Sydney Rose: Building Endurances in the Courtauld Digitisation Project

During the first years of The Courtauld’s Digitisation Volunteer program, Peyton Cherry wrote about how the project aims to capture materiality. Cherry emphasizes how “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5 in Cherry, 2019). In her blog post, she discusses how the digitisation project aims to contain as much of the materiality of the photographs as possible and to preserve context. Cherry outlines how the project seeks to keep texture, marks, or stains visible in order to reproduce “the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections” (2019). When I joined the Courtauld project a few years later, I hoped to extend her ideas further and contribute to the ideas about the project itself, by highlighting that the documentation of materiality also encompasses the evidence of decades of connections between the photograph and its use.

Cherry already outlined in detail the methods that The Courtauld uses for this digitisation project. The policy, with the salient points outlined below (Fig. 1), is a part of a method which ensures that the photographs and prints are not reduced to what our Head of Digital Media Tom Bilson calls “a point zero,” or a photograph contained within a timeless bubble which neglects context; Bilson’s approach to this project directly counteracts this trap in photographic theory. Again, this method is not about scanning the photograph, but photographing the photograph. In this way, the use of this object is also documented through its inclusion of handwritten notes by the photographer, labels written by curators, or numbers indicating categorization. Further, when photographing the collections for digitisation, raking light is often used to reveal a sense of depth through shadows and to illuminate small markers of use such as marks or tears. When the digitisation project includes each of these markers, the materials become signifiers of even more information, and document not just the subjects of the photographs but how everyone who has encountered that photograph has engaged with it.

Fig. 1. Digitisation manifesto from Future of Library Symposium, screenshot by Tom Bilson, November 21, 2019

Popular photographic theory follows Berger (1972) and Barthes (1977) to propose these photographs as moments frozen in time. This aligns with most reception theory, where photographs are a freeze frame fragment of time to be seen in the present. However, the methods and outcomes of this digitisation project emphasize that these are not frozen in time at all; instead these photographs are endurances which reveal our engagement with them through time. These photographs endure across time to show us that the collections refer back to themselves and to every time they have been used.

For example, the boxes containing the work of Tony Kersting boxes are labelled by his own hand, with his accompanying instructions regarding how he wishes his work to be published or cropped. Within these boxes there will also be unique identifying numbers, handwritten by volunteers, that are used to organize the collection. There may even be some small damage from an intern who was just learning how to handle museum artefacts or how to use the high-res camera. In the image below, we see that the digitised collection does not neglect to reflect on its own existence when it includes the record of its own organization and interactions (Fig. 2). Here the image contains the stories of contact between the photograph and the photographer, the individual curators, the museum structures, and the intern.

Fig. 2. Image showing magnified portion of final digitisation product, indicating shadow and depth as well as the inclusion of handwritten notes, from Future of Library Symposium, screenshot by Tom Bilson, November 21, 2019

In another example, the photo below has two different styles of handwriting and a typewritten label (Fig. 3). These were likely all made at different times possibly by different people. This photograph is a part of the collection of images from the Ministry of Works documenting the damage from the bombings of WWII, with this specific photograph showing the damage to the parish church in Lambezellec, Brest. This Catholic parish still holds mass in 2021, though during the 2020 lockdown, there was an incident wherein the building was damaged again as some of the items were upturned and the lamp of the tabernacle was stolen (Ouest France 2020). Father Jean Baptiste Gless says that despite this incident, he will continue to leave the church doors open in the mornings so that people can come pray (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. CON_B05711_F001_042. Image of Église Saint-Laurent de Lambézellec, Brest, damaged by wartime bombing, from the Conway Library

Fig. 4. The open doors of the Church of Saint-Laurent in Lambezellec

Fig. 5. Internal view of the stained glass windows of the Church of Saint-Laurent in Lambézellec

In 2021, I came to the Courtauld project and added another tangible layer to this part of the Conway collection (Fig. 6). The layer I have added is of the undamaged church, before the bombing. Now, the image features both moments in time. This layer is not just the visible layer I superimposed but also the contribution to the knowledge around the histories of the photograph and collection. Each time we write about a photograph or engage with it in any way, we add to the histories and build upon those histories. Here, we play with time but we do not freeze it to what Tom Bilson calls “year zero.” This visual creation is especially interesting as it shows how this additive layering moves beyond the original image, stretching off the screen and reaching off the canvas.

Fig. 6. CON_B05711_F001_042: image of Église Saint-Laurent de Lambézellec, Brest, damaged by wartime bombing, with image of the undamaged church superimposed

On a theoretical level, I am also building on Cherry’s work in the same way that the collection builds on the work of hundreds of volunteers and in the same way that each engagement with the collection builds on earlier engagements. Ultimately, how the collection is digitised is not just about the photographs which end up digitised, but includes the entire history of how we have interacted with the photographs. Each engagement between curator or volunteer, writing labels or making small oily fingerprints, is a critical part of the material world created by the photograph which, through this long process of use, becomes less of an abstract digitised image and more of a museological object containing its own histories.

This project refuses to exclude evidence of its own existence. In digitisation initiatives, it is crucial to step back and look at the full scope of materiality to see how the collection is not simply materials but also the histories of how we interact with these materials. This project does that every time it records not just the numbers of archival boxes but pictures of those boxes. As Cherry (2019) suggests, the Courtauld collections are not simply photographs but cultural artefacts in and of themselves. Every picture which is not cropped, every edge revealing depth, points to the full histories of this collection and how every volunteer has become an integral part of that story.

 


Sydney Stewart Rose

Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Doctoral Researcher, Pitt Rivers Museum
Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford
Linacre College

 

References
Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: London.
Barthes R (1977) The Rhetoric of the Image. In: Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang: New York.
Cherry P (2019) Journey Through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity And Distance. The Courtauld Digital Media Blog, July 1. http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/digitalmedia/2019/07/01/peyton-cherry-journey-through-materiality-communicating-familiarity-and-distance/
“L’église Saint-Laurent dégradée à Lambézellec.” (2020, April 5) Ouest France. https://www.ouest-france.fr/bretagne/brest-29200/brest-l-eglise-saint-laurent-saccagee-lambezellec-6800809

Alessandro Torresi: Wanderers / wonderers through the Roman night

At night, when people fall asleep, the city wakes up and starts to live. And this is particularly true for Roma. There is something mystical about this eternal city which seems to transcend the reality we live in. Only at night, when the streets get empty and there are no tourists wandering through the narrow alleys and hidden corners of the city, you can truly feel what it means to say: “I am in Rome”.

Roma is a protective mother who guides us from street to street, ancient palace to ancient palace, in a perpetual quest to understand the essence of our fragmented life. And as we walk, we might notice lonely and adventurous wanderers who are stuck in the same quest. And as we pass each other, we feel our nostalgia growing, even if we don’t know why. It is like we are aware that we are missing something in our lives, or that we can never fully have it: but the melancholy caused by a lack of love, success, or happiness is heartened by the warm arms of Roma.

Roma is a protective mother who cannot be fully understood. You feel loved, you feel protected, but you cannot fully understand why. You just know that you must keep walking and you must keep passing people by. Roma is unreachable, because thousands of years of history are shown off with pride every inch of the city, but you constantly sense a decadent presence that confers to the city a folksy halo.

Roma embodies the ‘Cabiria’ character in Fellini’s “White Sheik”. When the bourgeois character Ivan is sitting at night in an empty square, crying because his wife has snuck off to meet her soap opera idol, he is the lonely vagabond who’s oppressed by social conventions. And when he is lost for words, in despair, the prostitute Cabiria suddenly appears, whose only way to show love and support is by making jokes and by keeping things light. Cabiria and her friend Assunta look at the pictures of Ivan’s wife, making silly but loving comments, raising Ivan’s spirit up. Roma, as Cabiria, will never take you seriously, but it will always make you feel comforted and at home.

A still taken from “The White Sheik” where an open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

A still taken from “The White Sheik”, 1952. An open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

I become that adventurous wonderer every time I have the occasion to visit Roma. Coming from a very small village located in Southern Italy, I have cultivated, since I was a child, a fascination for Roma. The capital was just a four-hour drive from my village, but my family and I were not used to travelling a lot. So, when we visited our cousins in the city it almost felt like we were travelling to the other side of the world. Roma was on the national newscast every day; Roma was the place where my fellow countrymen were going to try their luck to find a job; and Roma was the city where my older cousin was attending University. There is a very special unsaid tradition in my family that tells you that every time you leave the village, you have to wave goodbye to every relatives’ home. And I remember those moments, when my cousin had to return to Roma, as heart-breaking and painful, feeding my view of the capital as “The” destination with no return. Even today, although travelling has become a more common thing for me to do, when I visit Roma, I feel in the same way I used to feel when I was a child.

Last August, for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my family and I decided to take a two-day trip and there couldn’t be any other destination but Roma. We arrived in the late afternoon and we were supposed to leave the following day after lunch, so we had just one night. I was really looking forward to walking through the city centre when I could have spent some time really enjoying the empty city.

It was 3 am. While my parents and my brother embarked on the impossible mission to find an open ice-cream parlour, I ventured to walk around Piazza di Spagna. I climbed the iconic Trinità dei Monti steps and, reaching the top, I was dazzled by the view: the city enlightened by hundreds of tiny yellow lanterns. It reminded me why I love Roma so much. You can get bewildered by the grandeur of the architecture, but you never feel uneasy.

On the way to re-join my family, I suddenly felt observed by two stone hollow eyes. It was like being trapped in one of those oneiric scenes of Fellini’s movies. The city was alive, and it was peering at me. I instantly remembered when I visited the Cinecittà film studios for the first time and I got hypnotized by the majesty of the Casanova’s Venusia. This massive sculpture of a crowned head, which had been made for the opening scene of the movie directed by Fellini in 1976, now stands at the entrance of the historical studios. The hollow eyes that confronted me that night were, in fact, just the entrance of the Hertziana Library of Zuccari Palace, one of the largest History of Art research sites in Europe, but I really had the impression that the huge mouth of the creature was a magical portal to enter a parallel Roma. A photograph by Anthony Kersting held in the Conway Library as G19688 captures this strange doorway.

Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari, in Via Gregoriana, Rome. By Anthony F Kersting.

Two furious eyes reveal the entrance of Zuccari Palace, Rome. Photograph by Anthony Kersting, “Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari Via Gregoriana, Rome. KER_PNT_G19688. The Courtauld.

It is funny how an elusive glimpse can take you to impossible places. But this feeling is quite common when you visit this unique labyrinthine city. It is the atypical and the bizarre that transform Roma into a human, into a mother. The intrinsic contradiction between the sacred and profane, between the solemn and familiar is the blend that continues to attract hundreds of wanderers every year. If you arrive alone, you will have the city to keep you company. The towering fountains, the cramped cloisters, the wide arcades, the charming churches are a multitude of faces that will guide you through the city, that ascends to the eternal because every vagabond will leave a peace of their soul that will live the streets forever. And at night, when it’s just you and the city, strange miracles can happen.