The man who wasn’t there

Observing portraiture through the eyes of Anthony Kersting


When I first started my internship, I was in awe at the large collection of archives kept everywhere around the Witt and Conway library which is situated in the basement of The Courtauld Institute. I was so intrigued that I simply wanted to open every archive box I could without being tagged as the new nosey intern. I am happy to say that I now proudly hold that title even before I opened all the boxes. However, being nosey can somehow have its perks! After asking so many questions regarding the stacks of blue labeled boxes around the staff section of the Conway, I was introduced to the mysterious and yet enchanting world of the British photographer Anthony Kersting. What struck me most was the number of boxes labeled with the name of one person, and also the number of countries mentioned under his name on the boxes. I was curious about how much this man achieved, traveled and explored throughout his life.

Kersting’s journal entries [36- Tangier, Morocco on 7/11- Beeston, Nottingham on 15/11…]

Anthony Kersting was a photographer whose interest around the world focused on religious monuments, landscapes, portraits and sometimes private homes. Tony, for short, was born on the 7 November 1916 and died on 2 September 2008. Although frequent traveling was still unusual in his early years of activity as a photographer, and the breadth of his travels rather hard to believe, his photographs and journal entries represent irrefutable proof of his gallivanting around the world. I was really impressed by the number of places he visited in a short period of time, especially in the 1930s when traveling was expensive and, more often than not, hazardous. Indeed, he traveled to places such as Norway, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco and The Bahamas. Kersting’s photographs perfectly find comfort within their habitat. I was quite intrigued as to what methods he used to create this effortless relationship between him and his subjects. I chose to analyze portraiture as a theme because it reflects reality through the eyes of the beholder; as it is, in effect, a window to Kersting’s personality.

Kersting’s camera reel (random selection)


Sharing and caring. Beautiful damaged negatives.


As we process more and more boxes of negatives from the Anthony Kersting archive – that’s over 3000 sheet negs in 19 days – I become convinced that the smell of acetic acid in the studio will be an inextricable part of the memories of Summer 2017, both for me and for the volunteers handling and imaging the negatives.

Although most of the negatives in the archive are in very good condition, many have suffered some temperature variation in the past 50-70 years, and are in various stages of decay. This is where digitisation comes in and saves the day. At the heart of any digitisation effort are two main purposes: sharing and caring.

At the heart of any digitisation effort are two main purposes: sharing and caring.

Sharing, because these images have been kept shelved away for a very long time. How many people, since the negatives were created, would have known where to look, who to ask, what to look for, and how to find what? An insignificant number compared to the people searching the internet for historical pictures of their hometown, of monuments and buildings destroyed by war and natural disasters, of factory workers in Jamaica (those are great, can’t wait to share them!), and of generally wonderful looking places.

But digitising is also caring for the object, giving it some rest, allowing a newer, more robust and accessible version of it to take its place. In the sprint relay that’s the photographer’s vision, where the image is the baton, negatives and prints are the first runners. Exhausted after 70 years on the track, they are ready to exchange with the digital files, which will carry the image into the future.

Caring for the object, but also caring for the original photographer’s vision. As the negatives age in challenging environments, they suffer visual decay. This means that, depending on the type of negative, the original image will be compromised and look very different from how it was intended. Digitising before this happens ensures that the photographer’s vision is preserved for posterity in digital form and that the negatives can be moved to a more stable environment to stop further decay.

But what to say about the negatives which have already suffered damage? Unfortunately, in most cases these are nearly impossible to repair. Where possible, we digitise them as they are and appreciate them for their faults. The volunteers examine them as they prepare for digitisation and record in our database the details of broken or corroded glass plates or film negatives showing channelling. When performing quality checks on the digital images, they can also flag major scratches and deal with any dye retrieval.

Although the original vision is compromised, the damaged negatives take on a beauty of their own. Here are a few favourites.

As the acetate film decays, the base of the negative can shrink and the gelatine can become detached from its support. In the examples below, the channeling and distortion make the landscapes appear as if under water.





In some negatives, the dyes contained in the antihalation layer can react to the released acetic acid and become blue or pink.  The images below will be processed in black and white as they were intended but in colour the scenes look dreamlike and striking.



Scratches are the most common type of damage. In the first example I like to imagine the scratches are jetpack contrails. In the second, the scratch looks almost like the trajectory of the jumping dolphin. The third is so surreal, such an unexpected setting, the magic would come through regardless of the damage.

Scratches. KER_NEG_G1412



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. 

One of the boxes of prints from The Kersting Archive © The Courtauld Institute of Art

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


 Faye Fornasier

Digitisation, Database and Cataloguing Coordinator
Courtauld Connects