Thanks to a major public project involving 14,000 volunteers, one million photographs from the Conway Library at The Courtauld Institute of Art will be available to view online from the end of April. Jessica Miller visited The Conway Library for a behind the scenes look at the digitisation project.
Located at The Courtauld Institute of Art at Somerset House in London, The Conway Library contains over one million images dating from the inception of photography to the present day. Founded by journalist, mountaineer, politician, and art historian Lord Conway of Allington, The Conway Library collection was bestowed to The Courtauld when it was founded in 1932. Since then, the collection has continuously developed as a teaching and research collection with gifts from photographers and collectors.
Having ceased any new acquisitions in 2009, the library collection includes rarely seen photographs and cuttings of world architecture, sculpture, paintings, and decorative art. Including 160,000 prints by Britain’s leading architectural photographer of the 20th Century Anthony Kersting. Best known for his photographs of British architecture, the collection also contains documentation of his extensive expeditions across the Middle East throughout the 1940s and 50s.
Other highlights also include rare 19th Century photographs of world architecture, unpublished images taken by soldiers, historians and architects revealing bomb damage across Europe following WWII, and T.E. Lawrence’s photographs of Saudi Arabia.
Since 2017, an impressive 14,000 volunteers – ranging from ages 18 – 86 – have worked with The Courtauld in the largest and most diverse public inclusion project in gallery’s history – to catalogue and photograph every image in The Conway Library collection.
Recently completed, the digitisation project, which has been supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, will open up the internationally-renowned collection of photographs and cuttings at high resolution to the public for free. Making the library easier to use as a tool for research and education and enabling a wider audience to access it. As a result, there is also hope the project will uncover new insights into this remarkable collection.
Volunteers have come from all backgrounds and experience with many recruited from a wide variety of organisations, schools and charities, including The Terrance Higgins Trust, The One Housing Foundation, BeyondAutism, and My Action for Kids. Including people who have never visited or interacted with the gallery before, nor had any experience in conservation or digitization.
Project Director Tom Bilson told us: “Expecting no more than a handful of potential volunteers, we prepared ourselves with a packet of biscuits and a small tray of teacups. Over the course of that day over 150 potential volunteers attended, with a queue forming down Strand. From that moment our greatest risk, of not being able to recruit enough volunteers to complete the project, disappeared completely”.
In fact, over the course of the project, almost 2,000 in-person volunteers attended and were trained in basic conservation skills such as tear mending and photography to museum quality. A further 12,000 volunteers were involved remotely via Zooniverse, a cataloguing system, to help write up the text about each image.
Tom said: “Over 35% of our volunteers have never heard of the Courtauld before. We publicise volunteering as an opportunity to learn digital skills, work with outstanding photographic equipment, and join a community aligned with the arts and learning. Projects such as this one have the capacity to change an organisation through direct participation, and align it closely with new audiences that perhaps could never be reached in any other way.”
Typically, voluntary roles ask for minimum skills and time available. However, in their recruitment process, The Courtauld’s interest was less in experience and more about wanting to help applicants with new skills and opportunities to socialise. Some have even gone on to work in museums and galleries – including with The Courtauld itself.
Approach to digitisation
It is assumed that digitising photographs such as these would be scanned, but at the heart of the Conway Library digitisation project is a commitment to honoring the material essence of the photograph as a physical object, maintaining the original context of the material image. So instead of scanning, they took a photographic approach. Using 2 Phase One cameras and continuous studio lighting – which is easy to set up – along with Capture One software.
A series of requirements were laid out on the outset:
- Honor the physical form and integrity of the original work.
- Photograph, never scan.
- Use lighting to reveal texture, structure, and composition.
- Never crop to neaten, but rather always show the edges. Capture One is set up to auto-crop to outside the mount.
- Never re-touch.
- Photograph backs and blank pages.
- Weigh and show scale.
- Record folders, boxes, and shelves i.e. we photograph every folder, every box, every shelf to reinforced that the images people see online also exist as objects in the physical world.
Tom Bilson said: “Our digitally photographed images retain as much of the character of the original as possible: the slight line of shadow to show that a print has been stuck by human hands onto card, the surface texture of the emulsion, the fingerprints (or lack of) which give us a sense of the people who might have handled the object, folder or box. In adopting this approach we’re safeguarding objects as they transition to a (post) digital culture and avoiding the various cleaning processes that often distance digital surrogates from the physical world from which they are drawn.”
In the special case of the Anthony Kersting archive – many of the prints are duplicates, which itself reveals some insight into the photographer’s process. However, only the best duplicates have been included within the digitisation, in turn halving the number of photos included.
A total of 1700 photographers are now also catalogued, allowing users to search and browse by photographer – which was previously incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Volunteers have written the biographies for all of them – which in turn has also flooded Wikipedia with new profiles for these photographers.
The Conway Library photographic collection will be available to explore online via The Courtauld website from Friday 28 April 2023.
Featured image: Bevin Court, Finsbury Park, London, UK. Tecton. One of several modernist housing projects designed by Tecton architecture practice in the immediate post-war period, built on the site of the bomb-destroyed Holford Square. Image courtesy of The Conway Library/The Courtauld Institute of Art