Aayushi Gupta: Why Materiality Matters

Introducing the material turn to the study of photography, visual and historical anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards (2004) encourages us to acknowledge the photograph as a three-dimensional object existing materially in the world – that is, spatially and temporally in the social and cultural experience. From Edward’s perspective, photographs are material entities because they are chemically deposited onto paper, mounted on different sized, shaped, and coloured cards, subject to changes on their surfaces, and informed by the way that they are presented.

Attention to these aspects of photographs, Edwards argues, can help us engage with the processes of intention, making, distributing, consuming, using, preserving, displaying, discarding, and recycling that are significant to the way we understand photographs as images. This approach to photography I found, also echoed in the ongoing digitisation projects at The Courtauld.

When on placement at The Courtauld, I was particularly drawn to its approach towards digitisation, and its emphasis on retaining the physicality of visual objects in their digital renditions. From the images that were provided to me and my fellow interns, I was able to engage with the signs of wear and tear on archival boxes, with the multiplicity of intentions decipherable from the text – varied in font, colour, and handwriting – on the cards onto which images in the Conway Library were mounted, and with the variety of size, colour, and type of image, as well as with the materials onto which the image was printed and then mounted onto the card.

This emphasis on digitally translating physicality was especially impressive to me because I was trying to engage with these images from my laptop screen at home in Oxford, instead of interacting with them in a more multi-sensory, embodied manner in one of the rooms at The Courtauld. Indeed, as former intern Peyton Cherry (2019) predicted, I was brought into The Courtauld, without venturing into its halls to peruse and handle prints, and into the lived experience of working within collections. Despite interacting with the collections intangibly, I was still able to engage with the physicality of the image – the image as object – and even in their digital renditions, The Courtauld had managed to make the materiality of these images matter. This was quite significant to me, for The Courtauld had successfully avoided flattening tangible, three-dimensional objects, simply by choosing cameras over flatbed scanners in the digitisation process. Intrigued by this, I spent the duration of my placement reflecting upon why, for The Courtauld, materiality matters, and why indeed it should.

The Courtauld’s emphasis on the materiality of images is based on a succinct and personal manifesto presented by Bilson (2019)

Honour physical form and integrity.
Photograph, don’t scan.
Use lighting to reveal texture, structure, and composition.
Never crop to neaten.
Never retouch.
Describe where your metadata has come from.
If possible, show the source of the transcription.
Photograph backs and blank pages.
Weigh and show scale.
Record folders, boxes, and shelves.
Don’t let basis cataloguing hold back publication.

Although in digitising an archive the size of the Conway Library the project has, for practical reasons of time and the costs of storing data, omitted the manifesto’s requirement to photograph backs and blank pages and also weigh the items, Bilson, like Edwards, encourages us to honour the physical form and integrity of images by using simple photographic techniques to, for instance, reveal “the slight line of shadow” (Bilson, 2020) showing the way in which a print was stuck by human hands onto card or the fingerprints of the library visitors who might have handled the object; or to accentuate the multiplicity of textures, materials, colours, and inscriptions that compose each object.

The importance of doing so, as Bilson writes, is to encourage the global online user to appreciate the fact that “every image presented online has a physical counterpart that still sits in a library box” (2020) within the Institute. In addition, it re-directs the online user’s attention to the “set of visual cues pointing to the personalities and voices enmeshed within [the] collections” (2020) and thus demonstrates that the appearances of these images online are not their “year zero” (2020), but another milestone in their malleable history.

In essence, therefore, for The Courtauld, materiality matters because an emphasis on it indicates to its increasingly global and online audiences, that the images it is making digitally available are entangled with the tangibly embodied histories and socio-cultural experiences of all those who have interacted with them. As my fellow intern Sydney Stewart Rose notes, The Courtauld’s emphasis on materiality presents the ultimate digitised image as an “endurance” (2021) that refers to its own history of interaction with its producers, publishers, collectors, archivists, librarians, volunteers, and interns – each of whom have inscribed their intentions onto the surface of the image.

Recognising this urged me to further explore the implications of taking these intentions – and especially their material evidence on the surface of the image – into consideration when interpreting the image. I did this, specifically in relation to two sets of images of the Crystal Palace, archived in a box containing images of exhibitions in London between 1830 and 1900, in the Conway Library of The Courtauld’s collections.

The Building Itself

Figure 1. The Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London. Image via the Art and Architecture website.

The Crystal Palace was a remarkable cast iron and glass structure, originally built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, it was initially intended as a temporary building. However, a very general desire on the part of the public to preserve the Crystal Palace led Paxton to propose alterations and extensions to the original building, with the intention of converting it into a winter garden and adapting it to other scientific purposes.

The building was then taken down from its original site in Hyde Park and relocated to a site named Penge Place (now known as Crystal Palace) at the top of Sydenham Hill, between 1852 and 1854. The site at Sydenham attracted 2 million visitors a year and successfully hosted exhibitions, festivals, music concerts, football and cricket matches, and over one hundred thousand soldiers during the First World War.

Despite this initial success, however, from around the 1860s, the Palace fell into financial ruin. Due to its sheer size, the Palace was impossible to maintain financially and thus declared bankrupt in 1911. In addition to this, the Palace continuously experienced severe damage shortly after its relocation – first due to strong winds in 1861, then due to a fire that broke out in the North End of the building in 1866, and finally in 1936 when a more severe fire damaged it beyond repair.

Figure 2. The Crystal Palace fire, Sydenham, London. Image courtesy of the Science Museum Group collection.

Conway’s Documentary Intent

Martin Conway, an avid collector of photographs of architecture as a record of buildings that might suffer damage, was quite naturally drawn to the Crystal Palace – both because of its significance in the public imagination and its undeniable architectural magnificence. Conway’s intent to document the Crystal Palace and the trajectory of its life materially manifests in his collection in at least two ways.

First, this is evident from the sheer diversity – in type, size, and source – of the images of both buildings. For example, the image of the Crystal Palace in Figure 3 shows “The Progress of the Building” and is presumably a lithographic print on newsprint sourced from the Illustrated London News. Comparatively, the image of the building in Figure 4 is a watercolour and pencil drawing, signed and dated by the specialist in architectural views, Edmund Walker (1814–1882).

Figure 3. “The Progress of the Building” from Illustrated London News. CON_B04109_F001_008, CC-BY, The Courtauld.
Figure 4. Watercolour and pencil drawing, signed and dated by Edmund Walker. CON_B04109_F001_005, CC-BY, The Courtauld.

Second, Conway’s documentary intent is evident from the “set of visual cues” (Bilson, 2020) that point to his specific process of archiving by gathering diverse visual material on the same subject, from a plethora of sources, and then mounting it onto card. For example, the crease of the paper and its shadow in Figure 5, clearly show that an image cut out from The Weekly Times has been stuck over another image. Similarly, Figure 7 shows that Conway seems to have used a larger version of the print in Figure 6 to provide a detailed perspective on the same event.

Figure 5. The crease of the paper and its shadow showing that the print from The Weekly Times has been stuck over another. CON_B04109_F001_006, CC-BY, The Courtauld.

Figure 6: The Peace Fête at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. CON_B04109_F002_019, CC-BY, the Courtauld.
Figure 7: A detailed view of The Peace Fête at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. CON_B04109_F002_020, CC-BY, the Courtauld.

This material evidence of intent thus signifies the extent to which the Crystal Palace had impressed itself upon Conway’s and the wider public’s imagination. They demonstrate that Conway clearly recognised the Palace’s significance – both to the history of architecture and Britain – and therefore, dexterously included in his archive, images of the conception, construction, utilisation, renovation, relocation, and the destruction of the building. In doing so, and specifically by following his unique processes for archiving, Conway created a “synthetic object” (Edwards and Hart, 2004) – that is, a new intellectual and physical entity resulting from his attempt to impose sense, order, and his intentions upon a set of separate objects from separate sources leading separate lives.

This new “synthetic object” therefore leads its constituent parts into an institutional framework of policies, strategies, and practices different to that from which they have been sourced. For example, a watercolour drawing (Figure 4) that originally would have been handled, framed, preserved, displayed, and interpreted in a manner more typical to art history, in the context of Conway’s archive, is engaged as an important resource contributing to the documentation of a historical moment that in turn was intended to inform art history.

By creating such “synthetic objects” therefore, Conway reinforced the view that the Crystal Palace was indeed an important moment in the history of architecture and Britain, and actively constructed this building as a canon worthy of preservation for posterity. When considered accordingly, the images of the Palace in Conway’s archive thus emerge as more than simply what they depict. Rather than visual representations of the building and the events that occurred therein, these images emerge as constituents of a larger photographic object and project inscribed with the intentions of its maker.

Concluding Remarks

In my reflection on the implications of considering the materiality of images for their interpretation, it emerged that the material aspects of an image – its physicality and presentation for instance – are of great importance as they provide clues to how the value of particular images changes over time due to interactions with them.

In the example I considered, we noted that images from newspapers and artists were recontextualised as archival resources under the documentary intentions of the archivist who interacted with them. These insights could not have been as easily drawn, if indeed attention to the very material and physical evidence of the archivist’s intentions had not been paid.

Further research could examine how each layer of textual inscription (for e.g., stamps and handwriting) on more generally the cards in Conway’s archive, inform the meaning of that which the images on the cards depict. To whom do these inscriptions belong? What were their intentions when marking the “synthetic objects” that Conway initially produced? How do these material traces of their intentions inform the meaning of the images constituting those objects, and the objects themselves? Further studies could also examine how the physicality of the cards onto which Conway mounted images (for example, colour and material) interacts with the meanings of said images. Knowledge of each of these aspects can significantly contribute to our understanding of images and more importantly of how they function as visual and material objects, deeply embedded in the social and cultural experience.


Aayushi Gupta
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
MPhil Candidate in Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology, University of Oxford



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Bilson T (2020) The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway Photographic Libraries: Two approaches to digitisation. Art Libraries Journal, 45 (1): 35–42. Available at: 10.1017/alj.2019.38 (accessed: 13 July 2021).

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