The Witt Library Archive

Isabella Lill: Catching the Photographer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Isabella Lill
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

Looking Through Different Laws of Landscape

 

The Courtauld’s Witt Library is a large collection of photographs, reproductions and cuttings of paintings, drawings and engravings of Western Art from c1200 to the present day. Within its 19 thousand boxes sit just over 2.15 million images depicting many diverse themes and subjects. The complete archive of 160,000 black and white prints and over 40,000 negatives by architectural and landscape photographer Anthony F. Kersting was bequeathed to the Courtauld’s Conway Library on his death in 2008.

As a Digitisation and Digital Media Intern, I decided to take a look at these contrasting and yet extensive collections to discover how landscape was, and still is, a theme within creative expression. From the work of Édouard Manet, Federico Barocci through to the many unpublished photographs taken by Anthony Kersting we see a reflection of the spirit of nature that continues to creatively saunter through human history.

Nature seems to have its own distinctive way of projecting different subject matters and visual habitats. Before the 17th century, the concept of landscape was limited to the different narratives of historical, religious and folkloric fields. However, today landscape has become one of the ruling themes within the bounds of artistic expression and documentation. A large number of great artists use landscape as a form of artistic authority; an impression to record the different impacts we have on our grounds, territory and the scope of the earth.

To start off this reflection on the crowning charm of nature’s picturesque scenery, I chose Federico Barocci’s simple yet spiritual approach towards landscape. During his lifetime Barocci was a celebrated figure of the Italian Renaissance, due in part to a notable commission received in his early 20s to create frescos at the Vatican.

 

His sketches, which I discovered in the Witt Library, include a delicate study of trees and space showing his respect for nature, in what I consider to be an ethereal and docile interpretation. His use of chalk typifies the ‘Italian light’ that many artists around that time idealised.

Moving on from the Italian Renaissance, I explored the French School of the Witt Library, specifically the word of Impressionist painter Édouard Manet. Although many would consider Manet to be a realist painter, there is a crucial moment in which he evolved into an Impressionist, a style celebrated by fairly small, yet undisguised brush strokes, clear composition, and the study of light in its adaptable qualities. The two paintings depicted here give a recognisable sense of movement as a crucial abstract of experience, human realisation and demeanour towards the flora and fauna of consciousness.

 

Finally, nothing describes the work of architectural and landscape photographer Anthony Kersting more than saying that I find it very difficult to be around all the archived photographs, which are shelved right behind my office chair (lucky me!) in their respective boxes, without wishing I could take one home! I chose his photographs not only for his sense of narrative, which you can easily pick up from his extensive travels around the world, but for the magnificent way in which he captured the many regions and seasons that he journeyed through and experienced. From sea stretches in Mahabalipuram in India to the Mountainous plains of Jordan, Kersting’s talent in photographing landscape is evident. His sharpness in photographing the most minute detail of space is immaculate. This was particularly evident in one of the photographs I luckily stumbled upon, of the Gulf of Aqaba seen from the Transjordan mountains to the East. Kersting perfectly instils this hazy and yet earthly view of the desert landscape.

 

 

 

 

The subjectivity and artistic tendencies of these three very different charcoal sketches, paintings, and photographs are clearly evident. However, as time drifts away, nothing can take away the essence of nature that is willing to adjust towards maybe a whit of artistic creativity and interpretation. These three artists, which I am fortunate enough to write about in a non-critical nor comparative approach, give us reason to celebrate their life and genius, for their remarkable ways of catching the embodiment of the true nature of landscape in its different thematic guises.

 


Alia Ahmad
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

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.