Samuel Cheney: Meeting the Photographer’s Gaze – Absence and Presence in Anthony Kersting’s Images of Nepal

Anthony Kersting (1916–2008) has primarily been remembered as Britain’s pre-eminent architectural photographer of the twentieth century, having extensively documented buildings across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Yet, by delving into a specific collection held in The Courtauld Institute’s vast Conway Library, we can see that it was not just the aesthetic pleasures of great buildings that caught the photographer’s eye. With many human portraits punctuating his architectural studies, Kersting seemingly had as much of a passion for people as he did for architecture. Human interactions with the built environment that surrounded them repeatedly grabbed the photographer’s attention. A look through his photographs of Nepal can show how Kersting attempted to provide an impression of the country by representing both humanity and architectural landscapes in one continuum.

A short trip to Nepal in February 1971 yielded tens of images which show Kersting’s observations of people within their built environment. This image of Durbar Square in the Nepalese city of Lalitpur exemplifies this, as Kersting adopts a distant vantage point to depict the bustle of urban living among the majestic surrounds of Newar architecture.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. Durbar Square, Patan”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08923. CC BY NC.

A more intimate interaction between person and landscape is portrayed in the study of the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple in Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon), north-east of Kathmandu. While the image is dominated by the imposing structure itself, our attention is drawn toward two separate pairs of figures. An adult man and a young girl stride nonchalantly past each other in the foreground, neglecting to look at this impressive building that may have, to them, become quotidian. And, sitting on the temple’s entrance steps, a second girl and a much younger child scrutinise something in between them, blissfully unaware (or so it seems) of the watchful gaze of the photographer’s lens.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. Bhadgaon, Pashupatinath Temple”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08932. CC BY NC.

Alongside depicting the Nepalese architectural landscape, Kersting was clearly also concerned with documenting the people who ubiquitously appear in interaction with their built surroundings. This was highly significant for Kersting’s photographic craft. Through attempting to depict a rounded picture of Nepalese life, both people and architecture become the objects of his urban scene. This objectification depends on a lack of agency, both humans and buildings exist in the photo exclusively as things to be seen. Kersting does not want to interact with these subjects, he only seeks to observe them from the outside. This sustains the supposed authenticity of his scenes – by consciously trying to absent himself from his photographs, Kersting attempts to show how Nepal would appear even if he were not looking. To perpetuate this illusion of being an absent observer, Kersting doesn’t seem to want the individuals in his photographs to appear in interaction with him in any way. Robbed of their ability to act, people regularly become monumentalised in these pictures, just like the buildings that surround them.

This image of a Kathmandu street scene epitomises the usual arrangement of individuals in Kersting’s Nepal collection. The illusion of Kersting’s absence from this scene is maintained by the most prominent figure resisting the temptation to meet the photographer’s gaze. The people who are seemingly unaware of being observed, alongside the carry-poles and market stalls, imbue this snapshot of the Nepalese capital with a flavour of authenticity.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. A street scene in Kathmandu”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_F051-093A. CC BY NC.

However, occasionally Kersting cannot remain hidden in his photographs. In some images, this phantasmagorical English photographer captures the exact moment when various Nepalese people spot his presence. A few photos in the collection show some of Kersting’s subjects meet his gaze, as they stare directly back at his voyeuristic lens. Rather than remaining the disconnected objects of Kersting’s photographic gaze, this disturbs the illusion of Kersting documenting an undisturbed Nepal, as he becomes implicated in the images which he has attempted to remain absent from.

One such image is Kersting’s photograph of the Golden Gate of Bhaktapur. The Nepalese woman guarding the doorway does not act as if unobserved but, shielding her eyes from the sun’s obscuring rays, visibly strains to examine the photographer.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. The Golden Gate in Bhadgaon”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08929. CC BY NC.

In the centre of the image, an older girl drags her younger companion (perhaps her sister) through the square. While the taller child rushes across the picture frame, as just another object signifying the bustle of a Nepalese city, the smaller girl noticeably slows, struck with curiosity at the imposing figure of Kersting who is capturing her image for posterity. Along with the closest figure, a man who glances back mid-stride to meet the gaze of the cameraman, this girl causes the illusion of Kersting’s absence to shatter. We are left wondering about Kersting’s positioning within this scene, as the sole European standing alone in this central-Himalayan city square, fuelling the interests of the Nepalese people who encircle him. Kersting is similarly implicated in another photo showing the Golden Gate and the adjacent Palace of Fifty-Five Windows. The foregrounding of his architectural scene is suffused with movement. Like his other photographs of Nepalese squares, Kersting attempts to show the rush of everyday life continuing undisturbed by his photographic intrusion. Yet, Kersting actually captures a moment that makes this photograph the most beautiful of all his images of Nepal.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal, Durbar Square, Bhadgaon. Showing the Golden Gate and the Palace of 55 Windows”. KER_PNT_G08918. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Most of the images we have from Kersting’s 1971 trip to Nepal show one side of the photographic process, only exposing the view of the man wielding the camera. However, we should remember that photography is a symbiotic exchange between photographer and subject. Despite his attempts to inculcate the illusion of absence in his photographs, when Kersting looked at the people of Nepal in order to capture their image, the people of Nepal would have looked back at him. Unfortunately, the thoughts of Kersting’s Nepalese subjects are lost, and we are left with only speculations about how these people felt about having their pictures taken or whether they wanted to be photographed at all.

The compositional style of Kersting’s photographs can seduce us into believing that the photographer was a man who wasn’t there. However, by meeting the gaze of our cameraman, Kersting’s Nepalese subjects highlight the photographer’s eternal presence in the images he created.

 


Samuel Cheney
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern