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.
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.