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.”
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant