Collecting Stories

As part of our digitisation pilot, we organised 6 brainstorming sessions to develop new ideas and harness the creativity of unselected members of the public.

In the Collecting Stories session, we brainstormed the idea that putting the Courtauld Libraries’ images online could spark conversations not only to do with the academic appreciation of fine art and architecture, but also with personal history, community engagement, social development, and storytelling. We wanted to come up with ideas for the website’s structure, including options to collect stories and interpretation.

One of the exercises we set up to get the conversation started saw our participants roaming the Conway Library looking for one image that was personally relevant to them and writing a story to go with it. Images and stories were then passed on for someone else to write a reply and present them to the group.
We wanted to discuss what it’s like to approach an image collection with the intent to tell a personal story, whether reading someone else’s story about an image enriches it, and how it feels to have a stranger describe something personal like the photo of one’s hometown or special place.

The exercise really got our group talking and the resulting suggestions and ideas will shape the way our project will be delivered. As for the images selected and the stories generated, they were beautiful and nostalgic so some of our volunteers typed them up and wrote further responses. Here are a few.

 


Broadgate, London.

“Broadgate – close to Liverpool Street
Swiss bank – public space – Richard Serra
Demolished – redevelopment – bars, cafes etc.
1980s corporate architecture – 20th century society
Historic England
Memory – affection” Jan Peters

“Hidden behind Liverpool Street station is Broadgate. In amongst the monstrous redevelopment of this area weaves the Broadgate art trail, the most impressive art collection by acclaimed British and international artists. Accessible to all and out in the open-air my memories are of numerous school trips with teenagers interacting with fantastic sculptures, as opposed to the untouchable work in galleries and museums. We never noticed the rather sterile architecture (the students’ opinion) but marveled at the Fulcrum by Richard Serra, laughed at the Leaping Hare on Crescent and Bell by Barry Flanagan and sat drawing the Rush Hour by George Segal. It still holds its fascination today.” Lorraine Stoker

 


 

CON_B02478_F008_010 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

CON_B02478_F005_003 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

Isfahan (Persia) Shah Sultan Hussain’s Madrassa

“A painting or a ‘colourised’ photograph of the entrance to the Shah Sultan Hassain Madrassa in Isfahan, Iran. The coolness on the small pond, blue of the characteristics turquoise vaulting. Men in various uniforms stood by the doorway. A mix of clothing and styles – a young boy with cumberbund and blue shirt. Men in heavy overcoats.
Love insights into the clothing of people in the picture.” Pragya Dhitel

“As I worked my way through this box it was fascinating to look at a bygone era of a foreign country not known to me. The image to compliment this image, for me, would be CON_B02478_F005_003, a black and white image described as “looking glass niche”, which I presume would be on the vaulting of the roof.” Arun Mahajan

 


 

CON_B04383_F002_024 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

“The Image is the view out of a classroom window in Amsterdam. It is a city where everyone lives, learns or works very close to one another. Everyone can see into everywhere else, seeing people live their lives. It is both comforting & disconcerting.
I imagine being torn by what is happening outside and having to stay focused on what is inside.” Barbara Bouman

“This really helped me think about this image more deeply.
At first look, this seems cold, austere and unstimulating. A place where your mind might wonder. But then the shapes, thrown into contrast by the light, offer another perspective which is anything but dull. The light draws you inward and outward simultaneously. I suppose that’s what classrooms are supposed to do.” Stephen Lines

 


 

CON_B03339_F001_012 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

“I think a picture means a lot more if there are people in it. For this reason, I immediately decided to go straight to the Venice boxes. I found this picture inside the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari box. It depicts a lady in a white casual dress and probably dates back to the seventies. The face of the lady is not visible but her hair reminds me of my grandmother from a photo that I have seen at her home.
It means a lot to me, even if it’s not her. Imagination is better sometimes.” Giulia Antonioli

“Interesting. Feeling a connection with people, but not people whose faces or expressions we can see. It’s not a picture that appealed to me, initially, but now I sort of get it. The story brings me more into the picture.” Lucy Sharp

 


 

CON_B07582_F001_009 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

A pair of paper bags with large and small buckets (paper, galvanised steel and vinyl) by Richard Wentworth. 1982.

“Materials – tactile paper, the ephemeral throw away, everyday object. Manufacturing steel, paper “the sound of crushing paper around a steel hard bucket.” “Opposites.” The fact the bucket has no water in it. Water and paper do not mix. Thinking of conservation. Archives – conservation. Situated on concrete near Haywood Gallery – Modernist building. Wentworth went to Hornsey Art College the year I was born.” Veronica Bailey

“I love that you have added sound to the image.” Barbara Bouman

 


CON_B04300_F001_021 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

Miss Cranston’s tea rooms Louise Campbell

“Finding this collection of photos brings back lots of good memories and a fuzzy warm nostalgia.
I grew up in Glasgow, I really enjoyed getting to visit the tea rooms if I was good. They were always the first choice of place to lunch; even as a child. I love the Mackintosh decor even though in the 80s and 90s it was dated and not very cool. I even enjoyed lunched there with my mum, and the staff fussing over me and happily making me (something) complicated off the new orders.
Looking back at the photos, they stand up and I now still love the Art Nouveau period and would happily decorate my whole house as Art Nouveau as it brings back such happy memories.”

“Childhood memories triggered by architecture interiors of the Art Nouveau period/Mackintosh. An interest in interior design now. How the past influences future space.” Veronica Bailey

“Looking back at the photographs and reading the others’ description you can imagine the noise and sounds of the Mackintosh tearooms. The hustle and bustle of people’s voices, sounds of children sitting patiently waiting with parents, the smell of cakes and brewed tea.
The architecture is amazing to look at, especially the Art Nouveau period. I particularly like the design of the fireplace and black and white chequered tiled floor.” Saffron Saidi

 

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib

 

The Tate Archive holds some of the only remaining correspondence between photographer Paul Laib (1869-1958) and the artists who hired him: a misaddressed cream card dated July 1935 listing his telephone number, address in London’s South Kensington borough, and services offered. All in vibrant red ink: “Carbon Platinotype, ENLARGEMENTS, &c … Pictures carefully Photographed by Panchromatic Process. PHOTOGRAVURE.” (TGA 977/1/1/222)

E.Q. Nicholson, the eventual recipient of the note, was one of many clients Laib worked with over his five-decade career as a Fine Art Photographer in London. The title listed on Paul Laib’s stationery implied a role somewhat different than the common understanding of the term today. Whereas the contemporary use most often refers to an artist whose chosen medium is photography, fine art and people who made it comprise the subject matter of nearly all 22,000 images in the De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld.

3 Thistle Grove in 2017

I remember the initial thrill of coming across Laib’s photographs of studios, particularly Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s at No. 7 The Mall in Hampstead. There is something tantalisingly subversive about seeing well-known and well-loved works of art loved and known somewhere other than a gallery, somewhere where the rules of engagement with art might be relaxed. Hepworth and Nicholson hired Laib at various points in the 1930s to photograph their work. These weren’t snapshots, though – the depiction of possibility in these photographs, of the possibility of different kinds of interactions with art, was intended. Lee Beard, Sophie Bowness, and Chris Stephens all note in the exhibition catalogue for 2015’s Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World that photographs like this were a concerted effort to convey a more holistic aesthetic view – if anything, one that the artists had more control over than in a gallery. Textiles, sculptures, and paintings live alongside a spiky selection of cacti, works in progress, tools, and the ephemera of a filled, well-considered space.

With some more reading, trips to archives at Tate and the National Art Library, and discussion with colleagues here, I decided to expand on the idea that placing artworks in different contexts change how we feel about perceive them. Showing how Laib’s photographs depict a range of art-in-context, and how his unique occupation brought together photography, art, and the archival in an unexpected way – became the theme of the show, now up in the Book Library Foyer until September 27.

I had never previously considered the legions of photographers capturing the artwork we see in books, exhibition catalogues, lecture halls, and postcards. This is more than a little ironic considering that I and sixty other volunteers are taking on a similar role in our time at The Courtauld.

Artists in their studios: Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib.

The title of the exhibition – Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib – is a reference to the different relationships at play between artworks and photography in his archive. As I write in the introductory text for the piece, sometimes an image itself reminds us that we’re looking at a staged photograph, something that took scheduling, supply sourcing, and time to plan. Paintings were secured on easels and sculptures on pedestals to ready them for a photo. Further reminders of the presence of the photographer include graphic white strokes across many of the images – Laib placed tape directly on the negatives to mark where the images would be cropped.

In other photographs from the archive, the physical presence of the camera is less obvious. This is particularly the case for photographic reproductions intended for publication – a copy of Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (1933), generously lent by the Courtauld Institute’s Book Library, is open to a photograph of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture “Reclining Figure” – while staged in a very thought-out way, the presence of a photographer is less obvious, thus “Camera, Obscured”.

To give visitors even more of a sense of how these photographs live as physical objects before being digitised in our studio in the Witt Library and printed, some of the glass plate negatives and the boxes they have been stored in since the 1970s are included in the exhibition.

A view of the exhibition.

Many thanks to everyone who has helped source negatives in the archives, point me towards references, set up the show, and supported in ways large and small – hopefully this will be the first of many exhibitions to come out of the rich photo archives we are digitising.

— Mary Caple

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib is on show until 27 September in the Book Library Foyer at The Courtauld Institute of Art.