Peyton Cherry: Journey through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity and Distance

Contemplation on the Intimacy within the Kersting Collection

 

“Petra. The summit of Jabal Haroun, showing the dome of the building known as Aaron’s Tomb. This is a place of pilgrimage of the local Bedouin, and it is forbidden to Europeans to climb the mountain. This lady, a New Zealand nursing sister, may be the first European lady to have done so.” (AF Kersting 1944, transcription of notes on back of left-most photo.)

Throughout the multi-tiered, collaborative process of digitization at the Courtauld Institute of Art is a persistent emphasis on materiality. When we think of digital images – as copies, as mere representations of an object (which are themselves a version of the object as it occurs in nature) – we probably think of the yawning distance – and likely deterioration – between the ‘actual’ image and its digital progeny. Especially with the accumulation of images online there seems to be an increasing disconnect between the ‘original’ and the ‘copy’. Michael Taussig describes this type of phenomenon as part of “the wonder of mimesis” which “lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power” (Taussig, 1993: xiii).

So then, as Taussig puts forth, expanding upon mimesis as an idea of imitation, the copy can be endowed with as much power, in both cognitive and affective dimensions, as the initial object, being, or concept depicted (see Keane, 2013: 8–10). I believe that the digitization projects implemented and enacted in many museums and galleries around the world have the capacity to, in this multimedia world, bridge this burgeoning sense of abstraction from materiality and physicality. As I discuss materiality in the body of this essay, I will refer less to the materiality (or lack of materiality) of digital text and more to the notion of materiality common to the social sciences which is that: “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5).

While cataloguing and photographing collections from the Conway Library it became clear that the approach to digitization at the Courtauld was not simplified, a reduction of the original image, though perhaps not in quality so much as in its affective potential, through a rush to scan and upload images onto online databases. In the often mechanized, efficient process of capturing, scanning, and cleaning images of objects to be displayed in a digital library, many other digitization projects may incidentally contribute to the loss of engrained complexities of subject, object, audience, and materials within their collections. Instead, the Courtauld Institute of Art has chosen to remove the contagious tedium of transferring archives by attempting to encompass all an image and its corresponding context. This is accomplished in multiple stages through a variety of techniques. One, within the digitization studio, uses a high-tech camera, lighting, and table set-up to capture the contents of all the boxes within the Conway Library – every box, every folder, and every item.

The overall goal ends up being not just to capture the photograph, the illustration, or the architectural plan, but to include every element of the collections, regardless of the marks, stains, or tears which may be included. By photographing each page in its entirety, showing the rough edges, the blemishes, the final product effectively (and affectively) conveys the materials. They translate the feel of the images and reproduce their presence within the environment. In this arrangement, the camera becomes an “apparatus of power” (Karp, 1991), capable of bringing audiences, including ones who cannot venture into the Courtauld’s halls themselves to peruse and handle prints, into the lived experience of viewing the collections.

And this despite the perceived irreconcilable feeling of distance elicited by an ‘immaterial’ digital format. Such a conscious construction of materiality through digitization would not be possible without considering the relative distance and familiarity future viewers may have with the collections held by the Courtauld Institute, whether connections are forged through an image’s subject, their historical insights, or the creator of a portfolio of work.

The Conway Library, Woman standing in front of the Monastery of Jacob in Yakovlesky, Russia.

The Conway Library, People milling about in the snow at Troitsa Monastery, Russia.

The result of the Courtauld’s efforts at a more holistic digitization approach is one which I believe is vital to many museum exhibits and collections, and that is the preservation of context.

Even through digitization, the Courtauld maintains the original context of the material image to the best of their ability. Much like an ‘in-context’ museum exhibit, the inclusion of materials even if they aren’t considered ‘aesthetically pleasing’, ‘pure’ or ‘pristine’, is more honestly authentic to the copies contained in the library. Such inclusion mimics the idea of placing cultural artefacts in-context, a move, although not particularly revolutionary, increasingly in widespread use in museum institutions.

Some may find the ‘info dumps’ included in certain uses of in-context exhibition – i.e. signage and labelling with blocks of text accompanying each artefact – distracting or an attempt to impose dominant points of view. However, ‘cleaning-up’ pictures echoes process of ‘cleaning-up history’ and tends to remove a sense of reality, of humanity. In the cataloguing portion of activities at the Courtauld, while meticulously labelling each page, the order of the photographs in each folder becomes a matter of subtle sifting and distinguishing between the contents of each image. The aim of this ‘attention to detail’ is to replicate the experience of, in the case of the Conway Library, walking through a myriad of architecture in any number of regions from cathedrals in Tomar, Portugal to the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The guide for volunteers on how to label the Conway captures the sentiment of not just the accession numbering step of digitization but the quest for and the journey through materiality that I believe defines the spirit of the whole project. It reads: “Pictures or folders of the same building should be ordered to recreate the experience of moving closer to it. Plans & drawings > exterior from afar > interior > details.”

Although this line of instructions on the sorting system may seem mundane at first glance it struck me for the succinct, yet evocative way it describes a photographic journey. A journey that was first experienced by the photographer, Conway himself, and, now, by everyone who views his collections. We may not precisely trace the paths that Conway traveled nor the order in which he took his shots of archways, windows, and molding details. But, regardless, it was a serene, almost dream-like experience to organize the photos as if, we too, were wandering among the past streets of a city square or the well-tread pathways leading to a monastery. I believe that the use of proximity and distance in the sorting of the images is an invaluable aspect of the material journey which hopefully more and more people will have the opportunity to experience for themselves.

The Conway Library, T.E. Lawrence, 1916-18, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

As a brief example of this kind of journey on a smaller scale and relegated to the analysis of specific images, their content, and possible meanings, I will look to the work of Anthony (“Tony”) Kersting.

Kersting’s corpus of travel photography spans an impressive range from Western Europe to Northern Africa to the Caribbean and South Asia. Much of his work shines the spotlight on architecture and landscapes, but several ‘jewels’ in his collection show a marvelous ‘humanity’, a sense of intimacy between people that comes through the images as handled and hopefully viewed in digital form.

I found the images Kersting took in 1944 in Jordan, of the Bedouin people he met and traveled with, to be particularly illustrative of tensions between and among the familiar and the distant. I will mention outright that my initial impression of these photos was that they were and still are ‘a product of their time.’ Some, though not all, communicate observations of the people and places in Jordan as perceived through Orientalist, colonial eyes.

There is an air of the ‘exotic’ in these photographs, punctuated by the absence of Kersting himself who repeatedly is not a subject to be photographed but remains the spectator and authority behind his apparatus. There he stays, in varying ways both literal and metaphorical ‘capturing’ or ‘ensnaring’ the people through his camera lens. And, in many ways, Kersting’s work echoes the mode of thought within T.E. Lawrence’s own writings and photographs of strange and unfamiliar lands.

AF Kersting, 1944, “Arab legionnaires, wearing picturesque uniform of the Desert Corps, keenly examine a photo of themselves”.

However, the Kersting pictures I focused on were ones which brought a sense of real time and space back to even an unfamiliar setting, momentarily erasing the idea of the Bedouin as a people suspended in some timeless, ‘Other’ place. These photographs, curiously enough, are ones containing Kersting’s other traveling companion, a New Zealand nurse he often refers to as ‘Sister Adams.’

In multiple photographs, Sister Adams appears along Bedouin men and women, her interactions delivering a sense of familiarity and comfortable intimacy with people we might assume are her regular traveling companions. The notes Kersting has scribbled on many of the photos occasionally provide additional context or ‘proof’ of the type of encounters and relationships between the people depicted through his camera lens.

Interestingly, in Kersting’s collection, different copies of the same image contain different descriptions. For example, the image below alternately read alongside: “Petra. The Bedouin boys watch the lady put her socks on!” and “Life in Petra! Sister Adams puts on her socks, to the amused gaze of the Arab youngsters.”

AF Kersting, Sister Adams.

These separate inscriptions, despite referring to the same event and people, communicate notably different moods and subjectivities. The first seems detached, to-the-point, and factual, while the second reads more as an entry in a photographic travel journal composed by Kersting. It holds a sense of emotion and meaning behind the relationships, hinting at the way Sister Adams and the boys may relate (or don’t relate) to one another.

In these different comments on the same scene we can read how distance and familiarity can exist simultaneously, on display in a snapshot frozen in time. And, it is thanks to the different thoughts going through Kersting’s head each time he jotted down observations on the back of his copies, those identical thoughts which bring the materiality of the journey to viewers today.

We may not know exactly the kind of journey Anthony Kersting and other photographers experienced while committing reality to print and paper, but that is part of his work’s value as not just a photographic object, but as a cultural artefact.

And, in the 21st century, more than ever, it is possible for people to track and craft their own journey. That journey doesn’t have to be conducted blindly, erratically, without context or a sense of where to start and where to end. The processes dedicated to reproducing the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections and noting what path was once followed through a cathedral or where copies of the same image differ from one another, can serve as an irreplaceable guide. And not even a guide which follows a predefined set of rules or certain “ways of seeing’” (Berger 1972). The digitization undergone at the Courtauld Institute offers the opportunity to take the materials converted to digital form, but no less real for it, and take it any direction, down any path.

And that is exactly how this essay came to be: as an exploration and a contemplation into the inexhaustible potential of a process and the collections involved.

 

References

Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: Penguin UK.

Karp I (1991) Culture and Representation. In: Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Keane W (2013) On spirit writing: materialities of language and the religious work of transduction. In: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, pp. 1–17.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett B (1991) Objects of ethnography. In: Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lievrouw L (2014) Materiality and Media in Communication and Technology Studies: An Unfinished Project. In: Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot. MIT Press Scholarship Online, pp. 21–51.

Taussig M (1993) Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. Great Britain: Routledge Press.

 


Peyton Cherry
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern