Paul Laib (1869–1958) specialised in fine art photography working between 1898 and the 1950s. He was commissioned by many prominent British artists of his time including Oswald Birley, Philip de László, Ben Nicholson, John Piper, and John Singer Sargent. Among these, Laib’s photography of Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) and her work stand out from his collection. One of the founders of Modernist sculpture in Britain, Hepworth was a major international figure exhibiting around the globe.
In the video accompanying this blog post, I have created a vinyasa yoga practice inspired by Laib’s photography of Hepworth’s sculptures. A vinyasa is a sequence of positions, one flowing after the other, guided by the breath. This type of yoga invites exploration of Hepworth’s work particularly well – attention is brought to both the poise of the figure and the fluidity of form. Indeed, attempting to express the experience of human embodiment in her work, Hepworth stated “I rarely draw what I see. I draw what I feel in my body”. In this world of social distancing and self-isolation, I encourage you to experience the tactility and physicality of Hepworth’s work through your relationship with the body.
The sight but also sensation of natural form inspired Hepworth throughout her life; she maintained that “body experience… is the centre of creation”. Hepworth was inspired by the enclosure and embrace of the shapes in the landscape around her – be that watching a mother hold her child, the undulating terrain of the Yorkshire hills, or the hollows of rocks on the Cornish coast. Likewise, in your vinyasa practice, you may also wish to connect to the environment around you, cultivating spaciousness and balance through appreciation of Hepworth’s sculptures.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
The topic of still-life carries a lot of art historical baggage. Immediately, for me, the baroque, commercial, and kitsch come to mind. But as art critic Herbert Furst argues, still life is often overlooked as a dull subject when it can be an “aesthetic laboratory” through which artists play around with analogy, line and colour (Tobin, 2020). Even now, contemporary art often relies on the everyday to evoke a feeling of relatability between artist’s work and audience.
Ben Nicholson is an excellent example of a modernist painter who conveyed his ideas through the subject of still life. He believed that living and painting must be “one thing” (Tobin, 2020). When I was looking through some of the photographs in the Courtauld’s Conway Library, Paul Laib’s series from the De Laszlo Collection documenting Nicholson’s arrangements of his and Barbara Hepworth’s work stood out, because there is a total lack of hierarchy between the artworks (whether it is Hepworth’s sculpture or Nicholson’s painting) and the collection of objects that surround them. These compositions are conversations. Nicholson interprets three-dimensional space into the frame of a two-dimensional painting, and then reintroduces these paintings back into a live space through his juxtaposition of everyday objects. Still-life can be approached in this way as an installation. The art collector and artist HS Jim Ede, a good friend of Nicholson’s, embodied this way of thinking with his house Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge. He kept his painting collection surrounded by objects and colours that related to them, allowing a dialogue to form between art and life. His house is maintained as he arranged it and is now a museum. Interestingly, he published a book entitled A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard, which contained photographs, poetry, and prose (Ede, 1984). While exploring each of Laib’s photographs, I could not help but list each object I found and identified. I view these lists as poems that say a lot about the accompanying image. They both indicate an order of noticeability but also highlight how seemingly random the objects are, without the distraction of Nicholson and Hepworth’s skilful visual arrangements. They expose the images in a way that feels more stripped down and obvious than any photograph could. Parallels can be drawn between Ede’s book, and its use of poetry and visual analysis.
It could be important to understand the relationship between Nicholson and Hepworth when looking at these still-life arrangements. They were both already married when they met in 1931, but they fell in love and remarried in 1938 after having triplets in 1934 (Chow, 2015). And so, they were both artistic collaborators and lovers. Hepworth was concerned with landscape, and it could be argued that her presence in Nicholson’s life shifted his focus to still-life with the inclusion of landscape, for example on a windowsill. Nicholson’s first wife, Winifred, also had a lasting impact on his use of colour beyond just the descriptive, as she was also a painter of still-lifes. I believe that the spaces (both physical and mental) in which we create things are inextricably enmeshed with the things we create. The effect of relationships and conversations among artists should not be undermined; one reason why art schools are such ripe grounds for exploration and discovery. It is noteworthy that Nicholson’s father, William Nicholson, was a painter, and Nicholson often claimed that his father’s collection of beautiful objects had an everlasting influence on his own artistic practice. His daughter with Hepworth, Rachel Nicholson, is a painter of still lifes too. And so, this love of object and painting has been handed down from generation to generation.
As a fine artist pursuing curating, I have loved arranging my own studio and drawings in this way with the intention of reworking the photos I take back into painting and then arranging them again. This loop of visual information and contextualisation could be endlessly fruitful. Do we consider Laib’s photographs as documentation or creation of new work? We could speculate the extent to which he had artistic freedom to choose what was included and left out of the frame. I gained a newfound respect for this process, as my first few attempts failed rather gloriously. Nicholson and Hepworth were clearly thinking carefully about line and contrast in their arrangements, which I found was only obvious once contained within a photo. This led to a process of trial and error as I attempted to emulate the entrancing compositions visible in Laib’s photographs. I worked with line drawings I had made from these photographs. For the sake of time and resources I used digital photography but decided to edit them as if they were glass plate negatives, then made a still life painting while thinking about Nicholson’s work. His use of colour and straight lines were very different from my usual painting practice which proved itself to be a challenge. But as a process it made me analyse my working space and consider visual elements (like the transparency of paint) that I might usually overlook.
To conclude, there is a lot to be discovered within these collaborations between Laib, Hepworth and Nicholson. I encourage you to sit for a while and take them in; each photo contains so much materiality both within the objects in Hepworth and Nicholson’s artwork but also as photographic objects themselves. Small signs of wear in fingerprints, creases and traces of editing remind us that they have a living past beyond being part of The Courtauld’s collection. There is materiality integral to the objects that surround the works of art which is heightened by the material nature of the photographs themselves. Laib’s documentation of these arrangements has not only sustained their existence but brought them into a new realm; they exist as artistic photographs in their own right.
Tobin C (2020) Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers. Critical Studies in Modernist Culture, Edinburgh, pp. 125-131.
Ede HS (1984) A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Many artworks are only preserved in photographs. When the originals are lost, for instance in the turmoil of war, photographic reproductions often remain as the only way to access them. But the importance of photography exceeds mere preservation: without reproductions, the original would be an isolated object in a museum or an archive with only an expert group of people knowing about it. It is only through the copying and reproduction of photographs that a work of art can be experienced worldwide and become part of general knowledge.
I would go as far as to say: there is no original without reproduction. Over the course of time, reproductions can become originals themselves – at the latest when they are archived as objects of independent value in an art institute, digitised (i.e. reproduced) and appreciated in a public space like this weblog.
This could (should) be the case with Paul Laib’s photographs of artworks taken in the first half of the 20th century. Not much is known about his life and work, but it is evident that his photos have served mere illustrative purposes – they were perceived as media granting access to the artworks and they have not been credited for their aesthetic and technical quality.
Laib was working with some of the most accomplished visual artists of the time, among them Barbara Hepworth. She was one of the British avant-garde sculptors who, inspired by continental European artists, shaped abstract art for most of the 20th century. The photos Laib took of her sculptures are particularly insightful with regards to the difference creative photography can make to how we see a work of art. And they are also fascinating examples of Laib’s skilfully executed photographs, which, I hope, will no longer be seen as transparent windows to other artworks, but rather as artworks in their own right. I will focus on four of his photographs, all of which depict Hepworth’s 1933 sculpture Reclining Figure in very different ways.
On Reclining Figure Searching for Reclining Figure today, one will find mostly sculptures by Henry Moore. Beginning in the 1930s and especially after the Second World War, Moore and Hepworth were in a friendly rivalry and competed for attention in the international art world. Moore undoubtedly won. He was more successful in seizing funding, he found support in the British Council and he enjoyed more popularity worldwide. Early texts on abstract sculpture in England pin Hepworth’s objects on their femininity, attributing to them passivity and mere beauty that could not match the qualities of thought and reflection found in Moore’s works (Buckberrough, 1998: 48). This biased view held in the early history of abstract sculpture theory marginalised Hepworth’s own achievements. In this respect, her entry into Moore’s specialty, the Reclining Figures, can be rediscovered today as her resistance to many years of neglect.
However, that was probably not the sculpture’s original meaning. The alabaster object, only about 30cm long, was created in 1933, the same year that Hepworth took a trip to France with her new partner Ben Nicholson. In France, Hepworth met, among others, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and, in particular, Hans Arp, who might have had a significant influence on Hepworth’s sculpture. Also in 1933, Arp presented Human Concretion, a sculpture not unlike Hepworth’s Reclining Figure.
Hepworth’s main achievement was thus the transmission of Dadaist and Surrealist art from France to Great Britain. In this sense, she prolonged the life of the historical avant-garde movement, which ended years prior to the beginning of the Second World War.
The Human Dimension Let’s take a closer look at the sculpture. At its highest point, we can discover the carving of a circle and wavy lines. Is it the sun with clouds above it? Or is it upside down and the sun is above a sea of waves? Is it perhaps the abstract version of an artist’s signature? What is the arrangement supposed to represent – or is it supposed to represent nothing at all? A popular claim, after all, is that abstract art shows form as such, without wanting to represent anything real.
At least in this case, the situation turns out to be more complex. A recent photo of the same sculpture (fig. 2), taken by Cathy Carver for the Hirshhorn Museum, helps: taken from above, a face in profile view becomes clearly visible; the wavy line forms a large nose and overemphasizes the lips; the circle represents the eye. The angle of this photo immediately draws attention to the face. And if one recognizes the face, it is easy to define the whole figure as a torso: to the left and right of the head with the facial features are the shoulders, and the two curves at the other end indicate the legs. Perhaps one could even say that the figure is reclining on its right arm, stretching its feet towards the sky, counting the clouds.
Paul Laib’s photo, on the other hand, ungraciously cuts off the nose line. Thus, at first glance, it is not at all clear what the circle and the implied lines are supposed to represent. Laib was apparently not concerned with highlighting the human shape of the sculpture. But now that we have seen the other photo and know – or think we know – that it is indeed an anthropomorphic figure, can we get rid of that knowledge? Can we unsee the human shape again? Can we again perceive it as a purely abstract form without committing it to human body parts?
Let’s have a look at the rear view in Laib’s second photo (fig. 3). What is recognizable as a leaning arm in the Hirshhorn photo makes a surprisingly unstable impression from behind – a single spike holds the right half of the figure above the ground and the supposed arm melts into the back beyond recognition. What was distinguishable from the front and especially from above as an oval head shape suddenly appears as a slightly overhanging plateau. The overexposed centre of the figure suddenly looks like a sharp angle, no longer a gentle sweep. And something else is remarkable: in the rear view, the shadow play of the photographer spills over onto the wall in the background.
In the Shadows Laib’s photographs work with pronounced lighting and shadows. In the front view, the shadow swallows the figure’s supporting points, so that its contact with the surface underneath cannot be pinpointed – it almost floats. In Laib’s photo, the deep shadow lines in the figure’s curves add depth and plasticity, whereas in Hirshhorn’s photograph, where shadows are used much more sparingly, the figure looks almost flat in comparison. Note especially how the “shoulders” appear like flat surfaces, while Laib makes them resemble humps, and how the curve in the front centre appears much deeper in Laib’s photo. The sharp contrast of overexposed surfaces merging into glistening white on the one hand and shadows swallowing up into the black background on the other could be reminiscent of the era of expressionist film, which was just coming to an end in Germany.
In the rear view, the use of shadows goes beyond accentuating the figurative features and adds its own artwork to the back wall. Different layers of shadows overlap, creating a multifaceted play that cannot simply be made to coincide with the shapes of the figure. We have seen that the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human being as long as the focus is not on the face or if it is viewed from behind, from where it is not so easy to infer human forms.
Just as the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human, the shadow play does not necessarily represent the sculpture. This does not mean that they have an autonomous life of their own. Rather, they embrace the ambivalence of interdependence and free expression. The sculpture represents a human being and at the same time not, just as the shadow simultaneously does and does not represent the sculpture. Or, in Hepworth’s own words: “The best carvings are necessarily both abstract and representational” (Hepworth, 1932: 17). And we could add: the same goes for photographs.
Going a step further, I would argue that it is not only a game of (non-)representation. The emphasis on the curve and the smooth rounded edges in Laib’s photo make invite the viewer to grasp the subject. In its floating state, it loses the appearance of a massive and heavy block of marble, becoming seemingly light and easy to handle. The rear view shot makes the centre of the sculpture appear particularly narrow, as if it could be encircled by a single hand. If we imagine it as larger, we might even interpret it as an armchair or a child’s seat. The depth and dynamism of the object, amplified by the shadows, do not imply that it should look like a human, but that it might have been shaped for humans. It evokes an aesthetics of ergonomics by pointing to the object’s potential haptic qualities (Lewinson, 2015: 783). The human quality of the sculpture, then, is not only representational: it can be an invitation to future human use, as well as the document and product of a past human interaction, namely that with the sculptor.
On the Workbench Laib took photos of Hepworth’s studio (fig. 4). Scattered around the workbenches are tools, raw materials, but also a coffee cup and finished sculptures. In the first photo, what catches the eye is the massive stone on the left, and perhaps the large window overlooking the garden; what is somewhat lost is the Reclining Figure, which can be seen on the workbench in the foreground. It is positioned like in the rear view photograph, but slightly rotated and the perspective is slightly elevated. The strong shadows are missing, and the sculpture almost seems to merge with the surface of the bench: both being bright white. Although it is lying on the workbench with a hammer and other equipment next to it, it looks finished, and it may have been positioned there just for the purposes of the photo.
In the second photo (fig. 5), the Reclining Figure is more prominently placed in the foreground and it has been rotated almost 180 degrees. Upon closer inspection, we notice that the other objects on the table have also changed position. The hammer and the coffee cup are behind the sculpture, a chisel protrudes over the edge. But the change in the arrangement is much less elaborate than it seems: what moved was the workbench, not the objects. A notch in the wood in front of the sculpture (fig. 5) reveals that the bench was rotated for the photos. And even if some of the objects were rearranged, this rotation accomplishes one thing above all: the Reclining Figure can be seen from two sides. It seems that Laib or Hepworth, whoever directed the photos, was concerned with showing that the Reclining Figure has at least two sides. Thus, the essential ambivalence of the sculpture, its indecision between representation and abstraction, which can at least partially be brought into congruence with the contrast of front and rear views, has also been realized photographically.
On the other hand, in both views the sculpture dissolves into the white of the workbench. Its human form disappears completely and its contours are difficult to discern. It might have been primarily technical circumstances such as the bright daylight that make the Reclining Figure almost invisible, yet there seem to have been enough darker surfaces available that would have provided a stronger contrast to the sculpture to make us guess that the positioning was deliberate.
The contrast, on the other hand, is to be found in setting the delicacy and smoothness of Reclining Figure among the dark, worn tools. One almost fears that the fine object could be damaged in the untidy pile of tools – yet it was precisely these tools with which this delicacy was created.
If we assume that the “white-out” of the sculpture was intentional, however, the figure begins to transcend the question of abstraction and representation, and its materiality becomes problematic. We might find Hepworth‘s enthusiasm for Christian Science and the emphasis on the immaterial world in it (Kent, 2015: 475). The Pierced Forms, one of which is seen in the background, are held as the culmination of her engagement with these ideas: the hole represents and exhibits the absence of material. In the Reclining Figure, the immaterial is not integrated into the sculpture, but the exposure technique in the photographic reproduction even surpasses the effect. The sculpture is itself and as a whole in transition to the immaterial. It is, in more than one sense, illuminated.
Original Reproductions Paul Laib’s photographs throw a different light on Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining Figure. Providing very particular angles and guiding our interpretation, they should also be appreciated as works of art. Maybe we can call them not reproductions of a sculpture, but artworks inspired by this sculpture. Just like literary texts, film and indeed sculpture always draw on other works of art to critically reflect, celebrate or further develop elements of them, the photos of sculpture find inspiration in their objects but tell their very own story.
Andreas Schmid Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Bibliography: Buckberrough S (1998) Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective by Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson. Woman‘s Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 , 47-50. Hepworth B  The Aim of the Modern Artist: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson. Interview with Hepworth. In: Bowness S (2015) Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations. London: Tate Publishing, pp. 14-17. Kent L (2015) Christian Science and Ben Nicholson’s work of the 1930s. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 474-481. Lewinson J (2015) Barbara Hepworth reconsidered. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 781-786.
The Tate Archive holds some of the only remaining correspondence between photographer Paul Laib (1869-1958) and the artists who hired him: a misaddressed cream card dated July 1935 listing his telephone number, address in London’s South Kensington borough, and services offered. All in vibrant red ink: “Carbon Platinotype, ENLARGEMENTS, &c … Pictures carefully Photographed by Panchromatic Process. PHOTOGRAVURE.” (TGA 977/1/1/222)
E.Q. Nicholson, the eventual recipient of the note, was one of many clients Laib worked with over his five-decade career as a Fine Art Photographer in London. The title listed on Paul Laib’s stationery implied a role somewhat different than the common understanding of the term today. Whereas the contemporary use most often refers to an artist whose chosen medium is photography, fine art and people who made it comprise the subject matter of nearly all 22,000 images in the De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld.
I remember the initial thrill of coming across Laib’s photographs of studios, particularly Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s at No. 7 The Mall in Hampstead. There is something tantalisingly subversive about seeing well-known and well-loved works of art loved and known somewhere other than a gallery, somewhere where the rules of engagement with art might be relaxed. Hepworth and Nicholson hired Laib at various points in the 1930s to photograph their work. These weren’t snapshots, though – the depiction of possibility in these photographs, of the possibility of different kinds of interactions with art, was intended. Lee Beard, Sophie Bowness, and Chris Stephens all note in the exhibition catalogue for 2015’s Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World that photographs like this were a concerted effort to convey a more holistic aesthetic view – if anything, one that the artists had more control over than in a gallery. Textiles, sculptures, and paintings live alongside a spiky selection of cacti, works in progress, tools, and the ephemera of a filled, well-considered space.
With some more reading, trips to archives at Tate and the National Art Library, and discussion with colleagues here, I decided to expand on the idea that placing artworks in different contexts change how we feel about perceive them. Showing how Laib’s photographs depict a range of art-in-context, and how his unique occupation brought together photography, art, and the archival in an unexpected way – became the theme of the show, now up in the Book Library Foyer until September 27.
I had never previously considered the legions of photographers capturing the artwork we see in books, exhibition catalogues, lecture halls, and postcards. This is more than a little ironic considering that I and sixty other volunteers are taking on a similar role in our time at The Courtauld.
The title of the exhibition – Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib – is a reference to the different relationships at play between artworks and photography in his archive. As I write in the introductory text for the piece, sometimes an image itself reminds us that we’re looking at a staged photograph, something that took scheduling, supply sourcing, and time to plan. Paintings were secured on easels and sculptures on pedestals to ready them for a photo. Further reminders of the presence of the photographer include graphic white strokes across many of the images – Laib placed tape directly on the negatives to mark where the images would be cropped.
In other photographs from the archive, the physical presence of the camera is less obvious. This is particularly the case for photographic reproductions intended for publication – a copy of Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (1933), generously lent by the Courtauld Institute’s Book Library, is open to a photograph of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture “Reclining Figure” – while staged in a very thought-out way, the presence of a photographer is less obvious, thus “Camera, Obscured”.
To give visitors even more of a sense of how these photographs live as physical objects before being digitised in our studio in the Witt Library and printed, some of the glass plate negatives and the boxes they have been stored in since the 1970s are included in the exhibition.
Many thanks to everyone who has helped source negatives in the archives, point me towards references, set up the show, and supported in ways large and small – hopefully this will be the first of many exhibitions to come out of the rich photo archives we are digitising.
— Mary Caple
Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib is on show until 27 September in the Book Library Foyer at The Courtauld Institute of Art.