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 Intern

 

Sabrina Gardiner: a love affair with Canada

For almost ten years, I have had an intense love affair with Canada. Why exactly I love Canada has always eluded me; maybe it’s the friendliness of the people, or the vastness and natural beauty of its varied landscapes from sea to shining sea, or the numerous films and TV shows that are reeled out every year.

While the entire country inspires me, no other region of Canada inspires me more than the east coast. My dream of visiting Canada was finally realised a couple of years ago, when I visited Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for a week – in the midst of winter. Although the weather was far less than ideal, it did help me discover what life in Canada was really like, away from how I’d imagined it to be in my mind.

CON_B01160_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

During my time at the Courtauld, browsing the Conway Library I discovered some old photos taken around Canada. Although it is a rather young country by political and geographical standards (it only became an independent dominion in 1867, and finally ratified its own constitution in 1982), Canada nevertheless does have a rich history – both socially and architecturally.

These photographs were taken in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, in possibly the 19th century. PEI is very close to Nova Scotia, the province I went to, so I was naturally very attracted to these photos. The province is well known for being the setting of the classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables, about a redheaded orphan girl with braids, Anne Shirley, adopted by a family on PEI. The family originally wanted a boy, but Anne – originally from Nova Scotia – was sent instead as a mistake. The story has enchanted many generations and has been adapted into TV shows and films countless times, including – most recently – a series release with a major online content provider.

CON_B01160_F003_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

As the former capital of New France (Nouvelle-France) and now the capital of Francophone Canada, Quebec is often called the Europe of North America. Its architecture is greatly inspired by Old France, with the castle-esque Chateau Frontenac – now a hotel – majestically overlooking the historic French fortress and the St. Lawrence River with its verdigris domed roof.

Quebec is one of Canada’s largest inland ports, being an important stop along the St. Lawrence River for cargo and passenger ships heading out to the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a pleasure port, as can be seen in this drawing, where rowers sail their boat along the river waves. Quebec’s history as a French fortress is clearly visible, as the city is raised above the river on a cliff.

CON_B01160_F003_012. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

I often watch a TV show called Murdoch Mysteries. Set in Toronto around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the titular character is often called Canada’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Using methods contemporary to the period, William Murdoch is on the trail of crime in Toronto, even meeting a few icons of the day in his pursuits, like Alexander Graham Bell and even Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock himself.

Upon seeing this photo, I immediately thought of Murdoch Mysteries and the Toronto of the turn of the century. Even the fashions of the people and the horses and carts remind me of the characters and how they get around the city on the journey to a crime scene, so if I didn’t know this was a real photograph, I would’ve thought this was a scene from the show itself.

So far, I’ve only seen two places in Canada – namely Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – but I want to go on a road trip there one day, visiting all the sights and cities that grace the country, and even make it my home.

 


Sabrina Gardiner
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Mark Long: Vignetting in Archive Photographs

CON_B00756_F007_025. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Whilst digitising the Conway Library, I often come across confusing visual anomalies like the one at the bottom left of item CON_B00756_F007_025. Understanding what has caused the image fault requires a bit of a technical explanation. In this case, what we are seeing is an example of vignetting, which happens when using large format cameras capable of perspective adjustments.

CON_B00734_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Anyone interested in mastering these issues should study the fantastic Ansel AdamsThe Camera, in which he states the vignetting “occurs when part of the negative area falls outside the image-circle of the lens and thus receives no exposure” (see chapter 10 “View-Camera Adjustments”).

In this image we can see that the photographer has adjusted the camera movements to control perspective in order to construct an accurate representation of the building that is aesthetically pleasing and free from distortion. However, in making such adjustments, they have inadvertently moved the lens out of the negative area, cutting off part of their image (either by tilting or shifting the front standard too far).

These kind of errors are fascinating as they exhibit the high levels of control required to practice the medium of photography successfully. This type of image control is still carried out by architectural photographers today when they choose to utilise tilt/shift lenses on modern digital cameras. Here, minimising lens distortion and configuring perspective to meet highly rigorous visual requirements.

Reference:

Adams, A (2003) The Ansel Adams Photography Series 1 The Camera. Little, Brown and Company.

 


Mark Long
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

John Ramsey: On the Wellington Arch

When I catalogued a box of London photos from the Conway Library I came across this image of the Wellington Arch.

CON_B01022_F006_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The view today looks very different.

The Arch was originally commissioned by George IV to celebrate the victories of the Napoleonic wars and was positioned at the entrance to Green Park, opposite the screen wall on the south side of Hyde Park. In that position, it was straight in front of Apsley House, the Duke Of Wellington’s London residence. The Duke was, of course, a national institution, Napoleonic war hero of Waterloo, statesman, Prime Minister, and pin-up (look at the statue of Achilles behind Apsley House, it was funded by a charitable body known as ‘The Ladies of England’, and originally it did not have a fig leaf.)

CON_B01022_F006_001_detail. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

In 1836, a decision was taken to erect a statue of the Duke on horseback on top of the Arch. It was huge, the biggest equestrian statue of its time, 28 feet tall. As a result, it was widely ridiculed and the arch became known as the Wellington Arch. Despite the derision, and it being considered an eyesore visible from Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria refused to allow it to be moved as she did not want to offend the Duke in his lifetime.

And so it stayed until 1882, when, in order to improve the traffic flows in that part of London, the Arch was moved 60 feet to its present position at the top of Constitution Hill.

The statue being moved to storage in 1883. Illustrated London News. Public Domain.

The statue was replaced, however, and the current ‘Quadriga’ (Nike goddess of Victory riding a chariot pulled by four horses) took its place.

View of the Arch today. John Ramsey.

The Wellington statue was sent to the Army Barracks in Aldershot, where it remains, for those who may wish to see it!

Wellington Statue, Aldershot. Lewis Hulbert. CC BY 3.0

 


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Can Tony Kersting take you to your home town?

 

Managing the digitisation project of one of the most varied, mysterious, and extensive photographic collections in the world, in one of its most prestigious art institutes can look a lot like this:

and not much like the constant carousel of wonderful architectural detail that one might imagine. The volunteers, busy sorting through the images and penciling the accession numbers on the mounts, or zooming in to check the focus in the digitisation studio, are the ones who get to really see the collection, really make serendipitous discoveries. I have to make the time to go and explore, and be sure to do it too or else I might get to the end of whole months having only seen filenames, spreadsheets and conversion code on Terminal.

Belluno_Ponte della Vittoria e Duomo_Anthony Kersting Archive

Today I thought I’d go looking for my hometown – Belluno, in the Italian Dolomites – and see it through A.F. Kersting’s eyes. The 4293 Kersting negatives, which we plan to digitise as part of our project, are numbered sequentially and neatly stacked in their cases. To every negative number corresponds a handwritten entry on a ledger, so if you were to pick a number from the shelf you could easily look it up in the ledger and find out where the image was taken. It’s a bit more difficult to start your search from a specific city; on the negative there are only accession numbers and entries on the ledgers are also sequential by number, not by location. Besides, part of the mystery surrounding photographer A.F. Kersting is that he would travel so extensively: opening a page at random of his ledger you can see that one day he was in Jersey, the next in Scotland, the following entry would be in Munich, then Dubrovnik, then Madrid… which makes tracing his steps and locating a particular town very tricky – and transcribing the ledgers (another fascinating task reserved for our volunteers) very necessary!

Belluno_Piazza Duomo_Anthony Kersting Archive

What I do have to go by in my quick morning search is the prints collection, the selected negatives for which we have prints, and which are arranged by country. These prints were created by Kersting and are unnumbered but annotated in pencil at the back. I ventured to the Italy box and looked for my small town almost as a challenge, and there, to my delight, I found the squares and fountains of my childhood, almost untouched by time, with the only exception being the clothes of the passers-by and the cars parked where they shouldn’t be.

Belluno_Piazza delle Erbe_Anthony Kersting Archive

We are not there yet with the digitisation so what you see below are just some quick group snaps, but hopefully they will give you a taste of how wonderful a photographer Kersting was, and how extensively he documented every corner of the world he could reach. When we’ll have completed the digitisation of the whole collection you’ll be able to search by place and by date, as well as by accession number, and the collection will be truly open. For now, enjoy this small selection as a Friday treat.


Faye Fornasier
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Manager

Maximilian Herbert goes looking for a slashed Sargent

A portrait of Her Grace, Winifred Ana Cavendish-Bentinck, DBE JP Duchess of Portland (née Dallas-Yorke) by John Singer Sargent hangs at the end of a long hallway at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

Winifred, Duchess of Portland – John Singer Sargent

As a small child, I visited the abbey and was enchanted by the painting. In my GCSE year at school, I attempted to copy it into a new composition, producing a preliminary painted sketch for a less successful finished painting.

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Maximilian Herbert

My love of the original painting by Sargent was such that it inspired me to move to Florence in 2011 to undergo classical training in naturalistic portraiture at The Charles H. Cecil Studios on Borgo San Frediano, just south of the River Arno in a building owned by the renowned Romanelli sculpture family. The Cecil studios claim a lineage that connects directly to J. S. Sargent through R. H. Ives Gammel of Boston, who was Charles Cecil’s teacher and ostensibly knew Sargent through American social connections. Sargent is often hailed as the last great society portrait painter, having been born as an American in Florence before studying under Carlos Duran with extensive training at both the Florentine and Parisian Academies in the late 19th Century. During his illustrious career he was sought after by the great and the good of England and the United States, producing alla prima paintings with a method still emulated by many aspiring artists today; painting directly onto the canvas without making an underlying drawing, making observations from life and attempting to achieve a likeness in the first pass.

Having embarked on a voluntary digitisation project at The Courtauld, when I heard that there were glass plate negatives of Sargent’s work in The de Laszlo section of the archives I had a recollection of a tale that had been passed down to me via word of mouth from the current residents of Welbeck Abbey who include my Godfather. The story goes that in 1902 Sargent painted Winifred in the Abbey for a week with Her Grace returning each day to stand as his portrait model. He was famed for his vigorous approach to painting, with broad brushstrokes executed with swordsman-like virtuosity. Puffing away at a cigar he would briskly approach the canvas before making broad and energetic strokes with his long brushes before standing back to view the painted image at a distance. As a result, the paint would appear abstract up close, but when viewed from afar the visual focus would create the illusion of depth and space, generating a convincingly corporeal appearance of life to the painting. Apparently frustrated with the outcome of his week’s work, Sargent purportedly slashed the canvas diagonally, so that the Duchess, upon returning for her next session, was met to her shock, distress and dismay, with her likeness in a slashed and crumpled heap on the floor. After some reassurance Sargent then dashed off the subsequent portrait in a matter of a few days, producing what is still held to be a very successful representation, with a dazzling bravura illusion of light on the silken sheen of Her Grace’s wonderfully extravagant dress. Philip Alexius de László himself also painted Winifred twice in 1912. She was by all accounts a highly paintable woman and a great beauty.

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Philip Alexius de László

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Philip Alexius de László

The painting of the Duchess has a partner piece depicting the Duke of Portland with his dogs, painted in 1901.

Duke of Portland – John Singer Sargent

Contemporary friends and fellow painters Tom Richards and Isabella Watling, whom I met in Florence while studying the sight-size technique, used this portrait of the Duke as inspiration for their own paintings of Italian model Cristiano and his dog Gina.

Gina and Cristiano – Isabella Watling

Bella’s painting featured in the BP Portrait Award at the National Gallery in 2016.

Tom Richards in his studio

I wondered if I might find an image of the original, slashed Sargent painting in the De Laszlo archive. Although the archival process for the collection was much further from being completed than the Conway or Witt libraries, when I set out to look for the Sargent, hand written notes in a ledger took only minutes to decipher. Although some numbered images were missing, all those concerned with the Duchess of Portland had been re-attributed the same number. The boxes of negatives were also numbered so I selected the one that corresponded to entries for The Duchess in the ledger and within a wax-paper sleeve there were a number of glass plate negatives. After holding a particular negative up against a lightbox, it was clear that it was the familiar face of Winifred. And here she is:

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – John Singer Sargent (LAI_BU0001-0-0006-168)

Sadly, it is not an image of the original, slashed portrait which has most likely been destroyed, but it is the preliminary charcoal sketch drawn by Sargent which I have since learnt remains in private ownership by the present day occupants of the abbey, who have recently opened a second public gallery on the Welbeck Estate. The Harley Galleries exhibit The Portland Collection – Paintings and artworks amassed by the various Dukes of Portland over the centuries, including a Michelangelo sanguine sketch, paintings by Stubbs and a wealth of other superb paintings and artifacts. I strongly encourage a visit. While we may never know what Sargent’s first attempt looked like, it has been enriching to become further immersed in the story of the painting’s production and I am very pleased to have found another link in the chain that connects me to the portrait that made me want to become a painter.

Maximilian Herbert

Sharing and caring. Beautiful damaged negatives.

 

As we process more and more boxes of negatives from the Anthony Kersting archive – that’s over 3000 sheet negs in 19 days – I become convinced that the smell of acetic acid in the studio will be an inextricable part of the memories of Summer 2017, both for me and for the volunteers handling and imaging the negatives.

Although most of the negatives in the archive are in very good condition, many have suffered some temperature variation in the past 50-70 years, and are in various stages of decay. This is where digitisation comes in and saves the day. At the heart of any digitisation effort are two main purposes: sharing and caring.

At the heart of any digitisation effort are two main purposes: sharing and caring.

Sharing, because these images have been kept shelved away for a very long time. How many people, since the negatives were created, would have known where to look, who to ask, what to look for, and how to find what? An insignificant number compared to the people searching the internet for historical pictures of their hometown, of monuments and buildings destroyed by war and natural disasters, of factory workers in Jamaica (those are great, can’t wait to share them!), and of generally wonderful looking places.

But digitising is also caring for the object, giving it some rest, allowing a newer, more robust and accessible version of it to take its place. In the sprint relay that’s the photographer’s vision, where the image is the baton, negatives and prints are the first runners. Exhausted after 70 years on the track, they are ready to exchange with the digital files, which will carry the image into the future.

Caring for the object, but also caring for the original photographer’s vision. As the negatives age in challenging environments, they suffer visual decay. This means that, depending on the type of negative, the original image will be compromised and look very different from how it was intended. Digitising before this happens ensures that the photographer’s vision is preserved for posterity in digital form and that the negatives can be moved to a more stable environment to stop further decay.

But what to say about the negatives which have already suffered damage? Unfortunately, in most cases these are nearly impossible to repair. Where possible, we digitise them as they are and appreciate them for their faults. The volunteers examine them as they prepare for digitisation and record in our database the details of broken or corroded glass plates or film negatives showing channelling. When performing quality checks on the digital images, they can also flag major scratches and deal with any dye retrieval.

Although the original vision is compromised, the damaged negatives take on a beauty of their own. Here are a few favourites.

As the acetate film decays, the base of the negative can shrink and the gelatine can become detached from its support. In the examples below, the channeling and distortion make the landscapes appear as if under water.

KER_NEG_G0313

KER_NEG_G0317

KER_NEG_G244

KER_NEG_G298

In some negatives, the dyes contained in the antihalation layer can react to the released acetic acid and become blue or pink.  The images below will be processed in black and white as they were intended but in colour the scenes look dreamlike and striking.

KER_NEG_G2978

KER_NEG_G2979

Scratches are the most common type of damage. In the first example I like to imagine the scratches are jetpack contrails. In the second, the scratch looks almost like the trajectory of the jumping dolphin. The third is so surreal, such an unexpected setting, the magic would come through regardless of the damage.

Scratches. KER_NEG_G1412

KER_NEG_G1407

KER_NEG_G1402

Lorraine Stoker on visiting the Tate Archives

I have been volunteering at the Courtauld Institute since March 2017. Throughout my thirty-eight years of teaching Art, Design and Art History in inner-London schools I have visited the Courtauld Gallery many times and have also participated in the Institute’s more recent schools outreach and broadening participation activities. However, it was the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, involving the creation of an online archive of 1.1 million images from their own image collection, with the 20th century housing projects and the Anthony Kersting Middle Eastern photographic collection, which attracted my attention. As Sir Nicolas Serota commented, the project ‘is an exciting contemporary expression of Samuel Courtauld’s belief that ‘art is for the people’, and I was eager to play a small part in the transformation of the Courtauld archives into a national and international public resource.

As a volunteer, I have access to the Courtauld, its community, exhibitions, events and collections. I can even view and sit in awe of the Gauguins every day now! In addition, working as part of a great team, the practical training and experience in cataloguing, handling, transcribing and digitising historical material and in creating a digital archive has certainly been educational and highly rewarding.

Visiting the Tate Archives as part of our training and development was a fantastic experience. After walking through the bowels of the art gallery, with its air conditioning and heating ducts – even an old delivery bicycle – past the spectacular spiral staircase inspired by the original floor tiles, we entered the ‘Site Timeline’ – a drum-shaped room at the heart of the building. This room, a small part of the highly successful £45m revamp, is dedicated to the History of the site and is set within the foundation of the oldest part of the building’s structure, Millbank Prison.  I was well-aware of the history of The Tate as a prison, but it was quite remarkable to hear that in the 1960s there was a serious proposal to add a brutalist, modern extension to the building!

The new staircase, Tate Britain. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Stoker.

One interesting part of the renovation I have since identified is that when designing the rotunda mirrored bar in the Members Room, the architects Caruso St John were inspired by the Courtauld’s own A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Manet.

Though a regular visitor, I had never got further than the Djanogly Cafè, so The Digital Archive corridor – with its gallery of touchscreens – certainly surprised and impressed me. You can reference a work of art in the Tate collection, access the image of the painting or sculpture and compare it next to the digitised image of the archival item. It was amazing to digitally turn the pages of a Donald Rodney sketchbook, and I have just discovered I can do this on my laptop.

The Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms were next. There, we heard about the 1928 flood and the new flood doors which are, of course, still untested!

At the start of the digitisation of its collection, the Tate’s mission statement was ‘to fulfil our responsibility to promote public enjoyment, knowledge, and understanding of British and international art, we decided that our selection of archive material should follow these principles and reflect that this collection belonged to the nation’. The sheer scale of the Tate’s Archive digitisation, now in its third year, is overwhelming, with over 52,000 pieces already captured, all of which are available to view on the website. This stands in addition to the 65,000 paintings, sculpture and works on paper, also available to browse online. The aim is to take the largest archive of British art in the world and make it accessible to national and international online audiences, so with new collections coming in each year, this is an ongoing task.

The Courtauld’s Photographic Library digitisation project is in its first six-month developmental phase and this Tate Britain visit certainly put into context the extensive possibilities within an innovative digitisation programme and public online interaction, such as crowdsourcing, transcription algorithms, and the development of new routes into the collection in addition to the traditional paths of art or title based retrieval.  Without doubt, this insight into the successful digitisation project at the Tate Britain has galvanised the Courtauld Connects volunteers, as we look forward to the completion of the developmental phase and the exciting possibilities over the next four years.

Tate Britain and Vickers Tower, 12th September 1964, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_G4137)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W1000)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W0999)

Jane Macintyre on meeting HRH The Princess Royal

My name is Jane Macintyre. I am one of the volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

On the afternoon of 12th June, HRH The Princess Royal visited both The Courtauld Gallery and the Institute in her role as Chancellor of the University of London. Prior to the event, she had expressed an interest in meeting the digitisation team – Tom, Matthew, Faye and Sarah – plus one of the volunteers. About five weeks before the visit a ballot determined, as luck would have it, that the volunteer would be me. I was bursting to tell everyone but had been sworn to secrecy.

It turned out that HRH wouldn’t be able to visit the basement studio or library space, but the prints and drawings room on the first floor of the building substituted as a suitable venue where we could present images. Tom and Matthew had selected a small spread of Conway mounts, Laib photos and Anthony Kersting’s images and ledger books. They took care to choose some particularly relevant images such as the only photograph in the collection of the Princess’s home, Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire, and some Olympics venues such as the Athens Arena from 1896, the first Olympics of modern times. Faye set up the camera and connected it to her laptop to mimic the studio facility.

HRH The Princess Royal meeting the Digital Media Team. Photo courtesy of Jim Winslet.

Security on the day was tight. At 2.15pm everyone was summoned to the foyer to receive our credentials and a final briefing, then we took our places in the prints room where we awaited a last security sweep before HRH arrived. It seemed like a long time: excitement mounted.

Finally, the Princess came into the prints room accompanied by the Director of The Courtauld, Professor Deborah Swallow. The Princess, clearly well-informed and interested, was first introduced to the prints and drawings team, and after perusing some of the drawings, came over to talk to the digital team. Tom summarised what the project was about, and presented Matt, Faye, Sarah and myself (in strict sequence). The Princess asked me to explain the role of the volunteers and then Tom showed her the selected array of photographs, which led to a discussion on Gatcombe Park and the changes that had been made to it since the photograph was taken in 1945. She also picked up on the photograph of the Athens Olympics, before moving on to the next part of her visit, the launch the Founders’ Circle, a new society to recognise major benefactors to The Courtauld.

So five weeks of anticipation was over in a few minutes. We definitely rose to the occasion and did a good job of explaining the project. Never having met royalty before, I was struck by the level of organisation, coordination and sheer choreography required to achieve a smooth and effective visit.

Carol Budd on visiting the British Library’s imaging studios

My name is Carol Budd, I am one of 60 volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since I joined the project I have enjoyed learning about the whole process of archiving, particularly as I was somewhat of an ingénue to this field. I was interested in photography, knew something about IT and cameras and was keen to develop skills with photographic software. Having recently retired from a career in IT, technology was nothing new, but the idea that the fusty, dusty world of archiving might engage me and make me think of a second career never occurred to me when I decided to apply.

To provide more context to what we do, the team organise some visits to other institutions’ digitisation studios, so when we were offered a visit to the British Library, I jumped at the chance.

We were given a tour of the imaging studios, and were shown the different cameras, scanners, stands and technology available to meet any number of different requirements. Alongside in-house digitisations, the BL have a commercial arm to accommodate people and companies’ needs to digitise on demand parts of the collection.

Fiona Clancy, Studio Manager, giving a tour of the Qatar Imaging Studio.

The scale of the British Library collections is huge, if you stop and think about the size of it even a goal of 1-2% requires massive digital resources. Every item ordered needs to be registered and its whereabouts must be known at any time. The value and age of some of the books in the British Library mean that before they can be sent for digitisation, the conservation team need to ensure that the item is fit to be handled. Some items are just too fragile for the rigours of digitisation.

Following the tour, we were given presentations by members of the Digital Research team on what to do with all the digital images and metadata once they are created, and how to let the public know that they are available. The most engaging story was that following an aborted commercial project the Library was able to release over a million pictures into the public domain. The response to this has been varied and imaginative. Artists have used the images to create new art works, designers have used them to create a backdrop for the London Fashion Week, and an enterprising individual used them in jewellery, available to buy at Badgical Kingdom. Other exciting ideas to do with images are Poetic Places, an app for encountering culture in London, and Off the Map, a project challenging students to use images from the British Library to create new animation works and games. This has now become an annual competition and the winning teams include Pudding Lane Productions from De Montfort University, Leicester, who created an interpretation of 17th Century London and Gothulus Rift, University of South Wales, who created a Fonthill Abbey inspired game. Images from Shakespeare Folios were used to create Team Quattro’s The Tempest, and Tom Battey’s Shakespearience. The British Library is keen to see more ideas to do with data take shape, so it’s making copies of some of its datasets available for research and creative purposes.

Stella Wisdom and Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curators, explaining the benefits of digitisation.

But digitisation can also mean preserving images for posterity – after the official Canadian Archive suffered a fire, the digitised Canadian photographic collection is now even more precious and unique. The list of different digitised material goes on, the British Library is digitising its vast Sound Archive with funding from the HLF, and even the whole UK web is being archived. Why, I wondered, would you want to archive old web pages? A few days later I read of a court case where archived web pages were used to gain a successful prosecution.

I left the visit excited to be inspired to take new ideas out into my own world, and with a fuller understanding of the aims and importance of digitisation, and of our contribution to this project as volunteers. If only there were more hours in the day!

Volunteers exploring the British Library.