Leading on from this, folklore tells of an ox dying of exhaustion as it climbed the hill. The carter, desperate to get his load to the building site, was amazed when another ox appeared from nowhere, helped pull the load to the top, then disappeared before the carter could decide what to do with it. Another variation believes that the cart contained holy relics, and the appearance of the ox an act of God. The statues, therefore, record the miracle of oxen appearing out of thin air.

Putting aside the miracle option, the basic folklore is not immediately convincing:

  • People used oxen throughout the medieval world as their standard beast of burden, and continued to rely on them until the advent of 19th-century industrialisation, yet they appear only rarely in medieval sculpture.
  • As Laon’s location is high up on a steep hill, teams of oxen must have been a continuous daily feature as they must have been used to deliver supplies. However, many other towns and cities were located strategically on hilltops, but there is no evidence that inhabitants felt the need to record their reliance on the ox.
  • The oxen did not need to transport stone, as this came from the limestone covering the plateau of the hilltop.
  • If, however, the scale of the Laon climb was unusually severe, it does not explain why it was necessary to have as many as sixteen sculptures.
A second image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_027. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

As there is no firm evidence for their placement, medieval scholars simply acknowledge their existence, record the folklore and may make brief reference to the miracle story. My understanding is that it is not considered proper scholarship to speculate on secular sculpture and carving. This is understandable, so I have attempted to consider what circumstantial evidence may be available to indicate why the oxen are there:

  • They may be the medieval equivalent of a vanity project. Cathedral construction was funded only in part by the church and the crown. Most funding was raised from the local townspeople, creating tensions with the clergy, and delays in building when funds were exhausted. Laon was built in 5 protracted phases, completing in 1230. Laon is surrounded by a huge flat plain, which in the Middle Ages was given to arable farming and vineyards. The farms would have used oxen extensively for ploughing and haulage. There may have been such a deep affection for the animal, that a wealthy landowner decided to provide funding to immortalise them in stone.
  • Certainly, paintings of livestock became popular in subsequent centuries. It is known that the 17th-century Dutch painter, Aelbert Cuyp, was successful in selling his paintings of cows to a European market and to British landowners in particular.
  • Medieval Laon was a major regional centre and popular with the French monarchy. The Carolingian and Capetian kings used it as their base in North East France. They may have also provided funding for the cathedral, although this is unlikely. Nevertheless, I wondered if oxen or bulls (the terms were interchangeable in the Middle Ages) were symbols in their heraldry, but can find nothing.
  • The numbers of animals may be significant, in that medieval ox teams consisted of multiples of two up to a maximum of eight. So, each tower could represent one full team, potentially the size required to make the climb to Laon.
  • One commentary suggests that they are not all oxen, but a mix of animals real and imagined. The photographs show they all seem to be wearing a harness, and although many have lost their horns and ears, they all look broadly the same.

All of the above is, of course, more speculation than circumstantial evidence, so I am not going to make it as a medievalist with this essay. I have considered the influences of the local economy, the town’s geography, the cathedral’s funding, the presence of the monarchy, and would be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on other angles to consider, or if they are aware of similar sculpture elsewhere.

Perhaps the final word should come from WW Clark, author of Laon Cathedral Architecture (1983), who argued that the use of sculpture reached an unprecedented richness in Laon:

Their precise meaning remains elusive… they can be understood compositionally as the final accents in a design that integrates sculpture, both formally and iconographically, as inseparable constituent elements, beginning with the detail of the three portals.

Meanwhile, I may well feel the need to go and see them for myself.

Image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

 

References:

  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 1 by WW Clark and R King
  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 2: The aesthetics of Space, Plan and Structure
    by WW Clark
  • The Ox in the Middle Ages by John H Moore Article in Agricultural History journal No 35 1961

Muny Morgan: Photographic Memories of Ravello, Italy

Having volunteered on the digitisation project at the Courtauld for two years in April (can’t believe it!) I always had my eye on the Italian section of the Conway collection. We process the boxes the order they appear on the shelf, which is alphabetical, so I knew it would take us a while to get to Italy.

I was so delighted on a recent shift when I had been asked to brief a new fellow volunteer on the accessioning task. We walked down to the Italian section of the library and, much to my delight, the next folder to sort was Ravello! I felt like I had won the lottery – though I’m not familiar with that feeling!

This stunning, magical, charming, quiet little town, for those of you who don’t know, sits 365m above the Tyrrhenian sea on the magnificent Amalfi coast, away from the bustling tourist havens of Sorrento and Positano, and has a very special place in my heart. I went there on my first holiday with my now husband and we loved it so much we initially planned to have our wedding in Villa Cimbrone, known as the terrace of infinity, though it didn’t happen in the end, as it was too complicated logistically.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I have to say that at first, apart from the odd Kersting image, I didn’t think that the box had captured the beauty and magnificence of this place.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

When I got home after my shift that morning I had a look at my photos to compare them to some of the places I recognised in the archive collection. I thought we had stacks (as we do now when we go on holiday with our children and with the less selective use of our digital cameras) but we didn’t. At the time we visited, digital cameras were not so affordably available and I also much preferred my SLR.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F006_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It made me wonder: had all my visual memories of this town been imprinted in my mind? Is the mind the best place to record our most enjoyable and visually memorable experiences, rather than on photographic paper or as a digital file stored on our computer? When I explored this idea and thought about all my travels abroad, I realized that the most memorable places and times in my experience do not have an extensive photographic record.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Perhaps I am romanticising my memories of this special place. But I can vividly recall the quiet glamour of the Villa Cimbrone, and the Ravello Festival concert in the grounds of Villa Rufolo that we happened upon as we made our way along the small winding streets with dramatic views of hilltop houses and the beautiful coastline to the Hotel Parsifal, the converted convent where we were to stay. And I can’t help but imagine that my experiences were similar to those of Escher, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Woolf, Robert Wagner and Jacqueline Kennedy and other famous visitors who have come here seeking inspiration.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_023. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We always said we would return to this charming, magical place, but it would have to be for a very special occasion indeed to experience it all over again and alter the memories we have.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Sarah Way: Interpreting the Conway with BeyondAutism

One of the main aims of digitising our amazing photographic archive and putting it online for the public to access for free is to allow our materials to connect with new audiences. We want to allow our images to become resources for a myriad of endeavours, from academic to recreational to personal and everything in between!

Part of the benefit of working with such a large group of volunteers is that we are able to hear ideas from many people with diverse experiences every day and test them right from the start of the digitisation process. We have some great examples of that here in this blog – but what about creative members of the community who aren’t able to frame their interpretations into a blog post or to help us digitise our images because of their physical and learning needs? What would they make of our collection?

This summer we were lucky enough to have a chance to answer this question through a partnership with BeyondAutism and their Post-19 service. BeyondAutism is a pioneering service led by the Head, David Anthony.  The college offers young adults with complex needs aged 19 to 25 “an individualised personal curriculum.”

This image shows students and teachers at BeyondAutism as they cut copies of the Conway digitised images and paste them onto large canvas supports to create collages.

BeyondAutism students and teachers creating the artwork

“Our students follow a programme of study that best prepares them for adulthood, focusing on the skills required for independent or supported living, training and employment, health and wellbeing and community participation.”

This image shows Courtauld staff and interns enjoying the creation process with students and teachers at BeyondAutism as they cut copies of the Conway digitised images and paste them onto large canvas supports to create collages.

Courtauld Digitisation staff and interns getting involved in the creative process

After an initial meeting, we decided to start a collaboration. The wealth of creativity amongst their cohort and the bountiful diversity of images in our collection made us confident we could find some way to forge a meaningful workshop. A few weeks later David struck gold: we could use our library of London architectural photography to allow his students to explore ideas for independent or supported living. The students would creatively interpret what being part of the community of London meant to them in a very instinctual, tactile way.

A tactile approach to our image collection

We provided hundreds of images and large canvases while the team at BeyondAutism provided specialist support, tactile materials and lots of PVA glue. Eight brilliantly dedicated students, the college staff, our Digital Media team and interns all got involved in co-producing. We started tentatively with a few images stuck on a very large blank canvas in the morning but by the afternoon we were pouring glue freely over multi-textural work and brightly coloured feathers contrasting the Conway’s black and white images of iconic skyscrapers and monuments.

This image shows a particular student at BeyondAutism who benefits most from working in a room alone with his teacher so that they can concentrate undisturbed.

A student at BeyondAutism working on a solo project with his teacher

The results were a very sensory, sticky and wonderfully original set of collages, all unique in their outcome, all reflective of a much bigger process of coming together, learning from each other and understanding the beauty of diversity. We built our digitisation project around Samuel Courtauld’s vision of “Art for All” and this experience has made us determined to be bolder in exploring what this can mean at every level.

This is a tilted image showing all four collages created at the BeyondAutism workshop

The finished works at the close of day

We will exhibit the collages in The Courtauld’s Conway Library this autumn, so if you are interested in attending the opening and hearing more about this topic do contact us at: digitisation.volunteering@courtauld.ac.uk.

This is a picture of the first artwork. It is a collage of neat cut outs of London buildings in black and white with limited colour accents in green and red at the top

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 1

This is a picture of the second artwork. It is a collage of roughly ripped cut outs of London buildings in black and white with red feathers, blue transparent film, and yellow tiger print elements, as well as a dinosaur sticker and a stylised man

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 2

This is a picture of the third artwork. It is a collage of roughly ripped cut outs of London buildings in black and white with yellow, green and orange feathers, blue transparent film, and yellow tiger print elements.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 3

This is a picture of the third artwork. It is a collage of neat cut outs of London buildings in black and white with blue transparent film, pink paper a red pooling element and a stylised man.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 4

This is the fifth and final canvas created in the BeyondAutism workshop. It is a collage of pieces of images from the Conway Library depicting mainly London buildings.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 5


Sarah Way
Courtauld Connects Volunteer Manager

Aya Bolt: Finbsury, Lubetkin’s Socialist Utopia

The Courtauld Institute of Art’s Conway Library houses an impressive photographic collection of architecture from a vast array of periods and locations. Some of the collection’s earliest photos are dated from the 1850s and these are a mere couple of decades older than the oldest surviving photograph of an image formed in camera. Given the seemingly endless opportunities to do some armchair, or rather office chair, travelling and discover some of the world’s most significant structures (many now destroyed to both war and time), it may perhaps seem strange that one would choose to focus on photographs of twentieth-century British architecture. However, these often under-loved and over-looked buildings have a story of their own to tell. Through this blog post, I hope to offer an exposé of the collaborative work between Finsbury Council and architect Berthold Lubetkin from the inter and post-war period.

Lubetkin’s success in Britain started with the establishment of the architecture firm Tecton. Formed in the 1930s, the firm was an instrumental pioneer in bringing continental modernism to Britain. Whilst some of Tecton’s most iconic builds are London Zoo’s penguin pool and gorilla enclosure, founding architect Lubetkin is, in fact, responsible for some of London’s more recognisable and perhaps infamous landmark social housing. His personal maxim was “nothing is too good for ordinary people!” and he strove to improve the living conditions of the working class. Spa Green Estate was the first of many projects designed to offer luxury features to working class families, including lifts, central heating, electrical and gas appliances, running water, a waste-disposal system, balconies and a laundry-drying roof terrace. The amenities offered far exceeded those enjoyed by the majority of the population at the time.   

Spa Green Estate in Finsbury, EC1, opened in 1949. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Born in what is now Georgia, Lubetkin emigrated to the UK in the early 1930s. His formal training was completed in the USSR at VKhUTEMAS, a state funded art and technical school in Moscow where Lubetkin witnessed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, allegedly from his bedroom window. It was undoubtedly this formation, both creative and political, which led to his neo-constructivist style. Particularly taken with the idea of the “artist engineer” who uses industrial techniques to produce socially useful objects, Lubetkin was committed to socially driven architecture. Arguably, no structure embodies his ideals more than the Finsbury Health Centre. Commissioned by Finsbury council, led by devout socialist Alderman Harold Riley, and backed by the chairman of the public health committee, Dr Chuni Lal Katial, the Finsbury Health Centre marked the dawning of a new era of Public Health Service. Planning and construction began in 1935 and the centre was ready for opening in 1938, a full decade before the advent of Britain’s National Healthcare System.

The Finsbury Health Centre Façade, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

However, the opening of the centre was unfortunate timing as World War Two broke out soon after and the building needed to be protected rather than up and running – although it was used as a bandaging centre for civilian causalities throughout the war. In order to limit damage from bombing, the centre was covered in sandbags, cracking many of the glass bricks in the façade and wings which then needed to be repaired. This cost of this repair work combined with post-war austerity meant that the building’s finishes, such as the plumbing, could not be completed according to Lubetkin’s plans and standards.

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

As the fighting escalated, society was increasingly committed to providing more equality and fairness come peacetime. The ever-growing labour party promised a utopian fantasy of what the future could be, and this was reflected in the modernist architecture of new municipal buildings that councils were erecting. Modernism represented hope and potential, as the poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre by Abram Games highlights. The contrast between the shiny new centre and the derelict slums behind it underline the sub-par living conditions of the working class prior to and during the war. The 1943 poster was purportedly banned by Churchill as he believed that it exaggerated the state the poor in slums were living in (many of whom had fought in the war) and shed a negative light on the conservative party who had been in power for the majority of the twentieth century.

Poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre, 1943 by Abram Games, Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM PST 2911)

A better quality of life which included good health was being promised to those for whom lack of information, neglect and inaccessibility to health care had been cutting life short.

The mural in the health centre with slogans such as “chest diseases are preventable and curable” create a sense of hope but also illustrate how illnesses that now seem easily treatable were once fatal to many. Come 1948, the NHS looked to the Finsbury Health centre to found many of its ideals as it was upheld as a model structure for the provision of public healthcare. The centre’s aims were to unite the borough’s divided health care services, create a standardised system and provide free health care for all of the borough’s residents. A true testament to the daring vision of early British socialism and Lubetkin’s constructivist design, the Finsbury Health Centre has been awarded Grade 1 listing and thanks to the efforts of the FHC Preservation Trust and NHS Property Services, is still serving patients to this day.

The Finsbury Health Centre Mural by Gordon Cullen, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

 


Aya Bolt
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Isabella Lill: Catching the Photographer

Barthes writes “A photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see”, his point being that we don’t pay attention to the physicality of photographs. Because the photograph documents real life, when we look at a photograph we look past the paper or the screen on which we see it. We forget about the medium as we look at its subject matter because the medium seems so unremarkable. The Courtauld Institute’s Conway Library is a reminder of photography’s physicality. In the Conway there are thousands of boxes containing over a million photographs, each individually mounted onto a piece of brown cardboard. Most of the photographs in the archive are architectural, as the collection contains surveys of important buildings all over Europe and the Middle East taken throughout the 20th century, as well as a few boxes venturing further afield.

When leafing through this seemingly infinite collection, one photograph in particular catches the eye.

CON_B03740_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The photographs in the collection, because they are of stationary structures, seem so objective that you forget there was a photographer. It is as if the images of temple columns and ecclesiastical archways sprung into existence fully formed, as they bear no trace of the personal. The sheer number of photographs doesn’t help, as one Italian chiesa merges with the next.

The contents of the folder of the Colegiata de San Pedro in Soria, Spain, are no different: they methodically document its central cloister, right down to the ornamental details of the Corinthian columns. However, hidden in the bottom right-hand corner of the fifteenth photograph in the folder is a photographer, staring back at us. A refreshing reminder of humanity in a folder full of stone columns and arches.

As with many of the photographs in the collection, we know nothing about the photographer, apart from what he reveals to us in photo fifteen: he is a middle-aged man wearing a floppy hat and sandals. Perhaps some of the other unattributed photos in the folder are also taken by him, but we don’t know for certain. This photo is unique in the folder, and perhaps in the collection, with its purposeful inclusion of the camera. His presence is too obvious and calculated for this to be an accident, showing he is purposefully trying to document the process of taking the photograph as he is taking it. Photographs, no matter how objective they seem, are someone’s construct of reality. The photographer has chosen this subject at this angle, in these boundaries, in this lighting, and with this focus. The photographer sections off a part of reality that is worthy of documentation. In this photo we catch the photographer, or rather the photographer catches himself, in the middle of this decision process.

CON_B03075_F003_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B03075_F003_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B03056_F002_030. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Other items in the collection call attention to the constructed nature of the photograph, but none as strikingly as the photographer’s reflection. The first two images shown above catch a different photograph’s shadow, but probably only as the result of unfortunate lighting or an inexperienced photographer.

The third photo contains a motion blur of someone walking across a church, again, probably due to unlucky timing. And yet, although none of these examples are as visually striking, they all reaffirm the same feeling that the photographer’s reflection invokes: a disconcerting reminder that the image’s in these photographs aren’t completely real. The structures that the photographers try to document don’t exist in perfectly still isolation, although most of the photos present them that way. For us to see them in a photograph requires human interaction and human subjectivity.

From the Witt Library: Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

From the Witt Library: Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Alongside the Conway Library is the Courtauld’s Witt Library, an archive of photos of the work of significant artists throughout time. The paintings above, namely Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, bear a resemblance to our original photograph. Velazquez’s painting clearly includes the painter mid-process. Van Eyck’s is subtler, as it includes the painter in a reflection in a small mirror right at the back of the painting, very reminiscent of our mystery photographer. However, although these paintings arguably show more skill that the photograph, the photograph is still more uncanny, and still more interesting, at least to me.

We know a painting isn’t real when we look at it, but we can easily forget that photographs aren’t. Susan Sontag says, “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses”, but our surreptitious photograph reveals that the photographer both constructs and discloses.

 


Isabella Lill
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Sophie Bailey: “I suppose it’s not the place’s fault”

Philip Larkin, when he was “coming up England by a different line”, remembered Coventry as the place “where my childhood was unspent”. New Towns like this are remembered (or unremembered) as gaps in the map of Britain, places to be avoided and embarrassed of. But before they were a joke, they were a dream. Stevenage was one of the many “New Towns” which would be conjured into reality by the New Towns Act of 1946 as part of the construction of Labour’s promised “New Jerusalem”. This included the creation of the NHS and the introduction of the tripartite school system. The old town of Stevenage was selected to be developed as were other well-known New Towns such as Hemel Hempstead, Harlow and Basildon. These were all near London but far enough to allow Londoners to escape the smoke, smog and overcrowding of the city, and would help to reduce the housing crisis in the aftermath of the war. The “Year Zero” phase after the war and the relatively small existing populations in the towns allowed for New Towns to be constructed upon a virtual tabula rasa. Town planning corporations managed the developments of the towns and supplied housing, which was carefully managed to ensure a mix of social classes.

Lewis Silkin, the Labour Minister for Town and Country Planning and the principal planner for Stevenage declared: “[I] am most anxious that the planning should be such that the different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated… When they leave to go home I do not want the better-off people to go to the right, and the less-well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other “are you going my way?””. He intended Stevenage to be “gay and bright” and like all New Town planners aimed to replicate the neighbourly spirit of London slums within a self-contained community, near to the countryside but equipped with its own shops, schools and leisure facilities.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, "Stevenage High Street Constable".

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage High Street Constable”. CC BY NC.

Nonetheless, like all things once designated “New”, the New Towns suffered the indignity of ageing and today the modestly utopian vision of the 1950s has faded as fast as the murals. Hemel Hempstead, part of the original wave of New Town developments, once topped a popular vote of the ugliest British towns, with other New Towns like Hatfield (and Coventry) also made the Top 10. Lewis Hamilton, one of Stevenage’s most famous sons, caused a stir in the town when he seemed to refer to it as a “slum” in reference to his life story when accepting an award. Doubtless Hamilton did not mean to compare the town to a real slum, but it is somewhat ironic that New Towns, once symbols of hope, are now associated with the very environments they sought to replace.

The photographs of architecture in the Conway Library at the Courtauld allow us to see these towns in a different light: already a concrete reality which people inhabited, where they shopped and worked, but not yet touched by stigma or decayed by years of neglect. The Conway Library also contains numerous photographs of innovative new private houses, each remarkable for its modernity and worthy of documentation. However, New Towns represent an artistic and political project on a grand scale. More than those of private houses, these photos preserve a moment in the life of Britain.

Many of the photographs depict new developments in pristine condition, imposingly tall and with spotless concrete.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Kent House”. CC BY NC.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage Mural”. CC BY NC.

However, the most interesting photos are those in which we can see people interacting with the environment around them. As hoped by its planners, crowds of shoppers fill Stevenage town centre, trailing bags and children. An arm curves round a window to wash it from the outside. Children hold hands under the domineering concrete porch of Kensal House. The beauty of these photographs, and the instantly inhospitable effect created in the photos without people reminds us of the original dream of the New Towns. They were not intended to become dilapidated “concrete jungles”, but to provide dignity and security for the post-war generation. Their inhabitants, perhaps defying the photographer’s wish to capture the buildings and towns alone, insist on presenting themselves to the viewer and making their human realities the central issue of the towns.

 

Further material:

New Towns Spotify playlist

These songs are by people who grew up in or want to record new towns, council estates, the great sprawling suburbs. They capture the mood of these places, the boredom, the evocative images of hot tarmac and train station platforms, the struggle of trying to live a new childhood in a place which seems destined to be forgotten.

Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown Project

Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs perfectly captures the monotonous beauty of the suburbs. Their collaboration with Google Labs is an innovative use of technology for an evocative artistic project. Enter your home address and the website will personalise a short film to your location.

 

 


Sophie Bailey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Verity Babbs: Kersting’s Modern Quirks – A Visual Essay

The limited number of biographical writings on Anthony “Tony” Kersting acknowledge his place among (and arguably his supremacy over) the greatest architectural photographers of all time, having “built up a matchless archive of architectural treasures”. What has rarely, if ever, been discussed, however, is the aesthetic appeal of Kersting’s portrait works to be found among the thousands of photographs housed at the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Conway Library.

Kersting’s architectural photography imbues his selected structures with a feel of stoic timelessness. This visual essay takes previously unanalysed works from Kersting’s portfolio and examines how the photographer was not only taking images of his modern day, but composing them in the aesthetic style of his modern day. These compositional decisions correspond to the 19th and 20th Century fine art shift through Impressionism, Surrealism and Pop Art. That Kersting may have seen these specific works is postulation.

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Natalia Goncharova, Cyclist, 1913

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Dziga Vertov, Still from Man with a Movie Camera, 1929

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Paul Strand, Wall Street, 1915

 

 

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Berthe Morisot, The Harbour at Lorient, 1869

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Georges Seurat, Le Cirque, 1891

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Peter Blake, Marilyn Monroe Merz Screen ABC and ABC, undated

 

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Avril, 1893

 

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + André de Dienes, Marilyn Monroe playing on the Beach, 1949

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Terry Gilliam, Harvest Time for Crunchy Frogs, 1974

 

Left to Right: AF Kersting, The Conway Library + Alfred Stieglitz, Winter, Fifth Avenue, 1892


Verity Babbs
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

Peyton Cherry: Journey through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity and Distance

Contemplation on the Intimacy within the Kersting Collection

 

“Petra. The summit of Jabal Haroun, showing the dome of the building known as Aaron’s Tomb. This is a place of pilgrimage of the local Bedouin, and it is forbidden to Europeans to climb the mountain. This lady, a New Zealand nursing sister, may be the first European lady to have done so.” (AF Kersting 1944, transcription of notes on back of left-most photo.)

Throughout the multi-tiered, collaborative process of digitization at the Courtauld Institute of Art is a persistent emphasis on materiality. When we think of digital images – as copies, as mere representations of an object (which are themselves a version of the object as it occurs in nature) – we probably think of the yawning distance – and likely deterioration – between the ‘actual’ image and its digital progeny. Especially with the accumulation of images online there seems to be an increasing disconnect between the ‘original’ and the ‘copy’. Michael Taussig describes this type of phenomenon as part of “the wonder of mimesis” which “lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power” (Taussig, 1993: xiii).

So then, as Taussig puts forth, expanding upon mimesis as an idea of imitation, the copy can be endowed with as much power, in both cognitive and affective dimensions, as the initial object, being, or concept depicted (see Keane, 2013: 8–10). I believe that the digitization projects implemented and enacted in many museums and galleries around the world have the capacity to, in this multimedia world, bridge this burgeoning sense of abstraction from materiality and physicality. As I discuss materiality in the body of this essay, I will refer less to the materiality (or lack of materiality) of digital text and more to the notion of materiality common to the social sciences which is that: “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5).

While cataloguing and photographing collections from the Conway Library it became clear that the approach to digitization at the Courtauld was not simplified, a reduction of the original image, though perhaps not in quality so much as in its affective potential, through a rush to scan and upload images onto online databases. In the often mechanized, efficient process of capturing, scanning, and cleaning images of objects to be displayed in a digital library, many other digitization projects may incidentally contribute to the loss of engrained complexities of subject, object, audience, and materials within their collections. Instead, the Courtauld Institute of Art has chosen to remove the contagious tedium of transferring archives by attempting to encompass all an image and its corresponding context. This is accomplished in multiple stages through a variety of techniques. One, within the digitization studio, uses a high-tech camera, lighting, and table set-up to capture the contents of all the boxes within the Conway Library – every box, every folder, and every item.

The overall goal ends up being not just to capture the photograph, the illustration, or the architectural plan, but to include every element of the collections, regardless of the marks, stains, or tears which may be included. By photographing each page in its entirety, showing the rough edges, the blemishes, the final product effectively (and affectively) conveys the materials. They translate the feel of the images and reproduce their presence within the environment. In this arrangement, the camera becomes an “apparatus of power” (Karp, 1991), capable of bringing audiences, including ones who cannot venture into the Courtauld’s halls themselves to peruse and handle prints, into the lived experience of viewing the collections.

And this despite the perceived irreconcilable feeling of distance elicited by an ‘immaterial’ digital format. Such a conscious construction of materiality through digitization would not be possible without considering the relative distance and familiarity future viewers may have with the collections held by the Courtauld Institute, whether connections are forged through an image’s subject, their historical insights, or the creator of a portfolio of work.

The Conway Library, Woman standing in front of the Monastery of Jacob in Yakovlesky, Russia.

The Conway Library, People milling about in the snow at Troitsa Monastery, Russia.

The result of the Courtauld’s efforts at a more holistic digitization approach is one which I believe is vital to many museum exhibits and collections, and that is the preservation of context.

Even through digitization, the Courtauld maintains the original context of the material image to the best of their ability. Much like an ‘in-context’ museum exhibit, the inclusion of materials even if they aren’t considered ‘aesthetically pleasing’, ‘pure’ or ‘pristine’, is more honestly authentic to the copies contained in the library. Such inclusion mimics the idea of placing cultural artefacts in-context, a move, although not particularly revolutionary, increasingly in widespread use in museum institutions.

Some may find the ‘info dumps’ included in certain uses of in-context exhibition – i.e. signage and labelling with blocks of text accompanying each artefact – distracting or an attempt to impose dominant points of view. However, ‘cleaning-up’ pictures echoes process of ‘cleaning-up history’ and tends to remove a sense of reality, of humanity. In the cataloguing portion of activities at the Courtauld, while meticulously labelling each page, the order of the photographs in each folder becomes a matter of subtle sifting and distinguishing between the contents of each image. The aim of this ‘attention to detail’ is to replicate the experience of, in the case of the Conway Library, walking through a myriad of architecture in any number of regions from cathedrals in Tomar, Portugal to the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The guide for volunteers on how to label the Conway captures the sentiment of not just the accession numbering step of digitization but the quest for and the journey through materiality that I believe defines the spirit of the whole project. It reads: “Pictures or folders of the same building should be ordered to recreate the experience of moving closer to it. Plans & drawings > exterior from afar > interior > details.”

Although this line of instructions on the sorting system may seem mundane at first glance it struck me for the succinct, yet evocative way it describes a photographic journey. A journey that was first experienced by the photographer, Conway himself, and, now, by everyone who views his collections. We may not precisely trace the paths that Conway traveled nor the order in which he took his shots of archways, windows, and molding details. But, regardless, it was a serene, almost dream-like experience to organize the photos as if, we too, were wandering among the past streets of a city square or the well-tread pathways leading to a monastery. I believe that the use of proximity and distance in the sorting of the images is an invaluable aspect of the material journey which hopefully more and more people will have the opportunity to experience for themselves.

The Conway Library, T.E. Lawrence, 1916-18, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

As a brief example of this kind of journey on a smaller scale and relegated to the analysis of specific images, their content, and possible meanings, I will look to the work of Anthony (“Tony”) Kersting.

Kersting’s corpus of travel photography spans an impressive range from Western Europe to Northern Africa to the Caribbean and South Asia. Much of his work shines the spotlight on architecture and landscapes, but several ‘jewels’ in his collection show a marvelous ‘humanity’, a sense of intimacy between people that comes through the images as handled and hopefully viewed in digital form.

I found the images Kersting took in 1944 in Jordan, of the Bedouin people he met and traveled with, to be particularly illustrative of tensions between and among the familiar and the distant. I will mention outright that my initial impression of these photos was that they were and still are ‘a product of their time.’ Some, though not all, communicate observations of the people and places in Jordan as perceived through Orientalist, colonial eyes.

There is an air of the ‘exotic’ in these photographs, punctuated by the absence of Kersting himself who repeatedly is not a subject to be photographed but remains the spectator and authority behind his apparatus. There he stays, in varying ways both literal and metaphorical ‘capturing’ or ‘ensnaring’ the people through his camera lens. And, in many ways, Kersting’s work echoes the mode of thought within T.E. Lawrence’s own writings and photographs of strange and unfamiliar lands.

AF Kersting, 1944, “Arab legionnaires, wearing picturesque uniform of the Desert Corps, keenly examine a photo of themselves”.

However, the Kersting pictures I focused on were ones which brought a sense of real time and space back to even an unfamiliar setting, momentarily erasing the idea of the Bedouin as a people suspended in some timeless, ‘Other’ place. These photographs, curiously enough, are ones containing Kersting’s other traveling companion, a New Zealand nurse he often refers to as ‘Sister Adams.’

In multiple photographs, Sister Adams appears along Bedouin men and women, her interactions delivering a sense of familiarity and comfortable intimacy with people we might assume are her regular traveling companions. The notes Kersting has scribbled on many of the photos occasionally provide additional context or ‘proof’ of the type of encounters and relationships between the people depicted through his camera lens.

Interestingly, in Kersting’s collection, different copies of the same image contain different descriptions. For example, the image below alternately read alongside: “Petra. The Bedouin boys watch the lady put her socks on!” and “Life in Petra! Sister Adams puts on her socks, to the amused gaze of the Arab youngsters.”

AF Kersting, Sister Adams.

These separate inscriptions, despite referring to the same event and people, communicate notably different moods and subjectivities. The first seems detached, to-the-point, and factual, while the second reads more as an entry in a photographic travel journal composed by Kersting. It holds a sense of emotion and meaning behind the relationships, hinting at the way Sister Adams and the boys may relate (or don’t relate) to one another.

In these different comments on the same scene we can read how distance and familiarity can exist simultaneously, on display in a snapshot frozen in time. And, it is thanks to the different thoughts going through Kersting’s head each time he jotted down observations on the back of his copies, those identical thoughts which bring the materiality of the journey to viewers today.

We may not know exactly the kind of journey Anthony Kersting and other photographers experienced while committing reality to print and paper, but that is part of his work’s value as not just a photographic object, but as a cultural artefact.

And, in the 21st century, more than ever, it is possible for people to track and craft their own journey. That journey doesn’t have to be conducted blindly, erratically, without context or a sense of where to start and where to end. The processes dedicated to reproducing the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections and noting what path was once followed through a cathedral or where copies of the same image differ from one another, can serve as an irreplaceable guide. And not even a guide which follows a predefined set of rules or certain “ways of seeing’” (Berger 1972). The digitization undergone at the Courtauld Institute offers the opportunity to take the materials converted to digital form, but no less real for it, and take it any direction, down any path.

And that is exactly how this essay came to be: as an exploration and a contemplation into the inexhaustible potential of a process and the collections involved.

 

References

Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: Penguin UK.

Karp I (1991) Culture and Representation. In: Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Keane W (2013) On spirit writing: materialities of language and the religious work of transduction. In: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, pp. 1–17.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett B (1991) Objects of ethnography. In: Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lievrouw L (2014) Materiality and Media in Communication and Technology Studies: An Unfinished Project. In: Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot. MIT Press Scholarship Online, pp. 21–51.

Taussig M (1993) Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. Great Britain: Routledge Press.

 


Peyton Cherry
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant