In the Conway library’s photographic collection there is a photograph of an artwork titled ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, taken in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991. The artwork is by David Ward, a contemporary artist (born 1951) whose works include installation, photography, light, and sound pieces.
The piece consists of eight small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. In the black and white photograph we can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them. It must have taken a lot of thought and positioning for the photographer to capture an image of the mirrors without also photographing their own reflection.
The title is unusual: Imagination Dead Imagine. This is also the title of a short prose text by Samuel Beckett published in 1965. In this, Beckett uses imagination to explore imagination itself. He questions what the limits of an artist’s imagination are, and how these limits could be accessed.
By attaching a series of mirrors to a wall, Ward also seems to be questioning the viewer: what are the limits of an artist’s imagination?
In an art gallery it is expected that the viewer will examine pieces that interest them and look closely at work created by artists. Ward subverts this expectation, instead presenting the audience with themselves and their surroundings. They are the art. As the room constantly changes, with people moving in and out, so do the images that the mirrors reveal.
By ensuring the art reflects its surroundings, Ward cannot fully imagine what this artwork will look like before it is in situ. It exists outside of his control.
However, within a photograph the viewer’s experience of the artwork changes dramatically from that experienced in the gallery.
Because of the fixed nature of a photo, we are unable to interact with the piece, to see ourselves jumping from mirror to mirror as we walk across the room, or to see our changing surroundings reflected opposite us. Therefore, we are unable to see the artwork as it would have existed.
For all its attempts to preserve the artwork, the photograph is, in many ways, doomed to fail. As soon as the mirrors become frozen on film, they become unable to fulfil their purpose. They cannot reflect the viewer of the photograph. Through this image, we see the mirrors in a way we were never meant to, we see them without seeing ourselves.
Although our experience of the artwork shifts when it is viewed through a photograph rather than in person, there is some continuity between the formats.
The artwork remains a product of its surroundings, the surroundings just happen to have been selectively chosen by the photographer. The photographer is a collaborator in the creation of the artwork. It is not our own position, perspective and surroundings that create the art we see reflected. Instead, we see through the eyes of a photographer, stood still for a moment in 1991.
To see the artwork without seeing any people reflected defies the nature of the mirrors. This ultimately pushes Imagination Dead Imagine even further in challenging the limits of the artist’s and viewers’ imagination. Although much of the experience of the artwork is lost when photographed, the questioning of imagination’s limits remains.
A sense of “doubleness” pervades the photographs contained within the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute, the bulk of the collection comprising of photographs of other works of art. While the majority of its million photographs feature architecture as their central focus, some of the most striking images in the collection feature human subjects, thrusting ideas about the relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and its social function into the foreground. This hybridity is especially evident in the photographs of Chandigarh in northern India, taken by both members of the architectural design team and professional photographers in its construction and early existence in the 1950s and 1960s.
With construction beginning in 1952, Chandigarh is a city born out of independence and partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, ordered the creation of the city as a new capital for the new Haryana and East Punjab states of India that had been formed in the aftermath of independence; the former capital of the old state of Punjab, Lahore, had been lost to the new nation of Pakistan after partition. On a visit to the site of the new city in 1952, Nehru proclaimed “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”.  Early postcolonial India also faced the issue of finding housing for the hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing the newly formed state of Pakistan; 80% of the original Chandigarh housing was considered “low-cost”. Thus, aesthetics and social issues in Chandigarh were inextricably linked from its inception.
Interestingly, the architect enlisted appointed to construct Nehru’s architectural symbol of an independent India was a westerner; prolific French modernist, Le Corbusier. With his own plan to reconstruct the central business district of Paris as a landscape of cruciform towers, octagonal street grids, and green spaces having been rejected in the 1920s, he saw the Chandigarh project as a means through which to realise his vision of the modern city. Prior to his death, Le Corbusier was the principal city planner and the architect behind the three main government buildings that occupied the city centre; the Palace of the National Assembly, the High Court of Justice, and the Palace of the Secretariat of Ministers. Indeed, these structures host many of the features outlined in his 1927 publication, Les cinq points de l’archictecture. These include the idea of the “pilotis”, the reinforced concrete pylons that act as the main components of the government buildings and are beautifully captured in Lennart Olson, Pierre Joly and Vera Cardot’s photographs, taken just after their completion.
Another Corbusierian motif that forms a central feature of Chandigarh is La Main Ouverte, “the open hand“, which Corbusier considered a symbol of “peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive”.  The sculpture in Chandigarh is one of many built by Corbusier, and arguably encompasses the unification of socio-political ideals with architecture, symbolising an India open to new opportunities. In terms of this adoption of a relatively revolutionary style of architecture and urban planning, the construction of Chandigarh can certainly be seen as a symbol of a dehistoricised, decontextualized space through which society could be transformed.
The Courtauld’s digitisation project acknowledges that the online world has radically changed who can consume culture, and how they can do so. The collection will no longer be confined to a basement library. By putting the collection online for the public to access for free, its potential reach will span to anyone anywhere, so long as they have internet access. The photographs can be put to more diverse academic purposes, but they can also be browsed recreationally or looked at through a personal viewpoint.
During the time I’ve spent interning at the Courtauld and getting involved in the digitisation process, I’ve been thinking about the digital age and how it has changed the way we both consume and create photographs. Social media means that anyone with access to a smartphone has the ability to take unlimited high-quality photos, a platform to share them, and an audience. I can scroll on Instagram and find endless pictures – it feels like another photographic library, condensed into tiny digital form.
I find a parallel between the Courtauld’s aim of converting older mounted physical photographs into new digital files, and my own aim in compiling this post: to consider the personal photography which now saturates our newsfeeds from family and friends as an accessible new form of artistic expression.
After browsing the Conway library’s many images of London, I went on social media to see how ordinary people today choose to capture the same locations from the collection. As would be expected, the comparisons show how much London has changed. For example, I barely recognised a photo dated 1963-8 of a few gloomy pillars overlooking the Thames, as Instagram is now full of colourful videos and pictures of this space – now the iconic Southbank skate park. In other comparisons, we can also see increased crowds in the background, more modern vehicles, and advanced lighting and technology (particularly prevalent in images of theatres or galleries, or of Oxford Street.)
The comparisons also show changes in what we prioritise in this new medium of photography. Our profiles are intrinsically linked with our identities, so the pictures from social media focus on people to a much greater extent than those from the library. Even if a person isn’t the focal subject of the photo, the image always contains an implicit awareness of the person behind the camera. Unless we post anonymously, no photo is impersonal. What emerges from the pictures in the Conway collection is a series of images of London at a particular time. What emerges in the photos on Instagram is someone experiencing a particular place at the time of posting.
At the same time, however, the impulse to capture and share these London landmarks is felt by both professional and recreational photographers throughout the decades. I spoke to a few Instagram users about their experiences with sharing photography on social media. Responses were varied, but most people shared a feeling that social media has increased, or created, their interest in photography, and inspired them to take pictures of their surroundings. Digitised collections like the Conway library have a similar potential to inspire online viewers.
“There’s so much amazing photography on social media which easily grabs your attention. This definitely made me want to take better photos of my own!”
“I take pictures of the street, the sky… basically I take pictures of all around me. I don’t take many pictures of myself.”
Courts of Law:
“Social media has made me more interested in photography – it’s hard not to get roped into the constant stream of inspiration. I always wanna try out the things I see online.”
“I have over 4000 pictures on my phone’s camera roll, and probably about 5 times that amount on my computer. I only have physical copies of a tiny fraction of these! I think that’s an exciting thing about my generation: that we have so many images of our lives.”
Kings Cross Station:
“When I was younger I was highly influenced by likes, but since 3 years ago I don’t really care. I just post photos that I think are cool and interesting.”
“Taking pictures of myself forces me to look into a mirror and find the qualities that I can love.”
“I post what I want, and pay little attention to the likes, follows and comments. When I do look, I find it interesting rather than introverting. In the past I have deleted a photo due to it not getting many likes. But recently I haven’t done that.”
“I love photography in general. But social media has made me love being in front of the camera and behind the camera. I love being part of movements especially for black women like myself. I want to show their beauty through my own photography and myself.”
“I post pictures of my family and friends and things I love.”
“I both like and dislike that social media has made me take more pictures. I dislike it because when I see something beautiful my first instinct is to take a picture rather than just enjoy it.”
“It has totally changed the way we view photos – the art of capture has become diluted with “clout” chasing.”
Royal Albert Hall:
“I like social media because it feels like I can create my own personal catalogue of things I’ve seen and done. Even without sharing it with other people, I like that I can scroll through and see a highlights reel of memories from my life.”
“I like the idea of capturing my point of view wherever I go and sharing it with the people that I know.”
“I like London’s diversity and how it feels like a busy yet congenial place full of all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. I like how despite its size you can still feel like part of a community.”
“I like London because it feels like anything could happen at any time.”
“You could take interesting photos anywhere in London.”
“It’s a character. I don’t think there is a part of London that isn’t photogenic.”
The life and legacy of British-American sculptor and artist Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) remains a source of divisive and heated debate. Hailed by some as a central yet unappreciated pioneer in 20th-century British sculpture, whilst for others, the invigoratingly “modern” dynamic to his works are the markers of an iconoclast who wreaked havoc on traditional art. He is, therefore, an individual whose work demands sensitive analysis both for its significance in the historical context in which it was born and for its importance in the present day.
In the depths of the Conway Library, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, exist a series of photographs that encapsulate these divided opinions which shaped Epstein’s life as well as his artistic legacy. The photographs are of Epstein’s eighteen nude statues installed on the facade of the British Medical Association (BMA) headquarters on the Strand in London in 1908. These were depictions of archetypal subjects including, among others, primal energy, academic research, maternity, infancy and Hygieia. The statues provoked considerable controversy for their supposed indecency, they were condemned by several religious figures as overtly sexualised and morally obscene, and their appearance labelled by others as ugly and deformed, leading to campaigns for the BMA to have them removed.
After a sustained public defamation campaign led by The Evening Standard and St James Gazette, despite the BMA’s support for maintaining the statues, in 1937 the mutilation of the figures went ahead after an incident led to their designation as a danger to pedestrians. All protruding sections of the figures – including faces, shoulders, genitalia, legs, arms, and feet – were chiselled away and the statues left in the largely mutilated form that we see them today at Zimbabwe House, formerly the BMA building.
It is hard to comprehend that a collection of sculptures that faced such intense public scrutiny and uproar at its conception, now quietly exists, often unnoticed by pedestrians on one of the busiest streets in London. I am one such guilty Londoner, having walked down the Strand on a regular basis yet ignorant of these statues and their significance, until my time on the Digitisation Programme at the Courtauld.
The Courtauld’s collection of photographs provide a unique insight into the lifespan of the statues. The collection includes black and white photographs of casts of the statues rejected in Epstein’s initial proposal to the BMA along with those that were accepted, the statues in situ before and after their mutilation in 1937 and surviving individual fragments. Particularly thought-provoking are the Courtauld’s photographs of the nudes of a young woman posing as Maternity; an old woman cradling a baby, depicting Infancy; and Matter, represented by a man grasping a rock marked with the outline of a foetus. To me, Epstein was remarkably sensitive in his depiction of the tenderness of human relationships across the boundaries of age and gender, whilst impressive in his candid approach to the changing physical form of the human body. Indeed, his sculptural depiction of the physically changing form of the female body across different stages in life, be it age or after pregnancy, is a breath of fresh air on a street now filled with billboards boasting a narrow ideal of what “femininity” should look like.
Whilst all such statues remain physically in situ, the depictions of children, be it the foetus in “Matter” or the new-born in “Infancy”, were physically removed from their original and complete sculptural form. The authorities were making it clear: Epstein in his candid depiction of the naked human body was threatening Edwardian sensibilities regarding the sanctity of motherhood and purity of childhood. The old woman’s sagging breasts and withered flesh, and the man’s full-frontal nakedness, were central in the early-20th-century campaign against the figures, whilst they equally informed public perception of Epstein’s subsequent projects. The rest of his career was tainted with the persistent criticism that his sculptures dangerously challenged contemporary ideals surrounding beauty and sexual propriety.
The Conway Library also contains photographs of alternative casts in Epstein’s workshop that were later destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1908, including a nude of a woman holding a leaf, posing as Nature. Her open stance and unashamed nakedness were evidently seen as too shocking in the initial choice of statues to be erected on the Strand. Through the images in the Library we gain an insight into the logic behind the initial choice of figures chosen, supposedly more appropriate than several of their workshop contemporaries, and crucial photographic evidence of physical casts that no longer exist.
We can, however, see the vandalism of the “Strand Statues” as a somewhat pyrrhic victory for Epstein’s critics. Epstein’s now mutilated figures remain in situ in the heart of Central London, a powerful visual manifestation of the historic constraints placed on artistic freedom whilst also a reminder that a work of art should be understood beyond the aesthetic value attached to it in its initial finished form. The photographs in the Courtauld archives also reveal the subsequent story of the fragments removed in 1937 and the efforts of individuals to ensure that they remained an important part of the narrative surrounding the impact of contemporary sensibilities on artistic practice. Several of the photographs are of fragments following their removal from the Strand site and after an extensive cleaning programme at the National Gallery of Canada in 1961. These fragments now exist in an international museum in which their stories can be told to a global audience.
The diversifying platforms and subsequently expanding audience to which photographic illustration to the story of the “Strand Statues” can be accessed has been enhanced immeasurably by the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme. The programme aims to provide an expansive online archive through which a variety of audiences will be able to access and study the Courtauld photographic libraries for themselves, including the images of the “Strand Statues”. It is indeed timely that one of the main criticisms of Epstein’s figures was that they were not confined to a museum or art gallery where those with suitable artistic and moral sensibilities could engage with these works of art appropriately. Their location on a main street for anyone and everyone to see was viewed as a dangerous threat to established Edwardian perceptions regarding who could truly comprehend art. On Friday 26th June 1908, The South London Press reported the complaints levelled against the statues by Fr. Bernard Vaughan to a gathering of Catholics in South London. His outrage was based upon fury at the laxity of the authorities in their initial decision to “thrust these statues upon their public highways” rather than dictating an exclusive location and subsequent audience to which such statues were accessible. Such an audience was defined as those with the suitable “artistic temperament” to be trusted to recognise the dangerous dynamic inherent in these sculptures and respond accordingly. Such statuary, he argued should be confined to “art galleries and museums, or where people had to go out of their way to find it.” In light of the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme, I wonder what Fr. Bernard Vaughan would be thinking now?
My key interest for the past year has been in the figure of the “Fat Cat”, to which none of the images I was looking at in the Conway Library could give a literal face. Yet, the collection of AF Kersting seemed to offer some light on my desire to continue looking at this select group of people through his record of the Canary Wharf commercial estate in the early 1990s.
Leafing through the collection of Kersting’s work held by the Conway Library, one begins to form an image of a photographer who scrutinised his subject matter until no question was left for the imagination. There are only four images he took of Canary Wharf and they stand in stark contrast to the rest of the collection, which features a multitude of similar images taken from minutely different angles, recording as much as possible of an object, building or landscape.
Kersting’s photographs show us Canary Wharf in the early 1990s standing at the opposing side of the river, and take us all the way through to the marble halls of the West Ferry Circus property at the most western side of the site. Thirty years old today, these images are outstanding documents of the architecture of Canary Wharf in the early days of its redevelopment. The images place 1 Canada Square high up in the London skyline and relay a reality far from the built-up area we know today. The relationship between Kersting’s habit of not including people in his images of buildings and landscapes, and the current intensive and pedantic control of the site’s media coverage, lends itself to a new conversation about the presentation of the financial industry.
Arguably, there is much to glean from an image that documents something that only wants us to see its surface. For example, the empty and flawless nuances of each image reiterate the appearance the financial world wishes to portray to its global audience. The single interior photograph shows a vestibule leading into something of an endless tunnel of infinite reflections, the shuttering of the repetitive architecture rejects our attempt to try and identify ourselves with this alien space of wealth. Similarly the exterior of the Westferry Circus and “The Tower”, (which is referring to 1 Canada Square, the second tallest building at the time of its completion in 1991), suggests, through its scale and uniform appearance, that there are no cracks in its literal physical structure in which to insert ourselves psychologically.
In Henrich Wöfflin’s doctoral dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture, 1886), he focuses on the concept of the psychology of aesthetics and suggests that there is an empathy that we have with objects which influences their design. His particular focus is on architecture and its proportions which, he argues, are understood by viewers in relation to their own: humans actively create buildings that correspond to their own physiques. An example he gives is that facades of buildings are the same as human faces.
Kersting’s documentation of these buildings within Canary Wharf rings true to such a proposal. The design exhibits the nature of the clientele who rent these office floors, actively displaying their wealth and desire for privacy. The structures themselves behave not only in alignment with their inhabitants – the city skyline mirroring the companies’ power and international reach – but also with the inaccessible and largely unknown movements of the financial market, which prefers to be left alone to do its job as the largest grossing industry in the UK.
The tone set by these structures is one of distance and exclusivity. Furthermore, the symbolism of these buildings, in particular the success and association that they have with their “starchitects”, has become something of a novel and “must-have” aspect to new developments cropping up across global capitals. 1 Canada Square’s architects, César Pelli & Associates, who also designed the World Financial Centre in New York, only reiterate how these buildings have been made to accommodate and act as a representation of those inhabiting it.
My curiosity wishes to revisit how these images might have been created, particularly when restrictions placed by the owners of Canary Wharf, Canary Wharf Group Plc, are so tightly regulated today. Though we are being given access privileges that might not exist again, the images are largely dictated by Kersting’s style. From behind the lens, he has the ability to crop out the rest of the landscape. Perhaps the photograph from the other side of the river suggests that Canary Wharf has become an island, a disconnected metropolis from the rest of the city? Kersting’s reiteration to his audience of this distance between these developments and the rest of the city becomes an increasingly alarming parallel when one inserts the companies into the offices that tower 50 floors into the sky. I feel a far clearer message relayed, however, is the immense power and money these structures represent. And the way they stand as early symbols of the city against the largely unpopulated docklands of the time.
The faceless nature of the fat cat lets us forget the individuals of the financial machine. It is not necessarily the individuals who see the need to remove themselves but, for example, Canary Wharf Group Plc who is the umbrella voice surrounding the property and enforces film and photography permits. With Kersting’s choice to not include people in the images these photographs only flatten the facade we are presented and, arguably, the face of this industry even more. The flatness compacts and constricts itself even tighter, so that it gives as little information as it possibly can. The flatness of our knowledge is emanated by these buildings’ faces. Its desire to create privacy reflects our image back to ourselves, looking at the light catching on the windows. What else Kersting saw, we will never know. The fat cat wins again.
Fat Cat: If you refer to a businessman or politician as a fat cat, you are indicating that you disapprove of the way they use their wealth and power. www.collinsdictionary.com
 Wölfflin, H., 1886. Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, München.
The Courtauld Institute of Art’s Conway Library houses an impressive photographic collection of architecture from a vast array of periods and locations. Some of the collection’s earliest photos are dated from the 1850s and these are a mere couple of decades older than the oldest surviving photograph of an image formed in camera. Given the seemingly endless opportunities to do some armchair, or rather office chair, travelling and discover some of the world’s most significant structures (many now destroyed to both war and time), it may perhaps seem strange that one would choose to focus on photographs of twentieth-century British architecture. However, these often under-loved and over-looked buildings have a story of their own to tell. Through this blog post, I hope to offer an exposé of the collaborative work between Finsbury Council and architect Berthold Lubetkin from the inter and post-war period.
Lubetkin’s success in Britain started with the establishment of the architecture firm Tecton. Formed in the 1930s, the firm was an instrumental pioneer in bringing continental modernism to Britain. Whilst some of Tecton’s most iconic builds are London Zoo’s penguin pool and gorilla enclosure, founding architect Lubetkin is, in fact, responsible for some of London’s more recognisable and perhaps infamous landmark social housing. His personal maxim was “nothing is too good for ordinary people!” and he strove to improve the living conditions of the working class. Spa Green Estate was the first of many projects designed to offer luxury features to working class families, including lifts, central heating, electrical and gas appliances, running water, a waste-disposal system, balconies and a laundry-drying roof terrace. The amenities offered far exceeded those enjoyed by the majority of the population at the time.
Born in what is now Georgia, Lubetkin emigrated to the UK in the early 1930s. His formal training was completed in the USSR at VKhUTEMAS, a state funded art and technical school in Moscow where Lubetkin witnessed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, allegedly from his bedroom window. It was undoubtedly this formation, both creative and political, which led to his neo-constructivist style. Particularly taken with the idea of the “artist engineer” who uses industrial techniques to produce socially useful objects, Lubetkin was committed to socially driven architecture. Arguably, no structure embodies his ideals more than the Finsbury Health Centre. Commissioned by Finsbury council, led by devout socialist Alderman Harold Riley, and backed by the chairman of the public health committee, Dr Chuni Lal Katial, the Finsbury Health Centre marked the dawning of a new era of Public Health Service. Planning and construction began in 1935 and the centre was ready for opening in 1938, a full decade before the advent of Britain’s National Healthcare System.
However, the opening of the centre was unfortunate timing as World War Two broke out soon after and the building needed to be protected rather than up and running – although it was used as a bandaging centre for civilian causalities throughout the war. In order to limit damage from bombing, the centre was covered in sandbags, cracking many of the glass bricks in the façade and wings which then needed to be repaired. This cost of this repair work combined with post-war austerity meant that the building’s finishes, such as the plumbing, could not be completed according to Lubetkin’s plans and standards.
As the fighting escalated, society was increasingly committed to providing more equality and fairness come peacetime. The ever-growing labour party promised a utopian fantasy of what the future could be, and this was reflected in the modernist architecture of new municipal buildings that councils were erecting. Modernism represented hope and potential, as the poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre by Abram Games highlights. The contrast between the shiny new centre and the derelict slums behind it underline the sub-par living conditions of the working class prior to and during the war. The 1943 poster was purportedly banned by Churchill as he believed that it exaggerated the state the poor in slums were living in (many of whom had fought in the war) and shed a negative light on the conservative party who had been in power for the majority of the twentieth century.
A better quality of life which included good health was being promised to those for whom lack of information, neglect and inaccessibility to health care had been cutting life short.
The mural in the health centre with slogans such as “chest diseases are preventable and curable” create a sense of hope but also illustrate how illnesses that now seem easily treatable were once fatal to many. Come 1948, the NHS looked to the Finsbury Health centre to found many of its ideals as it was upheld as a model structure for the provision of public healthcare. The centre’s aims were to unite the borough’s divided health care services, create a standardised system and provide free health care for all of the borough’s residents. A true testament to the daring vision of early British socialism and Lubetkin’s constructivist design, the Finsbury Health Centre has been awarded Grade 1 listing and thanks to the efforts of the FHC Preservation Trust and NHS Property Services, is still serving patients to this day.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Barthes writes “A photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see”, his point being that we don’t pay attention to the physicality of photographs. Because the photograph documents real life, when we look at a photograph we look past the paper or the screen on which we see it. We forget about the medium as we look at its subject matter because the medium seems so unremarkable. The Courtauld Institute’s Conway Library is a reminder of photography’s physicality. In the Conway there are thousands of boxes containing over a million photographs, each individually mounted onto a piece of brown cardboard. Most of the photographs in the archive are architectural, as the collection contains surveys of important buildings all over Europe and the Middle East taken throughout the 20th century, as well as a few boxes venturing further afield.
When leafing through this seemingly infinite collection, one photograph in particular catches the eye.
The photographs in the collection, because they are of stationary structures, seem so objective that you forget there was a photographer. It is as if the images of temple columns and ecclesiastical archways sprung into existence fully formed, as they bear no trace of the personal. The sheer number of photographs doesn’t help, as one Italian chiesa merges with the next.
The contents of the folder of the Colegiata de San Pedro in Soria, Spain, are no different: they methodically document its central cloister, right down to the ornamental details of the Corinthian columns. However, hidden in the bottom right-hand corner of the fifteenth photograph in the folder is a photographer, staring back at us. A refreshing reminder of humanity in a folder full of stone columns and arches.
As with many of the photographs in the collection, we know nothing about the photographer, apart from what he reveals to us in photo fifteen: he is a middle-aged man wearing a floppy hat and sandals. Perhaps some of the other unattributed photos in the folder are also taken by him, but we don’t know for certain. This photo is unique in the folder, and perhaps in the collection, with its purposeful inclusion of the camera. His presence is too obvious and calculated for this to be an accident, showing he is purposefully trying to document the process of taking the photograph as he is taking it. Photographs, no matter how objective they seem, are someone’s construct of reality. The photographer has chosen this subject at this angle, in these boundaries, in this lighting, and with this focus. The photographer sections off a part of reality that is worthy of documentation. In this photo we catch the photographer, or rather the photographer catches himself, in the middle of this decision process.
Other items in the collection call attention to the constructed nature of the photograph, but none as strikingly as the photographer’s reflection. The first two images shown above catch a different photograph’s shadow, but probably only as the result of unfortunate lighting or an inexperienced photographer.
The third photo contains a motion blur of someone walking across a church, again, probably due to unlucky timing. And yet, although none of these examples are as visually striking, they all reaffirm the same feeling that the photographer’s reflection invokes: a disconcerting reminder that the image’s in these photographs aren’t completely real. The structures that the photographers try to document don’t exist in perfectly still isolation, although most of the photos present them that way. For us to see them in a photograph requires human interaction and human subjectivity.
Alongside the Conway Library is the Courtauld’s Witt Library, an archive of photos of the work of significant artists throughout time. The paintings above, namely Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, bear a resemblance to our original photograph. Velazquez’s painting clearly includes the painter mid-process. Van Eyck’s is subtler, as it includes the painter in a reflection in a small mirror right at the back of the painting, very reminiscent of our mystery photographer. However, although these paintings arguably show more skill that the photograph, the photograph is still more uncanny, and still more interesting, at least to me.
We know a painting isn’t real when we look at it, but we can easily forget that photographs aren’t. Susan Sontag says, “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses”, but our surreptitious photograph reveals that the photographer both constructs and discloses.
Philip Larkin, when he was “coming up England by a different line”, remembered Coventry as the place “where my childhood was unspent”. New Towns like this are remembered (or unremembered) as gaps in the map of Britain, places to be avoided and embarrassed of. But before they were a joke, they were a dream. Stevenage was one of the many “New Towns” which would be conjured into reality by the New Towns Act of 1946 as part of the construction of Labour’s promised “New Jerusalem”. This included the creation of the NHS and the introduction of the tripartite school system. The old town of Stevenage was selected to be developed as were other well-known New Towns such as Hemel Hempstead, Harlow and Basildon. These were all near London but far enough to allow Londoners to escape the smoke, smog and overcrowding of the city, and would help to reduce the housing crisis in the aftermath of the war. The “Year Zero” phase after the war and the relatively small existing populations in the towns allowed for New Towns to be constructed upon a virtual tabula rasa. Town planning corporations managed the developments of the towns and supplied housing, which was carefully managed to ensure a mix of social classes.
Lewis Silkin, the Labour Minister for Town and Country Planning and the principal planner for Stevenage declared: “[I] am most anxious that the planning should be such that the different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated… When they leave to go home I do not want the better-off people to go to the right, and the less-well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other “are you going my way?””. He intended Stevenage to be “gay and bright” and like all New Town planners aimed to replicate the neighbourly spirit of London slums within a self-contained community, near to the countryside but equipped with its own shops, schools and leisure facilities.
Nonetheless, like all things once designated “New”, the New Towns suffered the indignity of ageing and today the modestly utopian vision of the 1950s has faded as fast as the murals. Hemel Hempstead, part of the original wave of New Town developments, once topped a popular vote of the ugliest British towns, with other New Towns like Hatfield (and Coventry) also made the Top 10. Lewis Hamilton, one of Stevenage’s most famous sons, caused a stir in the town when he seemed to refer to it as a “slum” in reference to his life story when accepting an award. Doubtless Hamilton did not mean to compare the town to a real slum, but it is somewhat ironic that New Towns, once symbols of hope, are now associated with the very environments they sought to replace.
The photographs of architecture in the Conway Library at the Courtauld allow us to see these towns in a different light: already a concrete reality which people inhabited, where they shopped and worked, but not yet touched by stigma or decayed by years of neglect. The Conway Library also contains numerous photographs of innovative new private houses, each remarkable for its modernity and worthy of documentation. However, New Towns represent an artistic and political project on a grand scale. More than those of private houses, these photos preserve a moment in the life of Britain.
Many of the photographs depict new developments in pristine condition, imposingly tall and with spotless concrete.
However, the most interesting photos are those in which we can see people interacting with the environment around them. As hoped by its planners, crowds of shoppers fill Stevenage town centre, trailing bags and children. An arm curves round a window to wash it from the outside. Children hold hands under the domineering concrete porch of Kensal House. The beauty of these photographs, and the instantly inhospitable effect created in the photos without people reminds us of the original dream of the New Towns. They were not intended to become dilapidated “concrete jungles”, but to provide dignity and security for the post-war generation. Their inhabitants, perhaps defying the photographer’s wish to capture the buildings and towns alone, insist on presenting themselves to the viewer and making their human realities the central issue of the towns.
New Towns Spotify playlist
These songs are by people who grew up in or want to record new towns, council estates, the great sprawling suburbs. They capture the mood of these places, the boredom, the evocative images of hot tarmac and train station platforms, the struggle of trying to live a new childhood in a place which seems destined to be forgotten.
Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown Project
Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs perfectly captures the monotonous beauty of the suburbs. Their collaboration with Google Labs is an innovative use of technology for an evocative artistic project. Enter your home address and the website will personalise a short film to your location.
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The limited number of biographical writings on Anthony “Tony” Kersting acknowledge his place among (and arguably his supremacy over) the greatest architectural photographers of all time, having “built up a matchless archive of architectural treasures”. What has rarely, if ever, been discussed, however, is the aesthetic appeal of Kersting’s portrait works to be found among the thousands of photographs housed at the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Conway Library.
Kersting’s architectural photography imbues his selected structures with a feel of stoic timelessness. This visual essay takes previously unanalysed works from Kersting’s portfolio and examines how the photographer was not only taking images of his modern day, but composing them in the aesthetic style of his modern day. These compositional decisions correspond to the 19th and 20th Century fine art shift through Impressionism, Surrealism and Pop Art. That Kersting may have seen these specific works is postulation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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