Mary Whittingdale: Yoga Vinyasa Inspired by Paul Laib’s Photographs of Barbara Hepworth’s Work

Audio version

Text version

Paul Laib (1869–1958) specialised in fine art photography working between 1898 and the 1950s. He was commissioned by many prominent British artists of his time including Oswald Birley, Philip de László, Ben Nicholson, John Piper, and John Singer Sargent. Among these, Laib’s photography of Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) and her work stand out from his collection. One of the founders of Modernist sculpture in Britain, Hepworth was a major international figure exhibiting around the globe.

In the video accompanying this blog post, I have created a vinyasa yoga practice inspired by Laib’s photography of Hepworth’s sculptures. A vinyasa is a sequence of positions, one flowing after the other, guided by the breath. This type of yoga invites exploration of Hepworth’s work particularly well – attention is brought to both the poise of the figure and the fluidity of form. Indeed, attempting to express the experience of human embodiment in her work, Hepworth stated “I rarely draw what I see. I draw what I feel in my body”. In this world of social distancing and self-isolation, I encourage you to experience the tactility and physicality of Hepworth’s work through your relationship with the body.

The sight but also sensation of natural form inspired Hepworth throughout her life; she maintained that “body experience… is the centre of creation”. Hepworth was inspired by the enclosure and embrace of the shapes in the landscape around her – be that watching a mother hold her child, the undulating terrain of the Yorkshire hills, or the hollows of rocks on the Cornish coast. Likewise, in your vinyasa practice, you may also wish to connect to the environment around you, cultivating spaciousness and balance through appreciation of Hepworth’s sculptures.


Mary Whittingdale
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Andreas Schmid: Original Reproductions: Paul Laib’s Photographs of Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining Figure (1933)

Many artworks are only preserved in photographs. When the originals are lost, for instance in the turmoil of war, photographic reproductions often remain as the only way to access them. But the importance of photography exceeds mere preservation: without reproductions, the original would be an isolated object in a museum or an archive with only an expert group of people knowing about it. It is only through the copying and reproduction of photographs that a work of art can be experienced worldwide and become part of general knowledge.

I would go as far as to say: there is no original without reproduction. Over the course of time, reproductions can become originals themselves – at the latest when they are archived as objects of independent value in an art institute, digitised (i.e. reproduced) and appreciated in a public space like this weblog.

This could (should) be the case with Paul Laib’s photographs of artworks taken in the first half of the 20th century. Not much is known about his life and work, but it is evident that his photos have served mere illustrative purposes – they were perceived as media granting access to the artworks and they have not been credited for their aesthetic and technical quality.

Laib was working with some of the most accomplished visual artists of the time, among them Barbara Hepworth. She was one of the British avant-garde sculptors who, inspired by continental European artists, shaped abstract art for most of the 20th century. The photos Laib took of her sculptures are particularly insightful with regards to the difference creative photography can make to how we see a work of art. And they are also fascinating examples of Laib’s skilfully executed photographs, which, I hope, will no longer be seen as transparent windows to other artworks, but rather as artworks in their own right. I will focus on four of his photographs, all of which depict Hepworth’s 1933 sculpture Reclining Figure in very different ways.

On Reclining Figure
Searching for Reclining Figure today, one will find mostly sculptures by Henry Moore. Beginning in the 1930s and especially after the Second World War, Moore and Hepworth were in a friendly rivalry and competed for attention in the international art world. Moore undoubtedly won. He was more successful in seizing funding, he found support in the British Council and he enjoyed more popularity worldwide. Early texts on abstract sculpture in England pin Hepworth’s objects on their femininity, attributing to them passivity and mere beauty that could not match the qualities of thought and reflection found in Moore’s works (Buckberrough, 1998: 48). This biased view held in the early history of abstract sculpture theory marginalised Hepworth’s own achievements. In this respect, her entry into Moore’s specialty, the Reclining Figures, can be rediscovered today as her resistance to many years of neglect.

However, that was probably not the sculpture’s original meaning. The alabaster object, only about 30cm long, was created in 1933, the same year that Hepworth took a trip to France with her new partner Ben Nicholson. In France, Hepworth met, among others, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and, in particular, Hans Arp, who might have had a significant influence on Hepworth’s sculpture. Also in 1933, Arp presented Human Concretion, a sculpture not unlike Hepworth’s Reclining Figure.

Hepworth’s main achievement was thus the transmission of Dadaist and Surrealist art from France to Great Britain. In this sense, she prolonged the life of the historical avant-garde movement, which ended years prior to the beginning of the Second World War.

Fig. 1: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Paul Laib (front view). Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness


The Human Dimension
Let’s take a closer look at the sculpture. At its highest point, we can discover the carving of a circle and wavy lines. Is it the sun with clouds above it? Or is it upside down and the sun is above a sea of waves? Is it perhaps the abstract version of an artist’s signature? What is the arrangement supposed to represent – or is it supposed to represent nothing at all? A popular claim, after all, is that abstract art shows form as such, without wanting to represent anything real.

At least in this case, the situation turns out to be more complex. A recent photo of the same sculpture (fig. 2), taken by Cathy Carver for the Hirshhorn Museum, helps: taken from above, a face in profile view becomes clearly visible; the wavy line forms a large nose and overemphasizes the lips; the circle represents the eye. The angle of this photo immediately draws attention to the face. And if one recognizes the face, it is easy to define the whole figure as a torso: to the left and right of the head with the facial features are the shoulders, and the two curves at the other end indicate the legs. Perhaps one could even say that the figure is reclining on its right arm, stretching its feet towards the sky, counting the clouds.

Fig. 2: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Cathy Carver (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Paul Laib’s photo, on the other hand, ungraciously cuts off the nose line. Thus, at first glance, it is not at all clear what the circle and the implied lines are supposed to represent. Laib was apparently not concerned with highlighting the human shape of the sculpture. But now that we have seen the other photo and know – or think we know – that it is indeed an anthropomorphic figure, can we get rid of that knowledge? Can we unsee the human shape again? Can we again perceive it as a purely abstract form without committing it to human body parts?

Let’s have a look at the rear view in Laib’s second photo (fig. 3). What is recognizable as a leaning arm in the Hirshhorn photo makes a surprisingly unstable impression from behind – a single spike holds the right half of the figure above the ground and the supposed arm melts into the back beyond recognition. What was distinguishable from the front and especially from above as an oval head shape suddenly appears as a slightly overhanging plateau. The overexposed centre of the figure suddenly looks like a sharp angle, no longer a gentle sweep. And something else is remarkable: in the rear view, the shadow play of the photographer spills over onto the wall in the background.

Fig. 3: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Paul Laib (rear view). Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

In the Shadows
Laib’s photographs work with pronounced lighting and shadows. In the front view, the shadow swallows the figure’s supporting points, so that its contact with the surface underneath cannot be pinpointed – it almost floats. In Laib’s photo, the deep shadow lines in the figure’s curves add depth and plasticity, whereas in Hirshhorn’s photograph, where shadows are used much more sparingly, the figure looks almost flat in comparison. Note especially how the “shoulders” appear like flat surfaces, while Laib makes them resemble humps, and how the curve in the front centre appears much deeper in Laib’s photo. The sharp contrast of overexposed surfaces merging into glistening white on the one hand and shadows swallowing up into the black background on the other could be reminiscent of the era of expressionist film, which was just coming to an end in Germany.

In the rear view, the use of shadows goes beyond accentuating the figurative features and adds its own artwork to the back wall. Different layers of shadows overlap, creating a multifaceted play that cannot simply be made to coincide with the shapes of the figure. We have seen that the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human being as long as the focus is not on the face or if it is viewed from behind, from where it is not so easy to infer human forms.

Just as the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human, the shadow play does not necessarily represent the sculpture. This does not mean that they have an autonomous life of their own. Rather, they embrace the ambivalence of interdependence and free expression. The sculpture represents a human being and at the same time not, just as the shadow simultaneously does and does not represent the sculpture. Or, in Hepworth’s own words: “The best carvings are necessarily both abstract and representational” (Hepworth, 1932: 17). And we could add: the same goes for photographs.

Going a step further, I would argue that it is not only a game of (non-)representation. The emphasis on the curve and the smooth rounded edges in Laib’s photo make invite the viewer to grasp the subject. In its floating state, it loses the appearance of a massive and heavy block of marble, becoming seemingly light and easy to handle. The rear view shot makes the centre of the sculpture appear particularly narrow, as if it could be encircled by a single hand. If we imagine it as larger, we might even interpret it as an armchair or a child’s seat. The depth and dynamism of the object, amplified by the shadows, do not imply that it should look like a human, but that it might have been shaped for humans. It evokes an aesthetics of ergonomics by pointing to the object’s potential haptic qualities (Lewinson, 2015: 783). The human quality of the sculpture, then, is not only representational: it can be an invitation to future human use, as well as the document and product of a past human interaction, namely that with the sculptor.

Fig. 4: Barbara Hepworth’s studio, photo by Paul Laib. Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

On the Workbench
Laib took photos of Hepworth’s studio (fig. 4). Scattered around the workbenches are tools, raw materials, but also a coffee cup and finished sculptures. In the first photo, what catches the eye is the massive stone on the left, and perhaps the large window overlooking the garden; what is somewhat lost is the Reclining Figure, which can be seen on the workbench in the foreground. It is positioned like in the rear view photograph, but slightly rotated and the perspective is slightly elevated. The strong shadows are missing, and the sculpture almost seems to merge with the surface of the bench: both being bright white. Although it is lying on the workbench with a hammer and other equipment next to it, it looks finished, and it may have been positioned there just for the purposes of the photo.

In the second photo (fig. 5), the Reclining Figure is more prominently placed in the foreground and it has been rotated almost 180 degrees. Upon closer inspection, we notice that the other objects on the table have also changed position. The hammer and the coffee cup are behind the sculpture, a chisel protrudes over the edge. But the change in the arrangement is much less elaborate than it seems: what moved was the workbench, not the objects. A notch in the wood in front of the sculpture (fig. 5) reveals that the bench was rotated for the photos. And even if some of the objects were rearranged, this rotation accomplishes one thing above all: the Reclining Figure can be seen from two sides. It seems that Laib or Hepworth, whoever directed the photos, was concerned with showing that the Reclining Figure has at least two sides. Thus, the essential ambivalence of the sculpture, its indecision between representation and abstraction, which can at least partially be brought into congruence with the contrast of front and rear views, has also been realized photographically.

Fig. 5: Barbara Hepworth’s studio, photo by Paul Laib. Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

On the other hand, in both views the sculpture dissolves into the white of the workbench. Its human form disappears completely and its contours are difficult to discern. It might have been primarily technical circumstances such as the bright daylight that make the Reclining Figure almost invisible, yet there seem to have been enough darker surfaces available that would have provided a stronger contrast to the sculpture to make us guess that the positioning was deliberate.

The contrast, on the other hand, is to be found in setting the delicacy and smoothness of Reclining Figure among the dark, worn tools. One almost fears that the fine object could be damaged in the untidy pile of tools – yet it was precisely these tools with which this delicacy was created.

If we assume that the “white-out” of the sculpture was intentional, however, the figure begins to transcend the question of abstraction and representation, and its materiality becomes problematic. We might find Hepworth‘s enthusiasm for Christian Science and the emphasis on the immaterial world in it (Kent, 2015: 475). The Pierced Forms, one of which is seen in the background, are held as the culmination of her engagement with these ideas: the hole represents and exhibits the absence of material. In the Reclining Figure, the immaterial is not integrated into the sculpture, but the exposure technique in the photographic reproduction even surpasses the effect. The sculpture is itself and as a whole in transition to the immaterial. It is, in more than one sense, illuminated.

Original Reproductions
Paul Laib’s photographs throw a different light on Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining Figure. Providing very particular angles and guiding our interpretation, they should also be appreciated as works of art. Maybe we can call them not reproductions of a sculpture, but artworks inspired by this sculpture. Just like literary texts, film and indeed sculpture always draw on other works of art to critically reflect, celebrate or further develop elements of them, the photos of sculpture find inspiration in their objects but tell their very own story.

___________________________________________________________

Andreas Schmid
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

Bibliography:
Buckberrough S (1998) Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective by Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson. Woman‘s Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 , 47-50.
Hepworth B [1932] The Aim of the Modern Artist: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson. Interview with Hepworth. In: Bowness S (2015) Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations. London: Tate Publishing, pp. 14-17.
Kent L (2015) Christian Science and Ben Nicholson’s work of the 1930s. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 474-481.
Lewinson J (2015) Barbara Hepworth reconsidered. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 781-786.

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib

 

Audio Version

Read by Anna Thompson

Text Version

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.

Antonia Jameson: Still-life in Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

The topic of still-life carries a lot of art historical baggage. Immediately, for me, the baroque, commercial, and kitsch come to mind. But as art critic Herbert Furst argues, still life is often overlooked as a dull subject when it can be an “aesthetic laboratory” through which artists play around with analogy, line and colour (Tobin, 2020). Even now, contemporary art often relies on the everyday to evoke a feeling of relatability between artist’s work and audience.

Ben Nicholson is an excellent example of a modernist painter who conveyed his ideas through the subject of still life. He believed that living and painting must be “one thing” (Tobin, 2020). When I was looking through some of the photographs in the Courtauld’s Conway Library, Paul Laib’s series from the De Laszlo Collection documenting Nicholson’s arrangements of his and Barbara Hepworth’s work stood out, because there is a total lack of hierarchy between the artworks (whether it is Hepworth’s sculpture or Nicholson’s painting) and the collection of objects that surround them. These compositions are conversations. Nicholson interprets three-dimensional space into the frame of a two-dimensional painting, and then reintroduces these paintings back into a live space through his juxtaposition of everyday objects. Still-life can be approached in this way as an installation. The art collector and artist HS Jim Ede, a good friend of Nicholson’s, embodied this way of thinking with his house Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge. He kept his painting collection surrounded by objects and colours that related to them, allowing a dialogue to form between art and life. His house is maintained as he arranged it and is now a museum. Interestingly, he published a book entitled A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard, which contained photographs, poetry, and prose (Ede, 1984). While exploring each of Laib’s photographs, I could not help but list each object I found and identified. I view these lists as poems that say a lot about the accompanying image. They both indicate an order of noticeability but also highlight how seemingly random the objects are, without the distraction of Nicholson and Hepworth’s skilful visual arrangements. They expose the images in a way that feels more stripped down and obvious than any photograph could. Parallels can be drawn between Ede’s book, and its use of poetry and visual analysis.

It could be important to understand the relationship between Nicholson and Hepworth when looking at these still-life arrangements. They were both already married when they met in 1931, but they fell in love and remarried in 1938 after having triplets in 1934 (Chow, 2015). And so, they were both artistic collaborators and lovers. Hepworth was concerned with landscape, and it could be argued that her presence in Nicholson’s life shifted his focus to still-life with the inclusion of landscape, for example on a windowsill. Nicholson’s first wife, Winifred, also had a lasting impact on his use of colour beyond just the descriptive, as she was also a painter of still-lifes. I believe that the spaces (both physical and mental) in which we create things are inextricably enmeshed with the things we create. The effect of relationships and conversations among artists should not be undermined; one reason why art schools are such ripe grounds for exploration and discovery. It is noteworthy that Nicholson’s father, William Nicholson, was a painter, and Nicholson often claimed that his father’s collection of beautiful objects had an everlasting influence on his own artistic practice. His daughter with Hepworth, Rachel Nicholson, is a painter of still lifes too. And so, this love of object and painting has been handed down from generation to generation.

As a fine artist pursuing curating, I have loved arranging my own studio and drawings in this way with the intention of reworking the photos I take back into painting and then arranging them again. This loop of visual information and contextualisation could be endlessly fruitful. Do we consider Laib’s photographs as documentation or creation of new work? We could speculate the extent to which he had artistic freedom to choose what was included and left out of the frame. I gained a newfound respect for this process, as my first few attempts failed rather gloriously. Nicholson and Hepworth were clearly thinking carefully about line and contrast in their arrangements, which I found was only obvious once contained within a photo. This led to a process of trial and error as I attempted to emulate the entrancing compositions visible in Laib’s photographs. I worked with line drawings I had made from these photographs. For the sake of time and resources I used digital photography but decided to edit them as if they were glass plate negatives, then made a still life painting while thinking about Nicholson’s work. His use of colour and straight lines were very different from my usual painting practice which proved itself to be a challenge. But as a process it made me analyse my working space and consider visual elements (like the transparency of paint) that I might usually overlook.

To conclude, there is a lot to be discovered within these collaborations between Laib, Hepworth and Nicholson. I encourage you to sit for a while and take them in; each photo contains so much materiality both within the objects in Hepworth and Nicholson’s artwork but also as photographic objects themselves. Small signs of wear in fingerprints, creases and traces of editing remind us that they have a living past beyond being part of The Courtauld’s collection. There is materiality integral to the objects that surround the works of art which is heightened by the material nature of the photographs themselves. Laib’s documentation of these arrangements has not only sustained their existence but brought them into a new realm; they exist as artistic photographs in their own right.

 

Bibliography

Tobin C (2020) Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers. Critical Studies in Modernist Culture, Edinburgh, pp. 125-131.

Ede HS (1984) A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Chow A (2015) The personal and professional life of Barbara Hepworth. Available at: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-behind-artist-barbara-hepworth-work/

Ben Nicholson: From the Studio (2021) exhibition. Available at: https://pallant.org.uk/whats-on/ben-nicholson-from-the-studio/

With thanks to Louise Weller and Tom Bilson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall), Ben Nicholson OM (1943–5). Oil paint and graphite on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. © Angela Verren Taunt 2018. All rights reserved, DACS.

Still life (starfish), Antonia Jameson (2021). Acrylic on canvas board, 10 x 8 inches.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19

Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19

Although the coronavirus has put our digitisation activities on hold at Somerset House, the pandemic has unlocked an outpouring of creativity amongst our volunteers. By adapting quickly, we have been able to initiate remote activities to advance the cataloguing, interpretation and care of our photographic collections, logging over 1,200 hours of remote volunteering time to date since 18 March.


Background

Since our first open day in January 2017 over 900 volunteers have engaged with the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, donating over 25,000 hours of time. From the outset we have operated an almost constant programme of outreach, recruitment and training, and maintain an active community of around 230 regular volunteers, some of whom have each contributed nearly 700 hours of time. Activities on offer to volunteers include photography, labelling, copyright research, photographer attributions, transcription, and collection care.

Our volunteer community is diverse, exceeding targets set for us by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), and we cherish partnerships with My Action for Kids, Beyond Autism, and the Terrence Higgins Trust. In 2019 alone we supported 31 students on work placements of periods from a week to three months, and ran corporate volunteering sessions with companies including Willis Towers Watson, Mace, Cirium, LexisNexis, Ashurst, Boden, Sidley Austin, Marsh & McLennan, Tideway, Bank of England, AutoTrader and Facebook.

Volunteer group photo taken at Somerset House, Summer 2019

Volunteer group photo taken at Somerset House, Summer 2019

One belief remains constant: in order to deliver engaging content, without barriers or preconceptions, to the widest possible audience, we include that audience in its creation as fully as possible. Our volunteers’ efforts run through every part of this project, and it is their confidence, creativity and relentless dedication which we celebrate.

Before Covid-19 we were on target to finish the Conway Library by early 2021 before moving to the largely unpublished photographic archives of Anthony Kersting and Paul Laib. We will return to the studio as soon as guidance and practical considerations allow. In the meantime, this blog post describes a few of the ways in which we moved our activities online and strengthened our connection with the volunteer community which sits at the heart of this radical, transformational project.


Task management during Covid-19

To create and manage programmes of remote working, we record every activity on a master spreadsheet which includes a brief description of the task, links to internal and external documentation, and a priority number to measure how closely it maps onto the project’s core objectives. From this we can identify tasks we want to take forward, whilst refining or shelving those with less relevance or benefit. After an informal discussion, favoured tasks are then documented in detail in a pro forma for internal use which breaks them down under the following headings:

Title of task
On which material / collection is this task focussed?
Description of task,
How many volunteers can participate?
What equipment is needed?
Where will the task take place?
Instructions – how will the task be completed?
Who will supervise, and how?
What skills will participants learn and practice?
How will success be measured and judged?

No matter how detailed or trivial the task might seem, we also ensure that every one is matched against the same questions we answered in the Courtauld’s original application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund:

What difference will this task make for heritage?
What difference will this task make for people?
What difference will this task make for communities?

If a task reaches this stage and we’re still convinced of its value, we create a volunteer-friendly instruction sheet and launch it at one of our regular online meetings. The staff of the Digital Media Department then provide daily support and feedback through a dedicated channel on Slack, our digital hub for collaborations with our volunteers.

Although we continue to use Timecounts as a volunteer management system, managing the remote working activities of our large community within tasks requires a level of scrutiny that exceeds anything we had put in place before: one which enables us to log every activity, name, date and state of progress before checking and sign-off.

The following screenshot shows how we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks:

How we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks

The following screenshot shows how we monitor progress across two specific tasks: the creation of draft Wikipedia pages for each of the photographers whose work appears in the Conway Library, and the production of audio transcripts of our blog posts in order to improve the accessibility of our storytelling and research.

The numbers are stacking up. From 18 March (the day following the suspension of in person volunteering activities and the start of remote working) to 1 June 2020 we have recorded:

1210.30 Volunteer From Home Hours
260 Kersting Mysteries solved
244 Conway Photographer Wikipedia template pages in progress
149 Conway Photographer Wikipedia pages ready for quality checking and publication
55 Layers of London records created
36 Audio Blog recordings in progress, with 13 ready to upload
28 volunteers have completed 752 subjects on Zooniverse.


Volunteering from home: researching the Conway Library photographers

The physical library is arranged by date period, then country, province, city or town. Notable buildings often occupy anything from a single box up to several shelves and, in certain locations, a division between sacred and secular architecture is present. However, for the first time since the library was created, our volunteers are revealing insights into the 400 named photographers whose work forms part of the collection. They inspect each photograph individually, and note down on a spreadsheet whether the name of its creator is present, usually in the form of a handwritten note or stamp.

Up to now all we knew about many of our photographers was their names. We turned the current situation into an opportunity for volunteers to research each photographer at home, with the objective of creating a biographical page for each on Wikipedia. The first step of the process is to assign to each volunteer a photographer’s name at random. Information they discover, such as her or his academic, bibliographic, and biographical details, references and external links is recorded on a pro forma which closely mirrors the Wikipedia page we will create for them. We communicate remotely with our volunteers every step of the way via a dedicated channel on Slack which now has 261 members, 64 of whom are actively writing photographer biographies. 244 biographies have been drafted so far, with 149 more in progress! The screenshot below shows a typical few days of the discussion currently taking place behind the scenes.

Readers might be surprised to know that, before the project created one, not even Anthony Kersting – described widely as the greatest architectural photographer of his generation – had a page on Wikipedia (we hold his collection of negatives and prints, and now expect to begin their digitisation in Summer 2021 ).


Volunteering from home: Kersting Mysteries

Anthony Kersting left his whole collection of negatives and prints to the Courtauld on his death in 2008.

He also left us his ledger books containing locations, descriptions and dates for almost every single photograph. In February our volunteers finished the massive two-year task of transcribing every one the ledgers, however his handwriting is often difficult to read, and many question marks remain.

To answer these, we created another Slack channel to which we upload high-res images of illegible entries, opening them up to the volunteer community to discuss, argue the case for a solution, and seek agreement. This involves a lot of Googling, and since we started we’ve all learned a lot about religious sites in Cairo, or alternative names of Eastern European towns.

 

One of the hardest parts of solving the Kersting mysteries is that he would spell things phonetically, or he might use a local spelling or variant spelling that isn’t used today. Volunteers are busy not only transcribing, but also translating. The product of this research will be the facility to geolocate almost all of his images on the new photographic collections website which this project will create.


Volunteering from home: Conservation

The Conway Library contains several thousand 19th century photographic prints. Many are rare, some are unique, and almost all are extremely susceptible to degradation and decay due to their particular chemical, synthetic and material qualities – the results of individual photographers’ experimentations and craftsmanship. We must understand the vulnerability of these objects to enable us to make the correct decisions and preserve them for the future and, in preparation, commissioned and submitted a Collections Conservation Plan to the NHLF. The period of closure has allowed us to plan and create training resources in the form of videos on handling, cleaning, selecting conservation materials, identifying deterioration, and storage, in anticipation of the digitisation of the Courtauld’s rich 19th century collections commencing soon after our return to the studio.

 

Volunteering from home: broadening access to the collection and teaching digital skills


Layers of London

Layers of London is a huge collaborative effort to map London’s history in a visual and interactive way, developed by the Institute of Historical Research. Anyone can access free historic maps of London and contribute stories and memories to create a social history resource about their local area, or places they have visited or researched.

We held a Layers of London training session attended by 16 volunteers back in February as we wanted to encourage them to use the site in their own time. However since lockdown we have adapted our instructions to provide a refresher for those volunteers we have already introduced to the project, and detailed guidance for newcomers.

By uploading a selection of Courtauld images to Layers of London, we are making the collection more accessible to a wider audience. Photographs that have been uploaded so far may be seen here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446

Our partnership with Layers of London has allowed volunteers to add videos, text, or images from other places around the web, adding a richness to the story behind our photos. In many cases new information is sent back to us which isn’t recorded on the Conway’s photographic mounts.

So far, 22 volunteers are involved in this task. 55 records have been published, with a further 15 being drafted. Everyone who has taken part has learned new digital skills, research skills, made their own personal discoveries about our collections and shared them with a wide public audience who might have never discovered the rich and diverse coverage of the Conway.


Blog audio recording

Our blog has 57 posts (and counting!) on a range of topics linked to the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections. Almost all have been written by volunteers, interns, or students on work placement. We have long had ambitions to make audio versions of the posts to aid accessibility for people with a visual impairment. Since lockdown 13 recordings have been finished, with 36 more in progress. Clips will also be shared on social media and collected together in podcasts.

Volunteers engaged on this task have learnt new skills, from practical sound recording to speaking with confidence, and editing text for clarity. To support this activity we created a guide and made sample recordings (with photographs of the home-made pillow-fort setups to give professional results), and we give feedback on demos with tips and workshops on how to improve the sound if needed.


Art Club

We recognise that creativity and self expression, particularly in a social setting, is an important means of boosting mental health – perhaps now more than ever. Our Art Club brings these very human needs and our collection together.

Once a week a member of the team picks an image from the collection to inspire volunteers (or anyone who comes across our prompts on social media). We always leave the prompts open, so people can respond using any media they have: we’ve received paintings, drawings, photographs, found object sculptures, video, and even flash fiction. The Henry Moore Foundation particularly enjoyed everyone’s imaginative responses to Large Square Form With Cut!

We hold an Art Club video chat each week for people to share their techniques, talk about art, and hear from team members on techniques to try with minimal materials. Our discussions about images from the Ministry of Works Collection depicting the siege of Monte Cassino led to moving reflections on photography, war, and memorialisation.

We’d encourage anyone to get involved in Art Club: check out our Twitter and Instagram channels for the prompts: there’s no time limit on trying out any of them.


Zooniverse

The aims of every photographic and cataloguing activity we undertake are broadly those of raising awareness of the collections and the Courtauld, connecting with new audiences and providing them with content to foster learning and enjoyment at all levels. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when our audiences stop asking why our collections should be relevant to their interests, but start to ask why these images: whether beautiful, puzzling or shocking, are of interest to art historians – the content alone enticing and opening a door into the field of study.

A cornerstone of this content-centred approach is crowdsourced cataloguing. Whilst we wait for a new collections management and publishing system to be commissioned and built (which will itself have an embedded facility for crowdsourced cataloguing) we created a project called World Architecture Unlocked on Zooniverse, a platform involving hundreds of contributors worldwide, and uploaded the contents of the first 100 boxes from the Conway (over 8000 images), covering architecture from Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil and the beginning of early British. In each case we’re trying to do something which we always felt lay beyond the pragmatic objectives of this project which were to catalogue down to the box and folder level only: that of cataloguing individual images by transcribing everything written on their mounts.

After undergoing a period of internal testing by volunteers we’re now awaiting the go-ahead from Zoonioverse which will take this part of the project live. In the meantime anyone interested in contributing to the Zooniverse transcription is welcome to access World Architecture Unlocked, now in beta release.


Community!

We have always used Slack as a private social network for volunteers to use. However Slack has really come into its own since lockdown and, as well as run channels to discuss each volunteering task, we also run a fun_and_banter channel in which recommendations for books, podcasts, films, websites, and more are made. While we keep the recommendations mostly within the volunteer community, we often share some on our Twitter and Instagram channels, so make sure you follow us there. We’ve also been enjoying emoji games and sharing many art-related COVID memes. The London Boroughs emoji game had us occupied for a while!

We’ve run two Zoom chats per week since the first full week of closure, with between 23-46 volunteers joining us to catch up. We like to spend a few minutes going over project updates, but we always keep plenty of time just to check in and see how everyone is doing – and share yet more recommendations. Lorraine always has so many recommendations of all kinds from the seriously cultured to seriously silly, while Muny has shared great resources for teaching at home and keeping up with exercise! Another gripping twist of being online is that we are always learning about hidden talents: one week we found that we have bird watching (David), bird-photography (Christopher), and bird sketching (Anne) skills in our talented team! John has shared his hand-drawn print-out-and-colour in sheets, and Bill shared a gorgeous calligraphy front cover for a future book on Anthony Kersting, Sue went from Zoom skeptic to Zoom convert, and Francesca delighted us with her violin. We also welcomed some new volunteers like Gill, and welcomed back some old friends like Max, who volunteered with us back when the project started in 2017, and is now keeping in touch again with the online community.

Lara Drew: Winning and Losing – Photographs of Works of Art

Audio Version

Read by Francesca Nardone

Text Version

The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway libraries hold almost one million mounted photographs and over 60,000 negatives. They act as a comprehensive record of western art and global architecture, including cuttings, reproductions, publications and photographs of works of art and landmarks. One entire room is filled with over 20,000 negatives by a single fine art photographer, Paul Laib, who captured works of art by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their studios. Elsewhere stacks are filled with photographs of sculpture spanning more than two millennia.

Red filing boxes in the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art

Conway Library Shelves

Performing the slightly meta process of taking perfectly lit, high-resolution photographs of photographs of works of art and sculpture as part of the digitisation project gets you thinking about the value of taking photographs of works of art. It is an inescapable fact that as jaw-dropping as the sheer number of stacks, shelves, boxes, folders and individual photographs is in its physical manifestation, it is minuscule compared to the billions of images on the internet (over 95 million are shared on Instagram alone daily).

My iPhone’s algorithm identifies over 650 photos in my camera roll which contain “art”. I have definitely been guilty of marching around museums and art exhibitions “camera-first”, viewing the art mainly through my phone screen and capturing images which disappear into the black hole of my camera roll and are rarely viewed again.

Museums buy into our need to capture visually our experience of art with selfie points and hashtags. However, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam made headlines in 2016 when it banned photography, writing “in today’s world of mobile phones and media a visit to a museum is often a passive and superficial experience. Visitors are easily distracted and do not truly experience beauty, magic and wonder”. They encourage the more old-fashioned image-making technique of sketching, arguing that it forces you to look more closely and appreciate a work’s finer details.

As well as having an impact on the museum experience, photography also changes the basic significance of the artwork photographed. John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing “when a camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of the image”. The image of an artwork becomes ubiquitous, released from a single location. The significance of the image then lies in it being the original of all its reproductions, rather in what it uniquely represents. The “release”, multiplication, and dissemination of the artwork’s image escape the authority of the museum or location in which it is housed and their curatorial efforts to create meaning through labels and dialogue with the works situated around it.

Even before a photograph makes it online, the photographer decides exactly what to include or exclude from her shot and can crop and edit at will once the image is taken. I was struck by what was lost in the images of Picasso’s sculptures I found in the Conway library: the three-dimensional objects are confined in 6×4 inch, 2D, black and white rectangles. The images of the sculptures give no sense of scale, colour, texture or physical space, and, without being able to walk around them, the viewer can only experience the angles chosen by the photographer. The images below highlight how different a work can appear in different photographs. The translation of an artwork into another art form shifts the meaning between artist, curator, and photographer just like the translation of literature into different languages.

Detail of three items from the Conway library showing Picasso's Head of a Woman sculpture from three different angles.

Picasso, Head of a Woman, 1932, 128 x 81 x 61cm. Details from CON_B07487_F001_003, CON_B07487_F001_004 and CON_B07487_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Although the losses inherent in the photography of works of art are real, the reproducibility and editing power enabled by the process can have real advantages too. John Berger is not all doom and gloom: he writes, immediately after the quotation above, “the painting enters each viewer’s house… it lends its meaning to their meaning. At the same time it enters a million other houses and, in each of them, is seen in a different context”.

An artwork’s meaning is not destroyed when it is photographed, but rather multiplied, and our preference to taking photographs works of art ourselves rather than buying postcards in gift shops suggests we prefer the personal significance. The phenomena of “museum selfies” highlights this: what we see, appear with, and post on social media constructs our identity. Art brings a certain cache that reaches beyond personal Instagram feeds and into culture as we know it, as The Carters’ 2018 music video for APES**T filmed in the Louvre reflects.

A still from the music video of The Carters' Apes**t showing Beyonce and Jay-Z posing in front of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre

Beyonce and Jay-Z in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in their music video, APES**T.

Photographing artworks is an important aspect in the democratisation and accessibility of museums and collections too. The Courtauld Digitisation project’s aim is to make the libraries accessible anywhere to anyone who might have access to the internet. It enables a greater number of people to appreciate works of art globally, especially those who can’t access the original artworks, for geographical, financial or disability reasons. Museums concerned that allowing digital reproduction of their physical objects might decrease their value and make their physical space irrelevant needn’t worry: capitalising upon the photography of artworks provides free advertising and actually encourages people to visit the physical space and experience it for themselves.

Another advantage of photographing art is that it enables us to capture the artwork from a single perspective in a single location at a single moment in time. While an artwork can survive largely unchanged for hundreds of years, photographs can chart its journey through space and time and can serve an important historical purpose. For example, I could visit the work of art that is Rodin’s tomb, in Paris, but I would never see it as it looked on the day of his funeral, dwarfing the thousands of people who flocked around it, emphasising the legendary reputation of the sculptor. The photograph which captures this moment has value separate from the work of art it represents.

Black and white image drom the Conway Library depicting Rodin's funeral.

Rodin’s funeral, 24th November 1917, photograph by Choumoff. CON_B06898_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Photography’s ability to document is invaluable to the preservation of works of art. In the Conway library, I recognised one photograph of the Assyrian Lamassu, or human-headed winged bull, carved in the 7th century BC. It was taken in Iraq in 1950. The same statue can be found on Youtube, in a video in which members of Isis deface it, together with other works of art in Mosul museum. This work of art no longer physically exists, what survives are the photographs taken by hundreds of people, from architectural photographers such as Anthony Kersting, who took this image, to the most casual tourists.

Image of the now lost statue of the winged bull of Niveh.

“Iraq: Winged bulls at Ninveh, outside Mosul”, AF Kersting. KER_PNT_N0026.

An organisation called Rekrei (from the Esperanto for “recreate”) has crowd-sourced images of the works of art destroyed by Isis from which digital models can be produced by a process called “photogrammetry”. The viewer can zoom in and rotate the models to recreate the experience of moving around a sculpture and viewing it from different perspectives. 40,000 people have visited the website and uploaded images since its launch.

Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari has gone one step further, creating 3D-printed resin sculptures from the digital models produced using photogrammetry. These replicas cannot replace the originals but act as a stand-in, just as photographs did before them. Allahyari‘s 3D-prints physically represent the lost artwork but also act as time capsules, as they contain flash drives with images and documents relative to the original art object, creating an alternative, democratic way of preserving heritage.

Image of translucent 3D printed sculpture by artist Morehshin Allahyari

Morehshin Allahyari – Material Speculation – Lamassu

In truth, the photography of art will always be a debated issue. As we come to the end of the decade in which Instagram was invented, we acknowledge that the ways in which we experience art and culture have shifted and sped up dramatically and irreversibly. However, after a week with the Courtauld Digitisation Project spent realising the vital importance of preserving images of works now lost or in danger, I conclude that there is a lot more winning than losing in the photography of art.


Lara Drew

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Introducing our new digitisation project

Hello and welcome to our Digital Media blog – so nice of you to come and visit!

This post is an introduction to the HLF Digitisation Project here at the Courtauld Institute of Art. The project is run by Tom Bilson, Head of Digital Media, Sarah Way, Volunteer Coordinator, and myself, Faye Fornasier, Digitisation, Metadata & Cataloguing Coordinator, and together with our amazing volunteers we will use this space to talk about what we’re doing and share our work and serendipity.

The digitisation pilot, running now until August, will be a journey of discovery and exploration. It will set the pace for the rest of the project, which, if funded, will run for four years and complete the digitisation of the Courtauld’s photo libraries, started last summer with the Witt Library as a separate project, and part of the overarching Courtauld Connects.

The three collections we are covering are the Conway Library, just under a million mounted photographs and cuttings of architecture and sculpture started by Lord Conway of Allington; the complete archive of black and white prints and negatives by photographer Anthony F. Kersting, covering architecture of almost every European country, Asia, New Zealand, the Middle and Far East; and The De Laszlo Gift of Paul Laib Negatives, with over 20,000 images of works of all the major artists active in Britain between 1900 and 1945. 

A red box of Conway photographs, all mounted on brown card, waiting to be labelled.

A red box of Conway photographs, all mounted on brown card, waiting to be labelled.

So far, the work has been great fun. In January we had our Volunteer Open Day, which was fantastically rewarding with over 137 registrations. In February we set up the Digitisation Studio from scratch, redecorating and building furniture ourselves; Sarah met over 40 prospective volunteers in one-to-one interviews and launched the shift booking portal, while also finding the time to go on an amazing trip abroad; Tom went shopping for a Content Management System & website for our new images, and transitioned between two fascinating exhibitions by artists working with the collections; and I got the photographic equipment up and running, tested the imaging settings and workflow for different materials, and put together some step-by-step instructions for when the volunteers arrive, on Tuesday next week.

Yesterday, we had an induction event with our first 26 volunteers and they’ve already signed up for most of the next three weeks. The volunteers will bring all sorts of different experiences to the digitisation process and and insight on the images themselves, so over the course of the project we will ask them to share their stories and discoveries. What more can I say – we’re incredibly excited. 

Some of the negatives have never been out of their box and seeing what happens when they go online will be magical – so save this page for updates but also let us know what you would like to find on this blog. We will be happy to answer any questions and post suggestions are always welcome.

Introducing volunteers to the aims of the project © The Courtauld Institute of Art

Introducing volunteers our photographs, and to the aims of the project © The Courtauld Institute of Art

 

 Faye Fornasier

Digitisation, Database and Cataloguing Coordinator
Courtauld Connects