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Phil Dimes: Chasing Kersting – A photographic documentary web project

This project has grown out of my volunteering at the Courtauld Institute; more specifically my participation in the digitisation project which forms part of the Courtauld Connects programme in the Conway Library at Somerset House. 

At it’s heart my project is a simple comparison of then-and-now scenes, with black & white photographs of buildings and places taken from the late 1930’s through to the 1980’s by the late Anthony Kersting FRPS. I’ve then started visiting these locations and have attempted to photograph the scene that Kersting took, be it a building or viewpoint. 

A F Kersting was a celebrated architectural and landscape photographer, and one of the prime aims of this project is to showcase some of his exemplary work, taken for the most part during the latter half of the 20th century. 

It all started in the bowels of Somerset House

The idea for this project started with one of my first tasks at the Conway Library, which was to go through the handwritten Kersting Ledgers (log books) and to transcribe the (sometimes illegible) entries onto a Google spreadsheet. This was such an enjoyable and absorbing task, but on occasions we would need to open up a box of his photographs to determine the accuracy of our transcription of his original written text. On one such occasion I went to the box for Windsor, which co-incidentally my wife and I had planned to visit the castle that coming weekend. That prompted me to use my phone to take snaps of the (stunning quality) 10×8 photographs therein. 

And this is how it all started; I took my camera to Windsor and took a picture as near as I could to the viewpoint of the Kersting photograph. In my contemporary view, hundreds of tourists were milling about, and now there was a plethora of street signs, street furniture and detritus on show which was absent from the Kersting masterpieces. So my decision then, as is now, was to take the shot, whatever was in the viewfinder.

We were soon to holiday in Seville (little did we know days before the pandemic), and so out came the box of Kersting photographs of Seville. Back then I just used the mobile to record the monochromes, though now I use a scanner to obtain Tiff files of his pictures. It’s carried on to more and more locations, towns and cities, with no end in sight. Hats off though, to my long suffering wife, who is often left sipping coffee in a cafe, whilst I’m loitering on street corners trying to get A.F.K’s viewpoint to take my shot.

Running the “chase”

As can be seen from AF Kersting’s work, his scenes and viewpoints, perhaps around a building or monument of interest, are wonderfully ordered and neat, with for the most part an absence of people or cars. It is said he would often choose the quietest time of day to get his shots, and of course there is the inevitable lack of population and activity of, say, the 1950’s, compared with today. He would also find angles that seem these days to be almost impossible to achieve.

His mastery of composition and technique also stood in the way of me ever trying to emulate his photographs, and so my principle is to get approximately to his viewpoint, and to then take the shot whatever the activity or time of day.

Although contemporary viewpoints can be thronged, as with Windsor, there are a surprising number of locations where very little has changed – these will typically be historic properties that are obviously being preserved to a greater or lesser extent.  The time span between the then-and-now images can be anything up to 83 years.

My shots – the editing

​​​​On some images I choose to wash away some of the colour of some elements – typically a building which is the main subject of a Kersing photograph. I do this to attempt to pick out in black & white this main subject to draw attention to it across the paired images.

I first adopted this idea in an assignment I did at the City Lit, where I followed re-enactors, otherwise known as living history enthusiasts. I would concentrate on WWII and WW1 “actors” and take colour shots of them in their poses, but wash them away to monochrome, just as we all remember the old images, but leave the surrounds and spectators in colour.

As I have worked through this project I have also used a colour profile that to a lesser extent reduces colour intensity across the whole image. And on other occasions, if I feel the full colour image is, of itself, sufficient to draw comparison Kersting’s earlier scene, then I will use that.

The majority of my images are shot digitally, though in a nod to Kersting’s use of glass and film, I have also been using 35mm and 120 roll film. These are noted on the photographs caption.

Google : chasing Kersting

Liverpool docks and the Liver building in the background in 1967, image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_G05852, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]
My view 54 years later showing modern office development

The Broadway tower in the Cotswolds in 1966, image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_G05737, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]

And my view 56 years later taken on a 120 roll film camera.

Kings Street in Bristol in 1966, image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_G05208, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]
My view 54 years later with the city emerging from lock-down.

St Martin-in-the-Field in Trafalgar Square in 1964 image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_H18411, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]
My view 57 years later from near the 4th plinth.

A street in Seville 1964, image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_N02235, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]

And my view 68 years later spotted by my wife on the last evening of our time there.

Windsor Castle looking up Castle Hill in 1959, image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_H13608, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]
And my view 60 years later.

The medieval Bargate, Southampton, in 1989, image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_G26374, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]
The view 32 years later with it hosting the Santa zip-wire sleigh ride.

The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, 1967,  image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_G05856, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]
With festive preparations 54 years later.

The newly built City Hall, Bristol, photographed in 1955, image by Anthony Kersting [KER_PNT_H09113, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC]
And my view with it’s elegance still prominent 66 years later.


Phil Dimes, Digitisation Volunteer, May 2023

Muny Morgan: Photographic Memories of Ravello, Italy

Audio version

Read by Will Rodgers

Text version

Having volunteered on the digitisation project at the Courtauld for two years in April (can’t believe it!) I always had my eye on the Italian section of the Conway collection. We process the boxes the order they appear on the shelf, which is alphabetical, so I knew it would take us a while to get to Italy.

I was so delighted on a recent shift when I had been asked to brief a new fellow volunteer on the accessioning task. We walked down to the Italian section of the library and, much to my delight, the next folder to sort was Ravello! I felt like I had won the lottery – though I’m not familiar with that feeling!

This stunning, magical, charming, quiet little town, for those of you who don’t know, sits 365m above the Tyrrhenian sea on the magnificent Amalfi coast, away from the bustling tourist havens of Sorrento and Positano, and has a very special place in my heart. I went there on my first holiday with my now husband and we loved it so much we initially planned to have our wedding in Villa Cimbrone, known as the terrace of infinity, though it didn’t happen in the end, as it was too complicated logistically.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I have to say that at first, apart from the odd Kersting image, I didn’t think that the box had captured the beauty and magnificence of this place.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

When I got home after my shift that morning I had a look at my photos to compare them to some of the places I recognised in the archive collection. I thought we had stacks (as we do now when we go on holiday with our children and with the less selective use of our digital cameras) but we didn’t. At the time we visited, digital cameras were not so affordably available and I also much preferred my SLR.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F006_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It made me wonder: had all my visual memories of this town been imprinted in my mind? Is the mind the best place to record our most enjoyable and visually memorable experiences, rather than on photographic paper or as a digital file stored on our computer? When I explored this idea and thought about all my travels abroad, I realized that the most memorable places and times in my experience do not have an extensive photographic record.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Perhaps I am romanticising my memories of this special place. But I can vividly recall the quiet glamour of the Villa Cimbrone, and the Ravello Festival concert in the grounds of Villa Rufolo that we happened upon as we made our way along the small winding streets with dramatic views of hilltop houses and the beautiful coastline to the Hotel Parsifal, the converted convent where we were to stay. And I can’t help but imagine that my experiences were similar to those of Escher, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Woolf, Robert Wagner and Jacqueline Kennedy and other famous visitors who have come here seeking inspiration.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_023. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.
Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We always said we would return to this charming, magical place, but it would have to be for a very special occasion indeed to experience it all over again and alter the memories we have.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer