history of photography

‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Oxonian History of Adolphe Braun’s Sistine Chapel Series

By Sofia Garré, (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2018)

This research project was made possible by generous funding awarded by the Edgar Wind Benefactors Committee and the John Fell Fund. It concerned the provenance of a set of photographs by Adolphe Braun of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, housed in the Visual Resources Centre. Also of interest was the possibility of a connection with Professor Edgar Wind, first Professor of History of Art at Oxford, who specialised in the work of Michelangelo.


Last year, like many fellow Master’s students, I was busy writing my dissertation, preparing for exams and sending out job applications. However, when the opportunity to investigate Adolphe Braun’s 1869 photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel came up, I happily embraced the possibility of making the term a little busier. Currently held at the Visual Resources Centre in the Department of History of Art these 125 carbon-print photographs have been digitised and are now available to view online on the Digital Bodleian site.

The prints were initially released in 1869 by the French photographer Adolphe Braun, whose company was among the earliest to make photographs of artworks available to a wider public. In fact, at the time of their release, Braun’s prints constituted the first photographic survey of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, making the images interesting not only from an aesthetic perspective but also from an historiographical one. Given this premise, it is not surprising that the department should want to find out more about the acquisition and subsequent uses of Braun’s series. It is precisely with this intention in mind that I first approached the photographs, though – this time, quite surprisingly – I soon realised that very little information existed on Braun’s series, its acquisition and its movements within the University.

Part of my surprise in this lack of documentation stemmed from a very practical consideration: Braun’s photographs, mounted on boards that are nearly half a metre tall, are hard to miss, particularly as they are housed in six, equally large, book-shaped cases. The cases themselves are covered in red leather bearing the crest of the Earl of Eldon, which provided me with a crucial piece of information on the origin of the series.

0002.jpgAdolphe Braun, View of the Sistine Chapel, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The Eldon family made important contributions to the study of the Italian Renaissance at the University of Oxford. In 1845, the Second Earl of Eldon contributed £4000 towards the acquisition of drawings by Italian masters, and most notably by Michelangelo and Raphael. Twenty-three years later, in 1868, his son donated an additional £1200 to guarantee the maintenance of the drawings and the University’s continuing dedication to the illustration of Italian art.[1] Thus, it seems reasonable that the Eldon fund would have been used by the curators of the University Galleries, founded in 1855 and indicated as recipient of the second donation, to purchase Braun’s photographs.

Placing this reasonable hypothesis on firmer foundations, however, was a less straightforward endeavour than I had foreseen. The prints are unaccounted for in University publications such as the University Calendar, which limits itself to a laconic mention of the donations made by the Earls of Eldon in the issues published between 1855 and 1871.[2] Equally, I have not been able to uncover any definitive reference attesting to the precise moment of the prints’ acquisition. There are no comprehensive accounts of the University acquisitions in the nineteenth century and no extensive list of the artworks purchased using the Eldon Fund currently exists in the Ashmolean Museum or in other University archives.

Only the issue of University Gazette published on the 14th of June 1870 suggests, however vaguely, the presence of Braun’s photographic series, situating it at the north end of the Great Gallery in the University Galleries. There, the document claims, were ‘cases containing prints, with illustrations of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, provided out of the funds placed at the disposal of the curators by the present Lord Eldon.’[3] The reference to the prints was intriguing, but far from unmistakable. The date of the account – June 1870 – struck me as especially problematic: could all the photographs, taken in Rome in 1869, have been printed and placed in personalized cases at such an early date?

In my attempt to answer the question, I relied on one of the few scholarly texts engaging directly with Braun’s Sistine Chapel series, Philippe Jarjat’s ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic Album and Visual Identity,’ published in 2011. Jarjat’s discussion is centered on a series of images released in Paris, which resemble those in the collection of the Visual Resources Centre in both size and number. Furthermore, like their Oxonian counterparts, the Parisian prints are housed in book-shaped cases whose spines are covered in red leather (although, it should be noted, the French series only comprises two cases). [4]

Adolphe Braun, Delphic Sibyl and Daniel, box 4,  © Department of History of Art

According to Jarjat, such images would have been available individually and as part of a series from 1870 – a possibility that partly undermined my hypothesis, which located the images in the University Galleries as early as June 1870. However, while navigating the records of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, I stumbled upon a catalogue of Braun’s Sistine Chapel photographs dating back to 1869, listing in their present order all the images included in the Oxonian series with the exception of four prints capturing works by Perugino, Rosselli, Signorelli and Botticelli.[5] Jarjat’s article does not account for this document, and, in fact, claims that the earliest printed catalogue was released in 1876.[6]

The existence of the 1869 list conferred a renewed credibility onto the possibility that the cases mentioned in the 1870 University Gazette actually included those containing Braun’s prints by indicating that the images themselves may have been available before 1870. The prominence of the Eldon crest on the cases also sustains the hypothesis that the acquisition of Braun’s prints may have shortly followed the 1868 donation made by the Third Earl of Eldon. Assuming that the prints were actually acquired between late 1869 and early 1870, the University of Oxford would have been among the first to acquire Braun’s photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel: a gesture demonstrating the appeal of the images as well as the University’s interest in illustrating the Renaissance through a variety of media.

But how were the prints used between 1869 and their reappearance in the Visual Resources Centre in 2003 remains somewhat of a mystery. Braun’s photographs were moved to the Department of History of Art following the transfer of the Western Art Department Library from the Ashmolean Museum to the Sackler Library in 2001. This relocation was consistent with the different functions of the two institutions, the Visual Resources Centre constituting a more suitable home for the prints than the Sackler, which does not collect images.

However, very little information exists in the University’s records concerning the status of the images prior to the transfer. Considering the interest of Edgar Wind – the first Professor of the History of Art in Oxford – in Michelangelo’s work and his extensive research on the Sistine Chapel, looking for references to Braun’s prints in Wind’s scholarly work, personal and academic correspondence, and slides seemed appropriate. Unfortunately, though, these sources suggest that he may have not been aware of the existence of these images. For example, in 1958, three years after his appointment, Wind complained in a letter to Henry Allen Moe that ‘as for slides and photographs, there were none at all when I arrived.’[7]

0012Adolphe Braun, Ceiling of the Chapel in Four Parts, No. 2, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The same lack of awareness (or interest) pervades other accounts, including the records of the Keeper of Fine Arts of the Ashmolean Museum, published from 1885. Such sources invariably mention the precious drawings and sketches held by the University, but they fail to place emphasis on the didactic and aesthetic value of Braun’s series or later photographic reproductions of artworks, such as those by Alinari and Anderson.

This probably tells us more about the perceived value of photography in nineteenth and early twentieth-century art historical practice than they do about the actual potential of Braun’s images. Indeed, it makes sense that University records and publications would disregard photographs in favour of originals at a time when photographic images were widely treated as ‘mere reproductions.’ By looking at the prints themselves, however, Braun’s ambition that his images be viewed as something more than simple reproductions emerges clearly. Not only do the quality and size of the photographs bear witness to their value: the variety of images of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – a curved and therefore uneasy surface to photograph – illustrate the technical skills of the photographers just as eloquently as they capture Michelangelo’s mastery.

Braun’s series is therefore endowed with multiple layers of significance. The early acquisition of the Oxonian set bespeaks the University’s openness to new forms of art historical illustration, while its general neglect in subsequent accounts testifies to the stature of photography among other forms of documentation and artistic practices. Maybe, had my final term in Oxford been a little quieter, I would have also been able to unravel the mystery of the photographs’ use in their 150 year-long sojourn at the University. As of now, though, I can only hope that another student will re-embark on this promising investigation.


Bibliography

Jarjat, Philippe. ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity.’ Art and the Early Photographic Album. Edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Moltedo, Alida. La Sistina Riprodotta: gli Affreschi di Michelangelo dalle Stampe del Cinquecento alle Campagne Fotografiche Anderson Calcografia. Roma: Fratelli Palombi Editori, 1991.

O’Brien, Maureen. Image and Enterprise. The Photographs of Adolphe Braun. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Wind, Edgar. The Religious Simbolism of Michelangelo: the Sistine Ceiling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

 

[1] ‘Eldon Fund,’ Council Regulations 25 of 2002, 2. http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/statutes/regulations/councilregs25/Ashmolean%20Museum%20of%20Art%20and%20Archaeology.pdf

[2] In each issue, the Eldon donation is mentioned in the section devoted to the University Galleries. See The Oxford University Calendar, issues from 1855 to 1871.

[3] Henry W. Acland, ‘University Galleries,’ University Gazette Vol.1 No.19 (June 14, 1870), 9.

[4] Philippe Jarjat, ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity,’ Art and the Early Photographic Album, edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

[5] Rome. Palais du Vatican, Chapelle Sixtine. Fresques de Michel-Ange reproduites par Adolphe Braun. Mulhouse: L.L. Bader, 1869.

[6] Ibid, 156

[7] Correspondence between Edgar Wind and Henry Allan Moe, 1st July 1958, MS. Wind 13, Box 1, Folder 1. Edgar Wind Papers, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

 

Visiting and Revisiting Beloved Spaces: The Photographic Reproductions of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Frescoes in the Visual Resources Centre

By Sofia Garré and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture

This year’s Slade Professor David Ekserdjian kindly offered to hold a workshop for History of Art students in the Department’s Visual Resources Centre. The topic of this event coincided with his Slade Lecture on Michaelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Students had the opportunity to discuss with Professor Ekserdjian the visual historiography of art history since the invention of photography, using examples from the Department’s photographic collections.


The Sistine Chapel, accessed only by a handful of people in its original context, is now open to all visitors who can afford a ticket. Since Michelangelo completed the vault’s decorations in 1512 it has been represented in different mediums, which have enabled this once socially enclosed space to be known to the wider public. Sketches and prints of the chapel initiated this process as early as the Renaissance, but it is only in the late nineteenth century that more reliable and less expensive photographic reproductions grew increasingly popular. In the History of Art Department’s Visual Resources Centre copies from nineteenth century campaigns are held alongside contemporary reproductions.

Professor David Ekserdjian, this year’s Slade Professor at Oxford, explored their historical and documentary importance in a workshop tailored to students. As graduates specialising in Italian Renaissance Art, we felt especially eager to take part. Professor Ekserdjian looked specifically at photographs of Michelangelo’s frescoes, considering how they have been used by scholars and conservators before and after the chapel’s restoration, completed in 1999. Adding an interesting layer to his discussion, he also encouraged us to reflect on changes in accessibility to images and how they have affected the practice and study of the history of art.

DSC_0849_crop.jpg© Department of History of Art

The workshop started off with Adolphe Braun’s large photographic prints of the Sistine Chapel, the first photographic survey of this space ever attempted in 1868. Housed in large leather-bound volumes, these prints are themselves works of art, showing beautiful views of Michelangelo’s frescoes. Although objects of clear aesthetic interest, Braun’s photographs failed to capture some of the details due to their low contrast and wide perspective.

This is no fault of Braun’s studio of photographers but of the technology and aesthetic preferences of the period. The prints are large (37x47cm) because they are contact prints and reflect the size of the glass plates used to take the photographs. Photographic technology at the time relied on the collodion wet plate process, which had a slow exposure time, up to several minutes in low light conditions indoors such as the Sistine Chapel. Photographers had to work quickly to coat, sensitize and expose the plate within a time frame of 15 minutes before the collodion set. It was necessary for a portable darkroom to be employed when working in the field. Considering Braun had large scaffolding constructed in order to photograph the ceiling at height, it becomes clear what a huge feat this first photographic survey of the Sistine Chapel was.

DSC_0846.JPG© Department of History of Art

The Braun photographs are carbon prints which gives them their matte brown tone. Carbon prints can be produced with a variety of colour pigments including reds, browns and cool blues and greys. They are resistant to fading and were commonly used from the 1860s onwards for commercial prints. The matte quality, soft focus and colouring of the photographs give them the look of a painting or drawing. Indeed they are treated as such in their presentation, they are housed in grand portfolio boxes as if they are Renaissance drawings themselves.

As Professor Ekserdjian remarked, Braun’s series, initially released in 1869, constituted a first attempt to replace previously circulating prints and sketches. However, the reach of prints of this size and quality was still relatively limited because of their high cost. The smaller prints distributed by the commercial publishers Alinari and James Anderson later in the nineteenth century, were a partial solution to this problem. At once more affordable these images record more effectively the status of the Chapel before its restoration. Indeed, thanks to their sharper printing, these photographs allow us to see more of the minute features in Michelangelo’s frescoes while, at the same time, showing the extent of their damage.

Reflecting on the documentary quality of these photographs we were made aware of how key aspects of the frescoes, still visible on the ceiling when Braun’s and Alinari and Anderson’s pictures were taken, have either irreversibly disappeared or reappeared in the process of restoration. The lines dividing different sections of the frescoes, easily discernible prior to the conservation intervention, are now impossible to decipher. Similarly, the finishing touches on the frescoes, also known as tracce a secco, were removed during the cleaning of the ceiling.

DSC_0876.JPGLantern slides © Department of History of Art

Looking at the photographs gave Professor Ekserdjian an opportunity to discuss with us how this ambitious restoration altered scholars’ understanding of the cycle by bringing the frescoes’ original colours back to light. In particular, the symbolic value of one of the Chapel’s lunette had to be re-evaluated when its dark tones, which had been interpreted as a metaphor of the obscure ages preceding Christianity in pre-restoration literature, disappeared in the cleaning process, revealing the lunette’s original bright colours.

Colour, an especially striking feature of the Sistine Chapel and a traditionally important category of analysis for art history, was also central to our discussions as a group. As we moved from black and white prints to slides in colour, we were invited to think about the limitations of the photographic medium in capturing and faithfully reproducing shades of colour in the artwork. Precisely because of these inevitable limitations, we were encouraged to be cautious when using photographic reproductions in our academic work. However, Professor Ekserdjian did not fail to place emphasis on the immense contribution that colour photography, and photographic slides in particular, have made to the study of the history of art. The crucial didactic value of this medium was that it finally allowed professors to incorporate images of faraway artworks like the Sistine Chapel into their teaching practice.

DSC_087535mm slides © Department of History of Art

No physical resource, however, has been able to compete with the internet in terms of widening accessibility to artworks’ reproductions. Thus, as the workshop came to an end we touched upon free digital collections of images, undoubtedly the most democratic source available at this stage. We were introduced to a range of key databases, including the Fondazione Zeri online catalogue, which collects 290,000 digital images of Italian art and architecture. Making digital photographs accessible to the general public, these platforms also indirectly transformed slides themselves into aesthetic objects, collected as such in the Visual Resources Centre alongside valuable printed photographs. As a final note, students were encouraged to reflect not only on what is gained but also on what is lost in this change of medium and accessibility. Platforms that provide easily accessible digital photographs should not fully replace the exercise of memory, crucial in allowing art historians to recollect the details of an artwork.

Ultimately, Professor Ekserdjian turned a workshop on photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s frescoes into an opportunity to raise much broader questions around the history of art. Professor Ekserdjian certainly did provide us with an interesting overview of the resources on the Sistine Chapel available in the Department. What is more, he reminded us of the need to constantly question not only our views, but also the availability and reliability of the primary sources we employ.


Sofia and Irene are both MSt History of Art and Visual Culture students and take the MSt Women and Art option with Professor Geraldine Johnson.

To listen again to Professor Ekserdjian’s lecture on Michelangelo watch the podcast.

The Department of History of Art holds several large photography collections, for more information about the Adolphe Braun Sistine Chapel prints and our other photographic material please see the Visual Resources Centre page.

Photo Archives VI: The Place of Photography

By Francesca Issatt, Visual Resources Assistant, History of Art Department


Last month on the 20th and 21st April I was lucky enough to attend the sixth Photo Archives conference. It was hosted by Geraldine Johnson (University of Oxford), Deborah Schultz (Regent’s University London) and Costanza Caraffa (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz—Max-Planck-Institut). The Photo Archives series has previously explored the photographic memory of art history, hidden archives, the idea of nation and the paradigm of objectivity. This iteration focused on the place of photography, a broad concept which was interpreted diversely.

Photo Archives VI was held in Oxford at Christ Church College. The significance of this location, in the heart of Oxford, was not lost. As Geraldine Johnson commented in her opening remarks Oxford plays an important role in the history of photography. Geraldine talked about William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published, which depicts on its very first plate the Queen’s College in Oxford. Further to this on plate 18 is a photograph of the front entrance to Christ Church itself, known as Tom Tower.

christchurchedit2Christ Church College, from the Visual Resources Centre photo archive, © Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

She continued her example with one of Christ Church’s most famous Fellows, Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll), who some twenty years after Talbot’s publication was photographing Alice Liddell whom he based his Alice in Wonderland novels on. In his own time he was a renowned mathematician but now is most famous for his writing and photographs. Dodgson’s living quarters and homemade photographic studio were only a few doors down from Tom Tower. Therefore as Geraldine clearly put it “we can place photography quite literally in the stony streetscapes and grassy quads of Oxford.”

I think the broad notion of place was best described by the first speaker, Joan Schwartz (Queen’s University, Ontario), who set up a framework for the papers that followed. As she explained, both photographs and archives are places – physical and digital. Photographs can be of place, depicting real places with geographical co-ordinates, or they can be of abstract conceptual places such as home, family, history, war and environment.

Photographs can also be investigated as place and as surrogates for place. As a way to construct and recall place as if the viewer was physically present. Photographs in place, and in particular in archives, is where photographs derive much of their meaning. Such as in an album juxtaposed with other images, organised in a filing cabinet geographically, chronologically or numerically.

Costanza Caraffa, Frederick Bohrer, Joan Schwartz, Katarina Masterova (4)edit© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I hugely enjoyed the first day and heard some great papers. Speakers covered the topics of archival processes, photographic albums and disciplinary structures, with focus on photographic material from artist’s studios, archaeological excavations and science laboratories to name a few places. To round off the day’s stimulating papers the keynote lecture was given by Geoffrey Batchen (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) who spoke about The Placeless Image.

Geoffrey offered examples of placeless images including digital images, which will never have a physical printed manifestation and will always remain on mobile devices and online sites. He said “Photography has slothed off its dependency on a physical substrate and become nothing but image […] photography has become an immaterial medium – or at least it is different materially to our past photographs”.

edit8© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

This is very much a twenty-first century issue but the placeless image has always existed. Another example was of engravings ‘from photographs’ in the nineteenth century. Which he said “free the image from an otherwise static existence. Unfixing it from any medium specificity and any particular place. The image is passed on through a potentially endless chain of transfers from one substrate to the next.”

Geoffrey also talked about the purification of photographs by institutions. For example galleries suppressing complicated origins, for the ease of having a single author, a single date or a single title. Archives find photographs difficult to deal with due to their spatial and temporal migration. As an institution they are traditionally fixated on the storage, cataloguing and study of static objects. Photographs are a challenge to fix in place.

On both days of the conference site visits were offered to some of the places of photography in Oxford. Delegates had the opportunity to visit the Bodleian Library, the Christ Church library and archive, the Griffith Institute, the Museum of the History of Science and the Middle East Centre Archive. As well as our very own Visual Resources Centre! This proved a very successful and appreciated element of the conference, many delegates tweeted their enthusiasm under the hashtag #PhotoArchivesOxford.

© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I was co-host with Deborah Schultz for the site visit to the Visual Resources Centre in the History of Art Department. A selection of material was brought out from the photographic archive and glass lantern slides depicting art and architecture. As well as photograph albums with a mix of commercial and amateur photographs inside. Another highlight was the over-sized Adolphe Braun reproductions of the Sistine Chapel, presented in portfolios designed to look like expensive leather bound books. All of which sparked great discussions about art historical photographic archives, their past use as study resources, their materiality and their relevance to scholarship and teaching today.

The second day of the conference saw speakers address production, reproduction and value as well as forms of materialisation. Specific talks looked at, amongst other topics, the place of photography related to the encounter between sitter and camera, the ‘trash to treasure’ rediscovery of anonymous collections, curatorial practice, and digitisation as a cultural form.

edit9© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

To conclude a thought provoking and intellectually thrilling couple of days Elizabeth Edwards (VARI, London/De Montfort University) gave her closing remarks. Elizabeth spoke on the presence of politics that lurked in all the papers but hadn’t been addressed directly. Such as the political acts of how we create value, how we imagine, how we appropriate, disseminate and control. She remarked that “Where we place photographs matters politically. How places are made photographically matters politically.” This also raised questions about photographs out of place.

All of the papers focused on the work of photographs in specifically defined places – the archive, the laboratory, the archaeological excavation. Elizabeth asked what happens when photographs attempt to stray and wander in to other places. What are the patterns of their wandering? As she put it “photographs out of place is the very nature of the reproductive and digital worlds in which we live. Photographs can no longer be contained within places – they no longer have material resonance.”

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the conference and co-hosting a site visit. It was a great chance to share Oxford’s fantastic photographic collections with delegates. The brilliant papers and the discussions that followed them made us think about how photographs both articulate and occupy space and time. Elizabeth Edwards summed up the subject of the conference perfectly when she said “photographs are the endless nomad.”


For more information about the conference please visit the conference page.

Podcasts of some of the conference papers are available to listen to here.

For further information about the Visual Resources Centre and its collections click here.

Crowd-sourcing historic images with HEIR – 5 months on

The Historic Environment Image Resource crowd-sourcing project HEIR went online 5 months ago. This post is a round-up of what we have learnt about the image collections, crowdsourcing, and public engagement since then. It is also a post about why it is important to re-introduce forgotten photographs back into the research resource.

 

Fig 1 lantern slides

 

Old teaching slide collections are continuing to be under threat of being de-commissioned. Where lack of space, finances, image decay, copyright issues, and the perceived redundancy of old media forms in the digital age are combined, it has often been too difficult for holders to justify their retention. (See, for example, Krivickas, J. and Meyer, E. ‘Future or fate: the slide collection of the Robert Deshon and Karl J. Schlachter Library for Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning’, where although only 26% of the images were available digitally in ARTstor, the complete lack of source information about the images led to the decommissioning and de-accession of the entire slide library).

 

Fig 2 discussion and upload HEIRtagger

 

What has been perceived to be an insurmountable problem by some, HEIR has seen as an opportunity: to challenge perceived wisdom, re-assess redundant technology, and find new ways of re-entering a forgotten resource into public and scholarly debate. Only 5 months into crowd-sourcing, it has already turned out that the old lantern slide photographic collections of the Oxford University Department for the History of Art, the Schools of Archaeology, Geography and Plant Science, the Ashmolean Museum and Harris Manchester College were well worth holding on to long after they became ‘redundant’. 131 taggers have tagged over 600 images and generated over 1000 discussions, many of them containing specialist knowledge, research, or identifying unknown locations of our images. Some have even commented on having seen similar images before and chasing up references. And HEIR has not even been promoted publicly yet.

What is more, scanning and combining the images of different Departments, Divisions, Colleges and Museums on one accessible platform – HEIRdams – has enhanced the cross-divisional and multi-disciplinary research potential of the resource.

 

Fig 3 page from HEIR database

 

For departments, the benefits of participating in HEIR are clear: they are able to maximise and capitalise on having this material available in the digital format for the first time. Within the History of Art Department, for example, the immediate benefits of getting involved included exciting re-discoveries, such as some rather lovely hand-coloured slides; interesting exchanges over Twitter; or the inspiration for a piece by one of the students who worked on the project that you can read about on the History of Art and Visual Resources Centre blog.

 

 

Once online, departments are rapidly capitalising on the database in their own ways and thinking laterally: the Ashmolean Museum was delighted to project a tailored sequence of slides as part of the Being Human Festival in November 2015, exposing their ‘old’, ‘redundant’ teaching materials to a brand new engaged audience.

 

Fig 6 Ashmolean exhibition

 

Beyond Oxford, Royal Holloway University of London has initiated a whole new research project ‘Site seeing: Pompeii in 19th and early 20th-century lantern slides’ based on these re-discovered images.

HEIR’s Mobile re-photography App has added an additional layer of interest and engagement with the images, allowing our students, researchers, and the public to explore the old images in their modern setting.

Others have used the app to explore the relationship between image and photographer – see Dina Akhmadeeva being re-photographed as photographer captured in an historic image of Venice.

 

Fig 7 AHistc4d5img169c Venice

 

Fig 8 Dina's rephotography

 

Perhaps the most surprising element of crowd-sourcing for us have been the discussion pages on HEIRtagger. While we envisaged some comments by the public, we had not anticipated the sheer scale of interest generated by the images, the breadth and depth of knowledge we are being presented with, or the amount of time and research taggers are prepared to spend on the images that engage their particular interest. Our ‘crowd’ are our co-researchers, and the next phase of the project will include thinking about how to bring their wide-ranging research into the database in the most useful and accessible way.

 

Fig 9 discussion

 

Finally, we thoroughly enjoyed presenting a paper in collaboration with Victoria Brown from the VRC (Visual Resources Centre) on the project at the DCDC15 conference – the twitter comments after the event suggested that our work has provided food for thought for other institutions with comparable collections.

Old teaching photographic collections offer so many possibilities for research, including the history of disciplines, representations of the past, links between photography and art, and the relationships between art, architecture, tourism and travel. We hope the HEIR project will inspire new research in the History of Art – let us know if you have made use of these rescued images!

 

HEIR is based at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford and directed by Dr Sally Crawford and Dr Katharina Ulmschneider. 

Photo Archives in the History of Art History: Investigating the Collection in the History of Art Department

By Deborah Schultz

If, like me, you work on twentieth century and contemporary art, you may very well never have used the photo archives. When I wrote my DPhil at Oxford, on the Conceptual Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, the room full of boxes of photographs was an un-entered zone for me. Why should I go in there? I thought to myself. I’m modern. What could be in there for me? However, having taught courses on Historiography and the History of Photography for a number of years, I have become fascinated by the methods of art history. I started to wonder if those mysterious boxes were still there and I wanted to take a close look to see what was, in fact, inside them. Fortunately the whole collection was intact. Perhaps my fascination also has something to do with my enjoyment of pulling things off of shelves, rather than looking at screens, and a wish to continue doing so. While recognising that my interest is probably partly aesthetic, I sensed that this would be a rich area to explore. Although, from the outside, box after box looks more or less the same, each contains an intriguing assortment of material.

 

DS_PIC1

 

My project begins by focusing on the Photo Archives, comprising about 600 boxes of reproductions of works of art and architecture. I am interested in the scope of the collection, and how it was used as a core teaching and research resource. To this end I am spending some time simply opening up boxes and looking at what is inside them. I am interested in the range of contents and where they have come from: Were they purchased from photographic agencies, received as part of an exchange with another institution, cut out of auction house catalogues, or taken by private individuals? Was there a particular method behind the selection of contents? Why were certain items collected and not others? To some extent the defining structure of the archive is unclear. Certainly it was set up to provide a visual record of what something looked like at a given time. But were certain criteria followed in its establishment and development? Or did it grow organically, depending on the interests of faculty and researchers in relation to what was available? Quantity is always useful in a photo archive, enabling comparison between works at different times, as we have all learnt from Heinrich Wölfflin. Whereas comparison between two slides projected on a wall or as part of a PowerPoint is valuable, comparison between a larger number of images provides a much broader context to any given work. It also limits the risk of reducing the comparison to clear cut contrasts. In this sense, photo archive methods are more akin to the open networking structures enabled by digital technology, in contrast to those generated by dual slide projectors. The familiar method of comparing and contrasting x and y, may evolve by combining photo archive methods with digital technology into looking at x in relation to y and z as well as a, b, c and so on. Thus, renewed consideration of photo archive methods, combined with new technology may help to overcome the confines of binary oppositions and open up more fluid forms of comparison.

 

ds_pic2

 

One of the most fascinating items in the photo archive is the logbook which records when items were purchased or donated and from where. The logbook begins in 1969 with 36,207 photographs already in the collection. It ends, perhaps surprisingly late, in 1998, with 109,005 items recorded. The highest number of acquisitions came in 1972-3 when 5,841 photographs were added, through purchases, exchanges and donations. The majority came from Western Europe and North America, with occasional additions from Central/Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Australia. Somewhat frustratingly, a column was only added in 1988 to list the subject of the photographs. So the logbook tells us more about where items came from and when they arrived than what they are of. A column for cost was added in April 1970. At first it was ‘approximate’ cost and not every item had a known cost attached to it. The costs were not added up and at first were only listed in the currencies in which they were bought before sterling exchange values were added. The logbook illustrates when Britain went decimal as until March 1971 the amounts were given in pre-decimal currency, and thereafter in decimal currency. As a handwritten document, the logbook is also indicative of changing staff in the department, evidenced by a wide variety of handwriting. Thus the logbook is a valuable document in itself, a mutable and inconsistent document that demonstrates regular changes in the photo archive in relation to the art historical context in which it evolved.

 

DS_PIC3

 

There is a temptation to explore the logbook on an increasingly micro level: Who ordered these photographs? For what purpose? Teaching or research? At the same time, the macro level always frames the contents, setting them in their wider art historical perspective. Recent blogs on this site have noted the links between photography and art history as an academic discipline. With both developing in the second half of the nineteenth century, these links are extensive and complex. As André Malraux wrote in Le museé imaginaire, ever since the mid-nineteenth century ‘art history has been the history of that which can be photographed’. The photograph confirms the existence of something and makes it a potential object of study in an age of mechanical reproduction. Virtual accessibility, through a reproduction, has amplified the value of many works of art. Items that are made widely available and reproduced on, for example, book covers, tend to increase in significance. The viewer assumes, this must be important if it is reproduced on the cover of a book. The photo archives are particularly interesting in both reconfirming established figures in traditional art history (the largest number of boxes are of works by Michelangelo) while, at the same time, providing evidence of lesser known artists, whose names are not as familiar in the public domain. Many photographs originate from private collections and provide evidence of works that are not reproduced elsewhere. While the contents of the photo archives confirm more canons than they challenge, they provide evidence of the overlooked and undervalued too.

 

Some of the most significant research in this area has been led by Dr Costanza Caraffa of the Photothek at the Kunsthistorishes Institut, Florence which launched an ongoing initiative on ‘Photo Archives’ in 2009, resulting in an ongoing series of conferences and publications. My project draws on this valuable material to set the case study in Oxford in relation to comparable photo archives in Florence (at the KHI as well as the Villa I Tatti), the Courtauld Institute (London), the Frick Collection (New York) the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), and elsewhere.

 

Deborah Schultz is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at Regent’s University London and an Academic Visitor in the History of Art Department, University of Oxford.