Muny Morgan: Stepping Back in Mind, South East Asia

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Read by Tianyu.

Text version

Looking at Anthony Kersting images from the Conway Library at first glance took me back to my youth. It’s fascinating how a photograph – familiar or unfamiliar – can conjure up images of your experiences from a period in your life. It might do so directly – capturing a specific detail of a known building – or indirectly – by having a similarity with another place entirely. Almost like an aroma, or perfume, it can take you back to a specific memory, experience, time or place.

When I make this statement, I am referring to this image of Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok.

Bangkok, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G28266, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Although at first glance I thought: “this is the temple I visited on one of my many trips to Bangkok whilst residing in Singapore”, it occurred to me that I saw so many temples in Thailand that I might be mistaken. It was only after going through my personal, disorganised archive of photographs that I could confirm that it was indeed the same one, although I couldn’t locate the image of the reclining Buddha inside the temple.

Image of the temple taken by Muny Morgan. In it we can see the golden spear behind the protective walls.

Image by Muny Morgan.

When I looked at the images I selected for this blog, they took me back to a period in my life when I had just completed my postgraduate studies in Architecture. At the time, there was a recession in the UK and the building industry is often one of the sectors that are negatively impacted first. There were no jobs for budding, enthusiastic, young architects with no work experience, like me. But this took me, thankfully, to my first job abroad in Singapore, where I lived and worked for two years, and from which I could travel around South East Asia.

The images taken by Kersting in Singapore took me back 20 years in an instant. I recall my weekend walks (in the extremely high humidity temperatures), searching for the historical context of colonial architecture, contrasting with the dizzying heights of banks, hotels and condominiums that tower over the domestic-scaled “shop-houses” on this tiny sovereign island city-state in South East Asia.

St Andrews Cathedral, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30646, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

An image of a rugby and football playing ground, with skyscrapers rising in the distance

Cricket Ground near City Hall, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30645, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Old Supreme Court, now National Gallery, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30640, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Kersting captured St Andrews Cathedral, white as icing on a wedding cake, and the Cricket Ground near City Hall, where you could envisage, under colonial rule, a game of cricket being played. These were all on my daily route to the office I worked in, as well as the Old Supreme Court which was the last building to be built in the Classical style in the former British Colony. This building is now part of the National Gallery.

Image by Muny Morgan.

I marvelled at the way this island expands at such speed from a construction perspective and at the amazing architecture that exists. The skyline continues to progress and increase in density, and the structures become more and more challenging. For this reason, this is a place I always want to revisit.

The last time I was fortunate enough to travel to Singapore was ten years after I had worked and lived there and I couldn’t believe the number of new buildings that had emerged. 

Image by Muny Morgan.

It made me think of the images of places that have been recorded in history and time, buildings that have disappeared forever due to wars, human intervention and natural disasters, many of which are captured in the Conway Library.

Photography is an important tool for recording places and people as they are in a particular time. This makes the Conway Library, and other photographic archives of this kind, vital to reconstructing our heritage and history and makes the efforts to digitise it and present it to the public even more important. Preserving these items is to preserve that time and place forever, making it accessible to all across the globe, enabling research and consultation for whatever purpose.

Sat here in London on a rainy November day during lockdown 2, exploring Kersting’s photographs was a wonderful moment of escapism that transported me in an instant from my current burdening thoughts and worries to memories of the past. It made me feel more hopeful for the future, during a year of overwhelming disruption and changes to life as we know it.

Finally, for readers looking to spend some time with a good book on memories and olfactory triggers, I recommend Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by German writer Patrick Süskind.


Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

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

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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 Oxford Micro-Internship Participant