Author Archives: Courtauld Digitisation

Sharing and Caring. Beautiful Damaged Negatives.

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Audio Version

Read by Elena Vardon

Text Version

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.

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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.

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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.

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Emerging from the emulsion: Milton Hall chinoiserie

Audio version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text version

On Thursdays we have an evening shift for those volunteers who can’t participate during work hours. Sarah, our Volunteer Coordinator, is here for that shift but I am not, so on Friday morning I go through the Capture One sessions to see what the team’s been up to. It’s so impressive: the images the volunteers create are just fantastic, they all learn so fast and their contribution to the project is amazing.

This morning I came in and looked at the last image they took. They were digitising 17 x 22cm glass negatives from the Kersting archive and this one shows a very ornate chinoiserie bedroom.

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Before the project started, in order to find out more about the bedroom I would have had to go through Anthony Kersting’s ledgers, find the right entry, and decipher his handwriting – which is something I am particularly bad at – but now, thanks to our volunteers’ efforts, all I need to do is search for the negative number in their transcription.

According to Kersting, this is a picture of Lady Fitzwilliam’s bedroom in Milton House, which he took the 10th of November 1959. Further research reveals that the building’s name is in fact Milton Hall, and that there aren’t many images of it available online. So here is a preview of what is to come once the Courtauld’s  photographic collections become available on our website: zooming into the image we can see some wonderful mother and child scenes in the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper. Enjoy!

Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.
Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.
Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.
Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.
Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Getting to know our volunteers

Audio version

Read by Celia Cockburn

Text version

Written by Sarah Way

Interviewing volunteers is one of my favourite parts of being a Volunteer Coordinator, I never get bored of hearing people’s stories and what led them to become a volunteer. This past month and a half I have interviewed over 40 new volunteers for our digitisation project so it’s been a brilliant 6 weeks for me.  Now that I’ve listened to everyone’s motivations, goals and stories I thought I would blog about what I’ve learnt in a Q&A style…

After interviewing over 40 people, would you say there is a typical digitisation volunteer?
In short, no. We are really, very lucky to have attracted such a diversity of experience, skills, knowledge-bases and strengths in such a short space of time. We have a very multicultural volunteer team so far, which I think is a great strength as we are digitising photographs from all over the world. We also have a wide age range amongst our volunteers, spanning from 18 to 70+. We have people with professional and unpaid experience from a wide variety of sectors like finance, education and architecture, as well as many who have formerly trained in art history, conservation and archiving, and also many enthusiasts – so this is a chance not only for volunteers to learn from us, but for us to learn from them and for there to be lots of shared learning from each other. A real network is already emerging!

Getting to know the Conway Library © The Courtauld Institute of Art

Is there a main motivation for getting involved in the Digitisation project so far?
As you would expect, everyone has a slightly different take on why they want to volunteer, but in general there are four main motivations for becoming a digitisation volunteer that crop up in most of the interviews so far, with many people mentioning at least two at some point in their interview:

  1. A passion for creating an open data platform as a way of opening up stories, diversifying audiences, breaking down barriers and improving access to art for communities who might not be able to access the originals.
  2. The pull of being involved with the Courtauld Institute of Art, as a world-class cultural institution.
  3. The chance to gain hands-on experience on a digitisation process, with a view to move into employment or further training in this field.
  4. The desire to spend free time discovering images that are interesting, beautiful and have not been made public before.


Has anything about the interviews so far surprised you?
After managing volunteers for quite a few years, I have learnt not to make assumptions; but I am always very moved by people’s passion, drive and commitment to use their free time to help organisations further their cause, and I am overwhelmed by the variety of skills and perspectives they bring with them. It’s very motivating to be around them!

 


Sarah Way

Courtauld Connects Volunteer Coordinator

Introducing our new digitisation project

Audio version

Read by Faye Fornasier

Text version

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. 

A red box of Conway photographs, all mounted on brown card, waiting to be labelled.
A red box of Conway photographs, all mounted on brown card, waiting to be labelled.

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
Introducing volunteers our photographs, and to the aims of the project © The Courtauld Institute of Art

 

 Faye Fornasier

Digitisation, Database and Cataloguing Coordinator
Courtauld Connects