Rome is a very special place to me and this is a small, perfect jewel in its crown. The Keats-Shelley House on the Spanish Steps in Rome is a museum dedicated to the second-generation English romantic poets who lived in, and were inspired by Italy. The house hosted PB and Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron, but more importantly, it was the final home of John Keats. I am not a lover of poetry, having endured Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at school, but the various Odes by Keats and Paradise Lost by Milton somehow embedded themselves in my artistic imagination. Ode to a Nightingale by Keats is a personal favourite, it even recently prompted the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association’s 2020 Keats-Shelley Writing Prize theme of Songbird.
Anthony Kersting’s black and white photograph of the house, with its half-shuttered windows, patchy exterior paintwork and the overall dilapidated appearance, exudes a post-war feeling of decay – almost a reflection of Keats’ own situation – tired, worn out, dying. The building appears almost tragic – reflecting a tragic life and story. Ode to a Nightingale was written two years before Keats died in this building in 1821 and yet the following stanza captures the ‘beauty’ and essence of this photograph.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. [read more]
Today, the striking, renovated building, has a secure future, thanks to the ongoing programme of maintenance and restorations to the interior and exterior of the House. So, before climbing the 138 Spanish steps, It is worth taking a walk through a series of beautiful rooms, containing many treasures and curiosities associated with the lives and works of the Romantic poets, as well as one of the finest libraries of Romantic literature in the world, now numbering more than 8,000 volumes.
In addition to the museum, library and exhibition rooms, there are two spacious terraces boasting stunning views, a book and gift shop, and a small cinema room. The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (London) purchased the house in 1906 and oversees this house, as well as the Keats House in London, and his grave in Rome.
I don’t know her name. I don’t know the name of the young woman who stares out at me from the photograph I hold by its slightly curved edges. I’ve stared at this photograph for days, coming back to it and to her. She is elaborately dressed, wearing beaded necklaces with big metal pendants piled in great layers around her neck.
Her hair is mostly wound up in a headscarf but pieces have come loose and fall around her face. It’s her face that lingers in my memory. Large dark eyes, serious expression, black lines and dots punctuating her skin. With one hand she holds a woman partially cut off by the framing of the photograph. Her mother? A friend?
I flip the glossy photograph over, hoping for more insight. “NORTH IRAQ A YEZIDI GIRL” in pencil at the top of the page. A set of numbers that has been crossed out, another set written below. F48-51. F11-57. And then an address, A.F. Kersting, 37 Frewin Road, London. S.W.18. But no name, no clue to who she was or how she came to be photographed – her image now kept in a bulging stack of similar glossy black and white images in a pale blue box on a shelf of similar pale blue boxes in a chilly London basement library.
The pale blue boxes containing thousands of photographs, together with boxes of negatives and tattered hand-written ledger books, form the archive of the English photographer Anthony Kersting (1916–2008), which now resides in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute.
Since its entrance into the library’s collection, Kersting’s work has fascinated many, as evidenced by the blog posts from other digitisation interns who have been caught up in the ongoing endeavor of trying to make sense of these enigmatic images and their enigmatic creator. The majority of Kersting’s images reflect his career as a photographer of architectural sites in Britain and abroad, but there is a smaller set of pale blue boxes that contain piles of pictures of people.
These unexpected images come largely from Kersting’s trips to Transjordan, Iraq, and Iran in the 1940s. Tom Bilson, the Head of Digital Media at the Courtauld and Kersting’s biographer, emphasized how surprising these images of people, festivals, and daily life are in relation to Kersting’s broader corpus, where people are usually entirely eliminated from his shots.
I have spent my brief stint at the Courtauld immersed in these images of people, partly because of my own research interests in visual culture and the Middle East but also because these images unsettle me with their unknowns. I have spent the week asking questions of them. I’ve received only fragmented whispers.
Approaching the Archive
I am an anthropologist and an archaeologist with a particular interest in museums and material objects – the artifacts of the everyday. But I am also captivated by the lines of connection and meaning that extend from objects, connecting, overlapping, and severing as things and people move through space and time.
Unsurprisingly, photographs and archives are like catnip to me. They’re physical things that have been made and shaped by people and institutions over time while also being visual records of places, events, and people. The photographs in the Kersting collection preserve both Kersting and his subjects, albeit only ever in a partial way.
My background leads me to approach these photographs in particular ways, focusing in turn on their histories and contexts, their material properties, and their silences. These multiple approaches complement and complicate each other but cannot ever offer a complete explanation of these images.
The Iran and Iraq Images
I am going to focus specifically on Kersting’s photographs from Iraq and Iran during 1944. From a historical perspective, we know that Kersting visited Iraq in August 1944. A logbook, in which he recorded what and where he photographed, shows that he was in Iraq for at least 11 days beginning in Amadya and Mosul and ending in Baghdad. During this time he photographed people and places in Dohuk, Kirkuk, Hatra, Al Kosh, and Lalish.
The photograph of the Yezidi girl comes from his time in Lalish, when he photographed a Yezidi religious festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi. His photographs show scenes of baptism, dancing and music, and feasting together during the festival. According to the same ledger, Kersting visited Iran for at least 9 days in November and December of the same year. He travelled less widely according to captions on the images and the ledger, spending most of his time in Tehran, Isfahan, Ray, and Delijan.
There are several copies of a photograph of a large R.A.F. bus against the desert landscape which gives some insight into Kersting’s method of travel. On the back of one of the copies, Kersting has written “Trip to Iran,” while on another, “Modern desert travel. The Nairn bus running between Baghdad and Damascus. When this photograph was taken, the bus was being used by the R.A.F.” As an addendum and in different ink, “The R.A.F. Nairn Bus: Habbanniya to Damascus.”
The different captions are confusing. Was this taken on the route between the R.A.F. base in Habbanniya, Iraq, to Damascus, Syria? Or near Baghdad? Or in Iran? Why was he on a military bus in the first place? Who are the other people – some in uniforms but one in the foreground clearly not – in the image?
Tom Bilson informed me that Kersting was part of the R.A.F. for a period of time, but it is unclear whether he was on military business during these trips to Iraq and Iran. It certainly would not be unusual for an intelligence personnel to use photography as a cover for espionage, particularly in 1944 during WWII in this region, which had experienced the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran and the Anglo-Iraqi War just three years earlier.
This political history is largely absent from Kersting’s images themselves, save for two intriguing photographs taken in Duhok, Iraq. The first is a group of men, some in traditional Iraqi dress and others in suits and even shorts, outside of an unmarked building. On the back Kersting has written:
“Iraq, A group round the M.O.I. reading room in Dahook [sic], a Kurdish town between Amadia and Mosul. Allen, M.O.I. public relations officer in Mosul, who arranged my transport for me, is in the centre of the group. A. F. Kersting. Aug 1944”
M.O.I. is often used as an acronym for both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Information, though Ministry of Information might be more appropriate here in the context of a reading room. “Allen” is not mentioned in any other images or in Kersting’s ledger.
In a second image, a group of men read magazines and books together, possibly in the mentioned reading room. Arabic and English maps on the rear wall show theaters of war. “War Map of the USA and Japan” reads one.
These photographs obliquely show Kersting’s historical setting and his network of contacts, military and governmental, that made his journeys possible, but they also raise questions about the purpose of Kersting’s trips in the region, which was still an active site of British military negotiation and surveillance.
Viewed today, these photographs are still politically relevant, especially considering the persecution and violence faced by both Kurdish and Yezidi people. Kersting’s photographs highlight visibility and cultural vibrancy, providing a record of these communities’ traditions, longevity, and physical presence.
Besides trying to situate these photographs and Kersting himself in a particular historical and political moment, I’ve also tried to approach these images as cultural records. They simultaneously portray different ethnic and national communities and also record Kersting’s own understanding and classifications of these groups.
The images from Iraq, in particular, I think, reflect Kersting’s interest in the communities he met. On the back of a photograph (Image 9) of a Kurdish man, Kersting has written, “Iraq, A typical Kurd, inhabitant of Kurdistan in North Iraq. He wears the typical colored trousers, and carries a rifle, with a band of ammunition round his waist.” He gives some context to the man’s clothing as well as Kurdish people’s geographic presence in Iraq.
The photographs of the Yezidi festival at Sheikh Adi, in particular, are somewhat ethnographic, that is, trying to portray the experiences of people engaged in a specific activity or way of life. They show the smoke from pipes and incense, musicians mid-song, dancers moving together, children running around, mothers carrying children to baptisms. Kersting isn’t just capturing an event but an atmosphere.
However, like photographs taken and used by anthropologists in the early and mid-twentieth century, Kersting’s photographs and captions are reductive. “A typical Kurd,” “A Yezidi girl,” “Yezidi man,” “A typical Assyrian.” By these captions and categories, Kersting appears more interested in (stereo)types of people rather than specific individuals. Hence the lack of names.
I wonder about Kersting’s interactions with the people he met and photographed. Did Kersting ask to take people’s photographs? Were they excited or made anxious about this? Did they ever see the photographs of themselves? How would they or living relatives feel about these anonymized images sitting in a box in London?
Materiality in the Archive
In addition to being visual images, these photographs are physical objects. They take up space in boxes and shelves. Their curved edges and stains show age and wear and damage over time. They contain the physical marks of Kersting’s pen and pencil, recording the movements of his hands. Some theorists in anthropology have suggested thinking about the biographies of objects – their moments of coming into being, moving through the world, and their eventual “deaths.”
A biography of these images provides yet another way of looking at them. We could think about the technologies, materials, and skills required to produce them. Kersting worked with multiple cameras, which would have taken up space and required particular environments to prepare properly. The images would have been rendered on glass plates treated with special chemical solutions. They would have had to be printed onto specific kinds of paper using yet more chemicals to render the image and fix it in place.
After printing, Kersting inscribed them with dates, log numbers, descriptions, copyright stamps, his name and address. And while there are copies of certain images, no two are exactly the same because his descriptions vary. Some copies have additional, intriguing marks from R.A.F. censors or printed marks indicating that the paper is government-issued. What kinds of review processes did these images go through? And why do only some of them show signs of being reviewed or processed by the military?
It’s intriguing to think about the lifespan of these images. Did Kersting keep them in an album or display them in his home? Were these travel photographs shown off to friends? Were they commissioned by a particular organization? Did he consider them to be documentation of “exotic” people (a term now considered highly problematic but which circulated in popular discourse in his time), personal mementoes, or fine artworks? Why were some printed on glossy paper and others on flat matte paper? These are questions for which we don’t know the answers. But we do know more about these images’ futures.
These images, like the rest of the Conway Library’s photographic and print collections, are in the process of being digitized so that they can be stored and accessed online. The digitization process is an immense one, requiring hundreds of volunteers to help sort, label, photograph, and categorize all the images in the library.
So these photographs will live on in a digital form even after their physical forms degrade. But does our experience of an image change when it becomes pixels and code instead of photographic solution and paper? I can’t have the same experience of handling a photograph and flipping it over in eager anticipation of more information. But rendering high-quality images for a digital collection does make these images more accessible, potentially even allowing their circulation within the communities in Iraq and Iran that they portray.
“Quieter than Silence”
The anthropologist David Zeitlyn describes archives as spaces between memory and forgetting. They’re repositories of information, stories, and moments, but they also can outlive their subjects and makers, becoming ghosts of bygone people and places. Working in archives is extremely gratifying because it provides opportunities for rediscovery but it can also be frustrating as more and more question marks develop.
The more I look at these photographs through different analytical lenses the more I realize just how much I don’t know and will probably never know about them. Through digitization, crowdsourcing, and circulating the photographs back within their communities of origin certain individuals could potentially be identified, but Kersting’s motivations remain unknown.
Unannotated photograph of Yezidi musicians and attendants of the annual festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944. I am particularly struck by the young men in the bottom left corner who stare curiously into the lens of Kersting’s camera.
The photographs are even more ghostlike and frustrating to me, too, because they emphasize just how much is missing in appreciating the moment or person that is captured. It reminds me of the musical performance Quieter than Silence by Mehdi Aminian and Mohamad Zatari. In their fusion of Syrian and Iranian traditional music and poetry, the two men reflect on friendship, loss, and conflict. They emphasize the pain that comes with knowing that there should be sound or life in a moment but not being able to find it – experiences that seem quieter than silence.
These images seem quieter than silence to me in some ways because these places and people were not still and silent but teeming with movement, noise, color, and life. In the photographs, though, they have been frozen, silenced, detached. I long to reinvest these images with sound, smell, taste, and touch. So as I hold the photograph of the Yezidi girl, I think of her necklaces clinking together. I imagine the textures that surround her, the noise of a celebration, the click of a camera’s shutter closing.
Anthony Kersting was an expert photographer of architecture. He was clearly prolific, resourceful and much-travelled, this is reflected in the thousands of photographs and negatives he left to the Courtauld after he died.
Photographs themselves have an agency that goes beyond aesthetics, not just in the way they interact with the world, but in the way they change it. Creating photographs alters the way we perceive the world: photographs are not only a commentary, but they are also a component of the world. We have, therefore, altered the world with the action of capturing it in photographs.
Photographic images become new objects in the world, objects that affect and influence their perceiver and prompt new action. The vast number of photographs in this collection led me to create a list of proposals to maximise public engagement (see appendix at the bottom of this post for the full list).
One of my proposals is to make a puzzle game using Anthony Kersting’s photographs:
Anthony Kersting was an agent who was actively and constantly taking photographs in the world.
Most of his photographs focus strictly on architecture, and Anthony Kersting seems to have been committed to eliminating human presence by scheduling shoots at times when tourists and passers-by would not be expected.
I was intrigued, therefore, to find two boxes of images shot in Jordan, which contain photographs of people and urban life. The images contained in these two boxes felt deeply human. I was also left wondering: why did Kersting want to take photographs of the people here, when he doesn’t seem so interested in capturing people elsewhere?
Often, the best photos are not taken but given by the subjects, when subject and photographer are equals. In the end, a photograph is only a photograph when it meets with a spectator. The subjects in Anthony Kersting’s Middle East photos meet our gaze.
Exploring Anthony Kersting’s collection, I felt I was being asked to start watching rather than just look at each image – turning his photographic prints over I found his handwritten inscriptions and annotations as equally interesting as the images. The annotations vary wildly from very detailed to elusive and mysterious, written as if he might otherwise forget where the shoot took place.
Sometimes, it feels like he is planning some sort of crime – he captures particular places in forensic detail, or the way his portraits are so intimate…
Theodor Adorno says “creative art is an uncommitted crime” although I find this phrase somehow dubious, it resonates, and I enjoy the thought of “committing crimes” with Tony, in the journey of seeing through his photographs. Seeing the world through his lens.
I found myself exploring the ideas that photography is only complete when it meets with a spectator; that a photograph is an object in itself, and not just an image of something else.
Absorbing the ethos behind the Digitisation Project’s activities was fascinating, it was very much of my honour to contribute to researching the collection, and I had an amazing week.
Proposals that may never happen for engaging with Anthony Kersting’s photographs in the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House. Inspired by Peter Liversidge’s book Proposals / 1997-2005 (Belfast: Ormeau Baths Gallery, 2005, in an edition of 500).
I propose that users are able to access the archive photographs in various interactive online formats. This way, users might watch the photographs as though they were actual events, rather than observing them passively. The game should be called Knowing Anthony Kersting.
I propose making Anthony Kersting’s photographs into puzzles. These can be organised by content and difficulty levels. Next to the puzzle, a description should provide the context of the photograph, or reproduce the back of the photograph with Kersting’s handwriting with his detective-like description of the context of the information about the photograph.
I propose linking all the photographs together and making them into a VR experience.
Users could learn how to type or improve their touch-typing skills by copying AF Kersting’s handwriting on the back of his photographs, and completing the typing within a certain time frame. (See the typing practice game- Kingsoft TypeEasy).
I propose to make a drawing game, either on a flat computer screen or inside a VR simulator. Users would trace all of the outlines of the photograph [using a mouse or, in VR, a controller]. Once finished outlining a photograph, individuals can save their drawings without the photograph on the back. Or they could have choices, draw from the photograph, make the photograph next to it, make it into a digital drawing session. When the drawing is done, there could be pop-ups or animations of the content. Also, a social space where individuals can share their works too.
A painting or mind map using Kersting’s photographs as inspiration. An exercise focussed on transforming and interpreting photographs, turning them into other things, thinking about issues that are beyond the photograph.
A travel plan based on all the places Kersting visited, showing mostly street photography and architecture sites, and linking to personal photographs of those places. This project could be named “How much land do I know”.
Looking at his images felt like we were sneaking around together, “committing crimes”. The idea would be to replicate the shots of locations devoid of people.
A Snake Game on Google Maps, tracking all the places in which we have been to, with individual players as the snakes, when we reach every destination of Anthony’s photographic descriptions, we get a point and we can also track how big the avatar Snake has grown.
We could map out all the places that he has been to in Google Maps and explore those places with 360 virtual tours on Google Earth, and make a film out of it. Travelling around Europe while being in the house.
Using the portraiture that Kersting took in Jordan to retrace his steps and try to find out who those people are or were.
Come back to the Courtauld another day and volunteer in here, focussing on Anthony Kersting’s collections especially.
AF Kersting, 20th Century British photographer, traveled to Turkey at least two times, including in 1963 and 1995, and photographed much of the significant sites of Istanbul, also known as Constantinople. Hagia Sophia, the building we see standing today (preceded by two churches and a pagan temple) was rebuilt by the Byzantines under Emperor Justinian in 432 CE. 
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered this area of modern-day Turkey and transformed this church into a mosque; besides some smaller renovations, this was accomplished mostly by adding the minarets. As the complex’s official site notes, “In 1934, the founder of Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ordered the building to be transformed into a museum,” the condition in which it remains to this day. Ever since 1453, the mosque has been and continues to be an inspiration for the rest of the Turkish Empire mosques.
Kersting’s View of Istanbul: Historical Preservation as Top Priority
As Kersting wrote, “Anyone visiting Istanbul for the first time might be excused for finding it difficult to realise that this City [sic.] was once the centre of the civilised world, and that under the name of Byzantium it carried on the tradition of Roman culture and learning for close on a thousand years after Rome itself had fallen…”  Kersting’s entire entry on this subject (and other parts of Istanbul) remains largely an objective, informative one. The question of what exactly the early 20th Century Englishman thought of Istanbul himself remains unanswered.
However, something can be gleaned from the fact that he titled the article “Changes in Istanbul” and spends roughly 90% of the paper talking about Istanbul (and the Hagia Sophia’s) history and previous state of being. Consciously or subconsciously, Kersting considered Istanbul’s entire value to be derived from its rich history rather than its condition during his own visits. He seems opposed to any modernization or changes he does mention, excepting of course the restoration of older buildings: “New motor roads are being built and in the process [m]any of the old wooden house[s], formerly such a picturesque feature of the old Turkish City [sic.] are being bulldozed away.”
Did Istanbul residents at that time not view these homes as sacred relics as Kersting did? Or did they value them as such, but did they prioritize progress and modernization as the means of restoring Istanbul to its former glory? Whatever the natives’ view may have been, this English sojourner seemed in favor of restoration and consistency (as opposed to modernization) in the city itself, and probably held the same view about the city’s icon.
Kersting’s Journal Entry: Background on the Hagia Sophia
In his entry about Istanbul, he includes snippets on just two of Istanbul’s mosques, including one about the “Hagia” or “Santa” Sophia: “The first object of pilgrimage of every tourist is probably Santa Sophia. Without doubt this is one of the greatest buildings in the world. Built by Justinian as a church in 532 AD, it was converted to a mosque at the Turkish conquest and is now a museum. Although it has suffered many vicissitudes and has undergone many changes, the remarkable [thing] is that the main fabric of the building has remained relatively intact for some 1400 years. The four minarets were added by the Turks on conversion of the building to a Mosque [sic.]. At the moment these are undergoing repair.”
The domed Santa Sophia served as the inspiration for the Mosques [sic.] built by the Turks after their conquest of Byzantium.
The Hagia Sophia As Seen Through Kersting’s Lens
Even with just this little bit of background information, one can analyze Kersting’s photographs with the naked eye and easily notice the deliberate choices he made when photographing this magnificent house of worship.
The developed photos of the Hagia Sophia we have within the Kersting Archive at the Courtauld comprise about twenty-five different photographs, following Kersting’s careful labeling system. There are at least two photographs printed for the vast majority of each of these different shots Kersting took, but even the ones developed from the same negative can vary slightly in lighting and cropping.
The first deliberate choice one can note is that the majority of the photographs Kersting took were of the interior of the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. The majority of his photographs contain either no people at all (over one third of the total shots) or very blurred, obstructed, tiny, or barely visible people (about half of the total shots).
This decision to prioritize the architecture over the people could mean several things: a. He photographed the museum at hours or during a season that was not the peak time or season for tourists to visit. b. Kersting requested, and somehow had the leverage with the museum authorities, to clear the museum (at least mostly) of people. c. The shots in which the people are blurred indicate that Kersting purposefully left the camera shutter open for longer, theoretically for the dual purpose of having the camera focus on the Hagia Sophia building itself (rather than any moving entities) and probably to allow as much light into the camera as possible and capture the interior detail of this rather dark building.
Another common feature one might note is that Kersting typically selects landscape format for his exterior photographs. He does this, most likely, because he chooses to take most of his exterior shots from a distance adequate for capturing the entire rambling width of the mosque complex. We only have one developed shot where he uses portrait mode for the exterior (Fig. 2.). In it, Kersting emphasizes the verticality of the building by shooting from a shorter distance and placing one of the minarets as the focal point (in the middle ground 1/3 from the right). The only other technically exterior shot that is in portrait format is from under a covered colonnade, which actually could be considered as more of a transitional space than an exterior space.
Similarly, Kersting is more likely to place his focal point in the middle of the frame should the shot be of the exterior elevation. Except for the minaret photo mentioned earlier (Fig. 2), all of his exterior shots again showcase the mosque complex, always placed in the background, with the mosque gardens in the foreground and middle ground. Comparing these shots is especially interesting for viewing the architectural alterations made over time.
For his photos of the interior, Kersting mostly – and ingeniously – chooses one of the chandeliers for his focal points. This focal point doubles as a window of sorts, drawing the viewer initially to itself (the chandelier) and then to the background behind it which, in the case of Fig. 4., is the beautiful Arabic lettering and repurposed Greek Orthodox architecture. Because of this method, the viewer is more likely to notice the entire scene, not merely its focal point. Kersting knew that, had he chosen to focus on a singular solid object, the average viewer would walk away having disregarded the whole scene except for the one focal point.
For his interior photos, Kersting also often uses doorways or columns to frame his scene, again a brilliant technique to provide boundaries for the photo and draw in the eye to the photograph’s central portion. Kersting uses the setting’s ready-made frames to catch the eye immediately from afar, especially if the frame provides a naturally strong contrast between light or dark areas (i.e. the brightly lit west wing popping through the dark frame of two columns and foreground in Fig. 4).
Kersting is creating chiaroscuro: using the extreme contrast of light and darkness to his advantage for the sake of creating depth and dimension. (As he was working in black-and-white, these contrasts were essential in making his photographs readable and interesting.) His framing devices also make this giant museum that is open to the public (and therefore people of all faiths and backgrounds) feel more personal and intimate. In other words, the frames make his photography of this iconic site feel less like the average tourist’s postcard and more like a special access invitation to an exclusive space.
A final observation is that, several times, Kersting chooses to capture the scaffolding and the repairs occurring at the complex, which he also is sure to mention in his journal entry. Why does Kersting choose to photograph and mention elements that others might consider an eyesore? Does he want to emphasize the events occurring contemporaneously to himself – to capture his unique personal experience (as opposed to that of the millions of other visitors who had and would come over the 1400+ years the building had existed and would continue to exist)? Or did he want to document this as history, for the sake of posterity’s knowledge? Or to commend the natives’ or government’s interest in preserving part of their heritage? Regardless, the photographer did intentionally capture this historical preservation of Istanbul’s most treasured site and did not try to crop out or curate his shots to cover up the ongoing preservation, whereas other artists may have considered this element unsightly and distracting.
Despite any of these or other unresolved speculations, we can make one claim with confidence: it was hundreds of deliberate choices like these that characterize Kersting’s architectural photography as superior to that of other photographers, choices that naturally attract the human eye and engage the human mind.
You are holding a photograph of one of the Assyrian lamassu, or human-headed winged bulls, sculptures that flanked the 700 B.C. and 612 B.C. neo-Assyrian capital of Ninevah (in modern-day Iraq). The photograph was made around 1950?, It is 2019 and is a cloudy September day, typical to London during this season. You turn it over and notice the inked all-caps “Iraq: Winged Bulls at Niniveh [sic]/[Ninevah], outside Mosul, A.F. Kersting, N. 26” written on the reverse side. You have read several articles about and even watched on Youtube ISIS’s brutal defacing of these statues in 2015. Furthermore, you know this photograph is one of the few existing visual representations of this now-obliterated artwork. You promptly put it in a box containing at least 100 other photos and stick this box on a shelf in a library filled with over 10,000 similar boxes.
Who has knowledge of and access to this library? The majority of them are highly-educated researchers, even more narrowly only those highly-educated researchers who live in or can afford transportation to Covent Garden, London, England, where the library is located. Does this seem to be the best choice? Courtauld Art Institute’s staff and researchers give an emphatic “No!” They argue that photographs of the world, especially some so rare and profound, should be viewed by the world.
In 2017, the Courtauld’s Head of Digital Media Tom Bilson and his trusty team, Faye Fornasier, Sarah Way, dreamed of combatting this very inaccessibility issue with one ambitious project: the digitisation of the Institute’s entire Photographic Collection. While the Photographic Collection is mostly photographs, it also contains prints, drawings, documents, and other media and covers centuries of world-wide architecture, art, archaeology, and more.
By way of reminder, the Digitisation Team’s impetus for their project was broadening the photographs’ audience and not only after but during the project, by entrusting the handling and digitisation of the items entirely to volunteers. Little did they know that around 500 volunteers of all backgrounds and origins would contribute their time just two years into the project, fueling the Team’s original vision.
The project itself involves five tasks: Accessioning, Digitising, Metadata, Ledgers, and Attributions.
You find yourself suddenly transported to an intimate street scene in France, a church rising at one end. As you approach the church, you note its steeple and marble statues, then the detailed scenes of Jesus and the disciples, angels, and mythological creatures animating the tympanum. Fascinated, you circle the church exterior, observing each weathered building block and gargoyle. Finally returning to the church entrance, you enter the building and make your way from the south of the nave to observe the overall interior. You then pause to study closely each of the stained-glass windows. All the while, you have been sitting comfortably in London’s Courtauld Art Institute photographic library. As Director of the Digitisation Project Tom Bilson would say, “you have just embarked on your first stint of “armchair travelling.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35669056
This is the greatest benefit of the Accessioning stage: its ability to immerse the viewer in the library’s narrative. To explain, Accessioning (known to veteran volunteers as “Sorting & Labeling”), involves literally the sorting of photos into a logical progression within each folder and ordering the folders within each box following three basic rules: 1. alphabetically by building, 2. largest to the smallest subject matter, 3. from the exterior to the interior. Once the volunteer has codified both of these units (photos and folders), she proceeds to label each with a unique reference number. This sorting and labeling provides a logical structure to the otherwise intimidatingly-large libraries, making their contents more easily navigable and “citeable” for any researcher.
Imagine for a moment you are volunteering in the photography darkrooms nestled deep in the bowels of the Somerset House 18th century North Wing. This is the ideal scenario for pretending you are a well-seasoned high-tech guru who also happens to specialize in photographic archives. The interrogation lights are on, and you’re here to question the pieces you photograph: What truth do they present? What point in time and space do they represent in inks and graphites, fonts and geometry? You zoom in with Capture One to see the pieces’ details, details invisible to the naked eye: people, dogs, facial expressions, otherwise illegible signage. Handle the photos and prints for yourself and begin to comprehend that your work is part of something much greater than yourself: a project that makes visual history (and history broadly) more accessible to future generations and makes history’s (perhaps overlooked) urgent relevance more apparent.
The next step in the process is digitising the photos. Using the advanced imaging software Capture One, one Phase One XF IQ3 80MP Camera and one Phase One XF IQ3 100MP Camera with 80mm Schneider-Keurznach lenses, we are able to photograph each object (whether it is a photograph, document, drawing, etc.) to the highest resolution. The staff processes the photos, meaning they are converted to the correct digital format and uploaded to the library’s photo storage system. Ultimately this digitised library (including the metadata and other products of the other described stages) will be a free, searchable conglomerate accessible to the public.
While recognizing the limitations of digitally representing tangible objects (i.e. the photographs, prints, etc.), the staff considers retaining as much of the original objects’ physicality as possible to be of the utmost importance. This reasoning partially instigated the Team’s choice to not scan the pieces but photograph them and to include photographs of the folders and boxes as well in the database. They knew this process would increase human contact with the photographs, as photography involves much more curation on the volunteers’ parts.
This human handling of the objects during digitisation foreshadows the end goal of the entire Project: to re-incorporate people into the pieces, to reinvigorate the pieces with fresh, additional narratives and to make them relatable to whoever views them. The volunteers assert their presence and their physical being on the pieces by handling and curating them. On a more abstract level, each volunteer inserts part of herself into the pieces: subconsciously or consciously, she envisions herself within the place or plane the object represents. She creates irreplicable new memories – however mundane – with the object and – however minutely – contributes to the universal collective consciousness. (Perhaps in 4019 the contemporary database users will look back with fascination on the 21st century digitisation process and, although appalled by the archaic technology employed, admire the process’s personable and interactive nature.)
The Metadata Stage of the process serves to make the future online library database searchable on several levels: by text, map and timeline. To explain, the searchable text categories include location, type of architecture, historical period, and general subject (i.e. secular architecture). Included with these results is the number of photos each folder and box contains, so as to give the researcher an opportunity to plan ahead regarding the number of materials through which she will be sifting as she narrows her search. The second searchable aspect, the previously-mentioned interactive map, will allow the researcher to select and search the library by continent, country, region, or town, depending on how narrow or broad her search interest is. This, too, allows the researcher another opportunity to plan ahead. Suppose the researcher wants to compose a comprehensive review of the architecture of any one small French town. If she could more easily see on the interactive map of France what towns the library even contains photographs of, this will save her time from inputting town names one at a time in the database text search bar.
From an archival perspective, this stage preserves the original folder labels and boxes, by making that text the medium through which all future researchers will continue to peruse the library. The volunteers and the public will fill in item-level information at a later stage, when the images are online.
When Anthony Kersting first took a photo of the Assyrian Winged Bulls in Iraq, he had already been cataloguing many of the famous world sites travelers and natives alike continue to visit and revere today. Kersting probably never knew how precious some of his photographs would become – that, once developed, his glass negatives would become some of the world’s last existing visual records of these guardian idols, a preserved moment of a piece of the Iraqi people’s heritage. Like Kersting, all of the Courtauld Libraries’ photographers, who wandered through history and braved various personal and environmental dangers and cultural differences, deserve credit for their invested time and efforts. This is the Attributions Stage – making sure that we report the photographer’s name where this is mentioned.
Volunteers participating in this stage face several challenges, including dealing with lack of information and deciphering nearly illegible entries. This latter one, however, provides an opportunity for the volunteers’ creative exploration. As they research the possible names the previous cataloguer wrote, they often uncover a point of intrigue – perhaps regarding a famous 18th century architect or a little-known early 20th century photographer – that decisively cracks the original librarian’s scribbled code.
Attributions fulfill the paramount duty of giving the piece’s author due recognition for his or her work, but, secondarily, it serves the library-attendees as another avenue for research – researching by maker rather than by product. On some level, this enlightens the researcher to the human intellect, skill, and deliberate choices that produced the object. The library peruser may then also take a more biographical approach to her research.
The Conway Library also contains The Kersting Archive, thousands of photographs and undeveloped negatives created by mid-20th and early-21st-century British photographer Anthony F. Kersting. During his lifetime, this world-traveler (and possible spy?) catalogued much of the United Kingdom architecture prior to its suffering irreversible damage during World War II. Throughout his 72 years traveling and photographing, Kersting kept meticulous ledgers of his work that, at their most thorough, include the reference number, location, subject, and date of each photograph.
The volunteers’ duty is to transcribe these ledgers as literally and accurately as possible, neither adding to or subtracting any information Kersting provides. Ironically, the biggest challenges volunteers face are often the element that makes this stage most interesting: illegible handwriting, spelling errors, and missing information.
For these reasons, you as the volunteer play the role of detective in this stage more so than in any other. For example, Kersting changed locations so often that you might be recording his adventures in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then find the next recorded location – perhaps 25 photographs later – is “Cos.” There is certainly no English town by this name, so you explore the ledger further and find that Kersting records the succeeding photographs were taken in Greece. One Google Search later, you learn Kersting was, in fact, referring to the tiny Grecian island of Kos. Alternatively, you may be looking at a ledger and find that, entered between Kersting changing locations, he consistently titles at least five photos “Meteor.” You cannot figure out an alternative word Kersting might have been spelling, but you consider it unlikely that Kersting was able to capture photos of this many “shooting stars.” You decide to look at the corresponding negatives themselves and, holding them flat to the lightbox, discover that they all contain photos of the sea or a large ship as viewed from onboard it. Following this trail of crumbs, you Google both the ship name and the year the photo was taken and discover the particular cruise ship model and the various routes it took with Kersting aboard it. In short, you have become somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes. With practice, transcribing the ledgers becomes, well… “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
As a consequence of all of these stages, each participant (whether staff member, volunteer, or researcher) may begin to see these objects – and more importantly the history they represent – as personable, as not only relevant to but even contemporaneous with her. In short, the goal is that as many people as possible have unlimited access to these representations of history and come to a greater understanding that this history is also part of their personal narrative and that, looking beyond themselves as individuals, this history is an overarching and continuous universal narrative contained in the collective conscious. Any human who consciously views any one piece re-animates its represented history, allowing that history, less fettered by its object’s temporality or materiality, to live on virtually ad infinitum. Thus, history lives on by means of the conscious human, and, conversely, the human lives and experiences more by means of her exposure to this history. The reincorporation of history (in the medium of photography) into humanity and the reincorporation of humanity into history. This is the fresh revelation of history’s urgent relevance for and applicability to all time. This is the theory put into action, the theory that history is indeed part of a continuous, ever-shifting narrative that, merciless and unflinching, sprints its course in humanity’s collective conscious. This is the Courtauld Digitisation Project.
Mary Shelton Hornsby
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Placement
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 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.
Contemplation on the Intimacy within the Kersting Collection
Throughout the multi-tiered, collaborative process of digitization at the Courtauld Institute of Art is a persistent emphasis on materiality. When we think of digital images – as copies, as mere representations of an object (which are themselves a version of the object as it occurs in nature) – we probably think of the yawning distance – and likely deterioration – between the ‘actual’ image and its digital progeny. Especially with the accumulation of images online there seems to be an increasing disconnect between the ‘original’ and the ‘copy’. Michael Taussig describes this type of phenomenon as part of “the wonder of mimesis” which “lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power” (Taussig, 1993: xiii).
So then, as Taussig puts forth, expanding upon mimesis as an idea of imitation, the copy can be endowed with as much power, in both cognitive and affective dimensions, as the initial object, being, or concept depicted (see Keane, 2013: 8–10). I believe that the digitization projects implemented and enacted in many museums and galleries around the world have the capacity to, in this multimedia world, bridge this burgeoning sense of abstraction from materiality and physicality. As I discuss materiality in the body of this essay, I will refer less to the materiality (or lack of materiality) of digital text and more to the notion of materiality common to the social sciences which is that: “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5).
While cataloguing and photographing collections from the Conway Library it became clear that the approach to digitization at the Courtauld was not simplified, a reduction of the original image, though perhaps not in quality so much as in its affective potential, through a rush to scan and upload images onto online databases. In the often mechanized, efficient process of capturing, scanning, and cleaning images of objects to be displayed in a digital library, many other digitization projects may incidentally contribute to the loss of engrained complexities of subject, object, audience, and materials within their collections. Instead, the Courtauld Institute of Art has chosen to remove the contagious tedium of transferring archives by attempting to encompass all an image and its corresponding context. This is accomplished in multiple stages through a variety of techniques. One, within the digitization studio, uses a high-tech camera, lighting, and table set-up to capture the contents of all the boxes within the Conway Library – every box, every folder, and every item.
The overall goal ends up being not just to capture the photograph, the illustration, or the architectural plan, but to include every element of the collections, regardless of the marks, stains, or tears which may be included. By photographing each page in its entirety, showing the rough edges, the blemishes, the final product effectively (and affectively) conveys the materials. They translate the feel of the images and reproduce their presence within the environment. In this arrangement, the camera becomes an “apparatus of power” (Karp, 1991), capable of bringing audiences, including ones who cannot venture into the Courtauld’s halls themselves to peruse and handle prints, into the lived experience of viewing the collections.
And this despite the perceived irreconcilable feeling of distance elicited by an ‘immaterial’ digital format. Such a conscious construction of materiality through digitization would not be possible without considering the relative distance and familiarity future viewers may have with the collections held by the Courtauld Institute, whether connections are forged through an image’s subject, their historical insights, or the creator of a portfolio of work.
The result of the Courtauld’s efforts at a more holistic digitization approach is one which I believe is vital to many museum exhibits and collections, and that is the preservation of context.
Even through digitization, the Courtauld maintains the original context of the material image to the best of their ability. Much like an ‘in-context’ museum exhibit, the inclusion of materials even if they aren’t considered ‘aesthetically pleasing’, ‘pure’ or ‘pristine’, is more honestly authentic to the copies contained in the library. Such inclusion mimics the idea of placing cultural artefacts in-context, a move, although not particularly revolutionary, increasingly in widespread use in museum institutions.
Some may find the ‘info dumps’ included in certain uses of in-context exhibition – i.e. signage and labelling with blocks of text accompanying each artefact – distracting or an attempt to impose dominant points of view. However, ‘cleaning-up’ pictures echoes process of ‘cleaning-up history’ and tends to remove a sense of reality, of humanity. In the cataloguing portion of activities at the Courtauld, while meticulously labelling each page, the order of the photographs in each folder becomes a matter of subtle sifting and distinguishing between the contents of each image. The aim of this ‘attention to detail’ is to replicate the experience of, in the case of the Conway Library, walking through a myriad of architecture in any number of regions from cathedrals in Tomar, Portugal to the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The guide for volunteers on how to label the Conway captures the sentiment of not just the accession numbering step of digitization but the quest for and the journey through materiality that I believe defines the spirit of the whole project. It reads: “Pictures or folders of the same building should be ordered to recreate the experience of moving closer to it. Plans & drawings > exterior from afar > interior > details.”
Although this line of instructions on the sorting system may seem mundane at first glance it struck me for the succinct, yet evocative way it describes a photographic journey. A journey that was first experienced by the photographer, Conway himself, and, now, by everyone who views his collections. We may not precisely trace the paths that Conway traveled nor the order in which he took his shots of archways, windows, and molding details. But, regardless, it was a serene, almost dream-like experience to organize the photos as if, we too, were wandering among the past streets of a city square or the well-tread pathways leading to a monastery. I believe that the use of proximity and distance in the sorting of the images is an invaluable aspect of the material journey which hopefully more and more people will have the opportunity to experience for themselves.
As a brief example of this kind of journey on a smaller scale and relegated to the analysis of specific images, their content, and possible meanings, I will look to the work of Anthony (“Tony”) Kersting.
Kersting’s corpus of travel photography spans an impressive range from Western Europe to Northern Africa to the Caribbean and South Asia. Much of his work shines the spotlight on architecture and landscapes, but several ‘jewels’ in his collection show a marvelous ‘humanity’, a sense of intimacy between people that comes through the images as handled and hopefully viewed in digital form.
I found the images Kersting took in 1944 in Jordan, of the Bedouin people he met and traveled with, to be particularly illustrative of tensions between and among the familiar and the distant. I will mention outright that my initial impression of these photos was that they were and still are ‘a product of their time.’ Some, though not all, communicate observations of the people and places in Jordan as perceived through Orientalist, colonial eyes.
There is an air of the ‘exotic’ in these photographs, punctuated by the absence of Kersting himself who repeatedly is not a subject to be photographed but remains the spectator and authority behind his apparatus. There he stays, in varying ways both literal and metaphorical ‘capturing’ or ‘ensnaring’ the people through his camera lens. And, in many ways, Kersting’s work echoes the mode of thought within T.E. Lawrence’s own writings and photographs of strange and unfamiliar lands.
However, the Kersting pictures I focused on were ones which brought a sense of real time and space back to even an unfamiliar setting, momentarily erasing the idea of the Bedouin as a people suspended in some timeless, ‘Other’ place. These photographs, curiously enough, are ones containing Kersting’s other traveling companion, a New Zealand nurse he often refers to as ‘Sister Adams.’
In multiple photographs, Sister Adams appears along Bedouin men and women, her interactions delivering a sense of familiarity and comfortable intimacy with people we might assume are her regular traveling companions. The notes Kersting has scribbled on many of the photos occasionally provide additional context or ‘proof’ of the type of encounters and relationships between the people depicted through his camera lens.
Interestingly, in Kersting’s collection, different copies of the same image contain different descriptions. For example, the image below alternately read alongside: “Petra. The Bedouin boys watch the lady put her socks on!” and “Life in Petra! Sister Adams puts on her socks, to the amused gaze of the Arab youngsters.”
These separate inscriptions, despite referring to the same event and people, communicate notably different moods and subjectivities. The first seems detached, to-the-point, and factual, while the second reads more as an entry in a photographic travel journal composed by Kersting. It holds a sense of emotion and meaning behind the relationships, hinting at the way Sister Adams and the boys may relate (or don’t relate) to one another.
In these different comments on the same scene we can read how distance and familiarity can exist simultaneously, on display in a snapshot frozen in time. And, it is thanks to the different thoughts going through Kersting’s head each time he jotted down observations on the back of his copies, those identical thoughts which bring the materiality of the journey to viewers today.
We may not know exactly the kind of journey Anthony Kersting and other photographers experienced while committing reality to print and paper, but that is part of his work’s value as not just a photographic object, but as a cultural artefact.
And, in the 21st century, more than ever, it is possible for people to track and craft their own journey. That journey doesn’t have to be conducted blindly, erratically, without context or a sense of where to start and where to end. The processes dedicated to reproducing the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections and noting what path was once followed through a cathedral or where copies of the same image differ from one another, can serve as an irreplaceable guide. And not even a guide which follows a predefined set of rules or certain “ways of seeing’” (Berger 1972). The digitization undergone at the Courtauld Institute offers the opportunity to take the materials converted to digital form, but no less real for it, and take it any direction, down any path.
And that is exactly how this essay came to be: as an exploration and a contemplation into the inexhaustible potential of a process and the collections involved.
Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: Penguin UK.
Karp I (1991) Culture and Representation. In: Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Keane W (2013) On spirit writing: materialities of language and the religious work of transduction. In: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, pp. 1–17.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett B (1991) Objects of ethnography. In: Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Lievrouw L (2014) Materiality and Media in Communication and Technology Studies: An Unfinished Project. In: Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot. MIT Press Scholarship Online, pp. 21–51.
Taussig M (1993) Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. Great Britain: Routledge Press.
Looking at the world as if it were a picture is a relatively recent phenomenon, yet nowadays, with the advent of smartphones and social media, the practice of producing pictures is embedded in our daily routine, and the term “picturesque” is more relevant than ever.
The Rievaulx Terrace at Duncombe Park in Yorkshire triggered my interest as it makes such a picturesque use of the exquisitely ruined Cistercian abbey nearby. Both sites are well recorded in a photo reportage I found in the Conway Library while digitising the box. The focus of the photo series, partly conducted for Country Life, are the temples, especially the rotunda, which gives us a trustworthy example of how the Rotunda in Stowe, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, should have looked like before Borra remodelled it. Of all 113 pictures, two are clearly outstanding; they were taken by Anthony Kersting.
Despite being described forty years ago as the foremost photographer of his generation, there are no publications dedicated to Anthony Kersting’s work. Although evaluating Kersting as the best photographer of his generation is a matter of personal judgement and every scholar or critic has his favourites, what is undeniable is the value of his contribution to the British photographic scene and his place alongside photographers like Yersbury, De Mare and especially Edwin Smith. Carefully selected and framed, their pictures poignantly explored another Britain, prizing evolution rather than revolution, variety, rootedness, and respect for landscape and vernacular architecture.
If we analyse Kersting’s pictures in detail, we can trace his painstaking and meticulous approach to framing architecture. Looking at the negatives, the brightly centre-lit abbey stands out immediately as the protagonist of the composition. The horizon is high in the picture – above the centre line – which places emphasis on the nature of the landscape. Indeed, the vantage point chosen by the photographer perfectly positions the viewer to enjoy the content of each plane of the image. Our sight of the distant hills might have been blocked by the foliage that dominates both sides of the photographs but, as it is, this position gives us an all-encompassing view, as in Claude Lorrain’s paintings. The abbey, like the two temples, stands perfectly vertical, framed between the wavy grass lawn and a dramatic cloudy sky – Kersting’s signature. In the image of the Ionic Temple the vantage point chosen is especially significant: to obtain his chosen angle, Kersting would have had to walk down the slope to position his tripod and wait until all the columns were fully lit.
To conclude, Rievaulx Terrace constitutes a unique example of landscape moulded on a picture’s composition before photography came along. Even if the visitor – an 18th-century guest of Duncombe or 21th-century influencer – perceives the Rievaulx landscape as natural and spontaneous, it is in fact totally constructed on a vantage point to recreate the effect of picturesque paintings. Likewise, looking at Kersting’s photographs through his framing device – a half plate camera – we can see that he didn’t just construct a picture, he also altered the vertical lines, as though he were a painter.
While digitising a box of photographs of Oxfordshire churches with fellow volunteer Muny, we found a wonderful wall painting in a Kersting print; a welcome surprise after the usual mix of white-walled naves and pillars.
In the Middle Ages, it was common practice to paint the walls of churches. Few people could read, so it was necessary to teach by using pictures. During the Reformation, these images were covered over as they were considered symbols of Popish idolatry.
The painting is on the wall which separates the nave from the chancel, and is an example of how certain images became assigned to specific positions in the church. One of the most common is Doom, or the Last Judgement. The symbolism explains the positioning of the Nave as representing the ‘Church militant’ and the chancel as the ‘Church Triumphant’, separated by the judgment before which all souls must pass.
The Last Judgment in South Leigh follows a traditional pattern. Two angels with trumpets are waking up the dead. On the left, an angel in white is calling to the saved, with a scroll above announcing ’Venite Benedicte Patris Mei’ (Come you blessed to my Father). They then move towards the north wall where (not visible in the photograph) St Peter awaits them at the gates of Heaven. On the right, the angel wears dark clothing and summons the damned, the scroll above saying ‘Discedite Maledicti’ (Depart you cursed). They are bound together with what looks like barbed wire and are being pushed towards the jaws of hell, which are just visible on the south wall.
The image is clearly designed to scare the wits out of the congregation:
The original paintings were discovered in 1870, when the old layers of whitewash were removed after the new vicar, Gerard Moultie, decided the church needed restoration. The work was carried out for £85 by Messrs Burlison and Gryllis, a firm heavily influenced by William Morris. This is particularly evident where the originals were too faint to copy and were effectively replaced by 19th-century design, for example in the painting of flowers and birds beneath the Last Judgment.
The original artists were probably trained in monasteries. They were not necessarily monks, but young men who showed artistic ability and were trained in monastic scriptoria. There is also evidence of a growing number of itinerant painters who were associated with the Guilds of Painter-Stainers in London and other cities.
For a small village church, South Leigh has several associations with the famous. The ancestors of William Morris owned land there, and it is only 10 miles or so from Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s country house.
In 1725, John Wesley preached his first sermon from the pulpit (he returned in 1771 and was refused entry).
Between 1947 and 1949, the poet Dylan Thomas and his wife lived in the village and maintained an eccentric lifestyle. This was many years after he wrote ’It is the sinner’s dust tongued bell claps me to churches’, though it would be wonderful to imagine him seeing the Last Judgment through an alcoholic haze and wondering which way he would go.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer