Weekly Witter: Picturing the Camera Obscura

For seven weekends from the 31st of August this year, the National Trust will be exploring seven aspects of the landscape (Uncovered: the story of British Landscape). Seven properties (Attingham, Chartwell, Ham, Northey Island, Sheringham, The North Lakes and Wimpole) have been selected to present a different aspect or use of the landscape whether for agrarian purposes, woodland management, the management of large, self sufficient estate, recreation, reflection, inspiration or how environmental forces have moulded the coastal landscape. A wide range of talks, walks and demonstrations by various experts will reveal our landscapes from these different perspectives.

Johannes Keppler in the early 1600s coined the phrase “camera obscura” which comes from the Latin meaning “dark room”

As part of this programme, I have been exploring the history and use of the camera obscura as a tool used by artists to capture images of the landscape. The phenomena of an image forming of an object when light passed through a small hole to create an inverted image of that object on a surface was first noticed by Aristotle. The earliest type was simply a room with a hole in the wall or the window blind which projected the inverted image onto the opposite wall. Johannes Keppler in the early 1600s coined the phrase “camera obscura” which comes from the Latin meaning “dark room”. Since then various types of cameras have been developed which incorporate a lens to focus the image, a mirror to invert the image and a ground glass plate on which the image is projected. The cameras were made in a variety of sizes from a large free standing box room to a smaller camera which could be fixed on a tripod within a tent like structure to the simple hand held camera.

The advantage for the artist was that it enabled him to capture the perspective of the landscape or an interior without using the more complex method of lines and vanishing points.  By placing a semi transparent paper over the ground glass surface, he could trace the image which could then be transferred to canvas.  Large complex scenes could be created by taking several tracings of different parts of the landscape and compiling them into one large image.

Various art historians and artists have attempted to identify which artists have used the camera obscura in their work as there is little documentation from artists as to their use of this method.  The most intriguing study in recent years has been the work undertaken by the British artist, David Hockney, and the physicist, Charles M Flaco, in their book,  Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. 

As part of Uncovered: the story of British Landscape, we are making a hand held camera obscura for use during the event to show visitors how it would have been used to record our stunning landscapes.

  • Christine Sitwell- Paintings Conservation Advisor for the National Trust
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Saving the family album

Having already considered about the survival – or not – of the photographs we create today (Will my daughters’ photographs survive for their grandchildren?) I’d like to spare a moment thinking about the older photographs we own: the images of our grandparents and if we are fortunate, their parents and grandparents.

Hundreds of thousands of photographs were brought to surviving community centres.

Last year the Institute of Conservation Photographic Materials Group heard from conservator Ms Yoko Shirawa who spoke movingly about the salvage operation following the earthquake-triggered tsunami that struck Japan in May 2011. Her Government instructed rescue teams to collect albums, loose photographs and memorial objects from the affected areas. Hundreds of thousands of photographs were brought to surviving community centres. Flood water caused stains on the photographs, emulsion to lift away, album pages to stick together and mould. Japanese conservators and volunteers washed, dried and re-housed the photographs. Many photographs were saved, placed in new albums and reunited with their owners or their surviving families – a testament to the sheer hard work of the volunteers and the importance of family memories.

Constanza Mazini, Mrs William Hulton with her daughter Edith Teresa Hulton, later Lady Berwick aged 4 (1894) from Volume 1 of Lady Berwick’s family albums at Attingham Park.

Constanza Mazini, Mrs William Hulton with her daughter Edith Teresa Hulton, later Lady Berwick aged 4 (1894) from Volume 1 of Lady Berwick’s family albums at Attingham Park.

Meanwhile, in a cold but dry storeroom at Attingham Park volunteers worked on the cataloguing and re-housing of six family albums that belonged to Edith Teresa Hulton, Lady Berwick (1890 – 1972) which provide an engaging portrait of her life. Faded the images might be, but the love and affection between Lady Berwick and members of her family are as clear to the onlooker today as they were at the moment they were taken.

Photograph albums have been compiled, used and treasured in households around the world since their introduction in the 1860s. Albums hold the visual memories that their compilers considered important enough to bring together and keep. Albums are enjoyed during their creators’ lifetime and, even when the creator has long gone, his or her concerns and aspirations live on in their collection. Family albums often top the list of priorities when considering what objects to rescue when a house is under threat. Precautions can be taken: avoid keeping albums in basements or attics which can be damp and avoid the lower shelves of bookcases.

Even without the extremes of flooding, photograph albums are often in a gradual state of decline. Whilst the services of a professional conservator are always best there are some simple steps we can take:

  • Handle your albums with care. Try to avoid pulling at the spine or other fragile parts to remove them from a shelf. Take care when opening and closing them because a vacuum can occur when turning pages and on opening that in turn may cause loose prints to tear. 
  • Look out for loose prints. Acid-free photo corners to re-attach them (the kind that are not fixed to the print itself) are better than self-adhesive tapes or glues spread across the back of the prints. Glues can be problematic as they may contain contaminants that cause localised deterioration to prints.
  • Older Victorian albums are often heavy with a decorative cover and metal clasps. Spines and boards may be detached, with loose pages inside. These are best left to a conservator to treat. However a good quality conservation-grade box will keep everything safe from further damage and act as a protective buffer against the external environment. The best environment is cool but dry, and away from light.
  • An album should be regarded as an integral part of the whole artefact yet modern “magnetic albums” with prints held on a sticky pages are particularly damaging to photographs and should be avoided. This type of album fared the worse in the Japanese tsunami.

Conservation-grade photographic storage materials are readily available on-line to the public and well worth the investment. Good quality albums can offer long-term protection as well as a very personal way of showing a collection of images. For further information on caring for family photographs see The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping, Chapter 43.

For advice on finding a conservator, consult the Conservation Register.

  • Anita Bools is the National Trust Adviser on Photographic Materials and Chair of the Institute of Conservation Photographic Materials Group.
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Will my daughters’ photographs survive for their grandchildren?

Leaving aside my feelings of regret as a customer and my sympathy with the former employees of collapsed retailer Jessops, there is another niggling worry on my mind. If various reports analysing Jessops’ demise are correct , “Core to Jessops’ failure was its relevance in a diminishing market as technology evolved and many consumers shunned dedicated cameras in favour of multipurpose devices such as smartphones.” (Tiffany Holland RetailWeek).

The change in our behaviour in taking photographs is also reflected in how we are now keeping photographs. A thought-provoking article “Death of the Family Photograph Album?” caught my eye in News Today. According to a study commissioned by holiday company Thomson Al Fresco, many people don’t bother to print photographs anymore. A poll of 3000 people revealed that 71% prefer to use social networking and on-line photo management sites to store photographs for reasons of speed, affordability and ease of sharing images. However, an alarming percentage also reported photographs had been lost due to computer viruses, accidental deletion or because the photographs had “mysteriously disappeared”. Then there are the people who acquire new computers and don’t bother to transfer photographs from their old PCs. Oh dear.

“How many images taken now will survive another hundred years?”

I am in the business of looking after the nation’s historic photographs – at least those kept in National Trust collections. As I examine and help preserve photographs up and down the country, I am reminded that what we like to photograph has not changed. The vast majority of photographs in historic houses reflect the lives and interests of their former owners: children, pets, gardens, weddings, moments of joy, humour or importance.

Feet in a pool

Digital photograph taken on a school trip – by Lynne B.R. – saved on her mother’s external hard-drive.

My own teenage daughter’s photographs reflect the age she lives in. Most of all they reflect her; they represent the memories she may want to share one day with her own family. The images are taken increasingly on her mobile phone rather than her camera, then appear on a social website. That she wants to record the moment is not in question, but she is less concerned – or at least less aware – of image quality and longevity.

Sometimes I grapple a collection’s practical problems: how can a property tackle the need for new, high-quality storage materials or afford the conservation treatment that is required? Yet though the photographs may have been created up to 170 years ago the actual state of images is often remarkably good. The techniques and materials used – even in the amateur market – produced a good percentage of images that have survived to the current day. This is fortunate because our interest in discovering photographs of other peoples’ or our own past remains undiminished.

Jessops encouraged us to keep buying cameras capable of producing decent images (and provided a service for printing them out, one presumes, on good quality paper with long-lasting inks) but the trend towards images taken on other devices then storing them almost entirely in a digital format seems unstoppable.

How many images taken now will survive another hundred years? Will images trusted to on-line photo management sites always be accessible? Will digital images I reject for printing out as hard copy survive? Will the materials I buy to produce hard copy be of sufficient quality to last as well as the photographs I care for in historic houses?

“Happily, I could replace them, but not unfortunately the other folders he had managed to delete from his wife’s memory stick- that included a wedding and a once-in-a-lifetime African holiday.”

My own current practice is still to print out and keep my favourite images in an acid and pollutant-free album of the highest quality I can afford. I keep digital images on an external hard drive as well as my PC. I occasionally share some photographs on social networking sites but am mindful of lack of privacy. I label images, aware of the frustration at identifying and dating old photographs. I am still considering the advantages and potential pitfalls of on-line photo management sites.

My final thoughts are with a friend’s husband who recently phoned in desperation having lost a set of portraits I had taken of primary school leavers. Happily, I could replace them, but not unfortunately the other folders he had managed to delete from his wife’s memory stick that included a wedding and a once-in-a-lifetime African holiday. I am not sure if she has forgiven him yet…

  • Anita Bools ACR is the National Trust Adviser on Photographic Materials and the Chair of the Institute of Conservation Photographic Materials Group. Her current research relates to photograph albums.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Smartphone snap triumphs in green space photo competition

A stunning picture that perfectly captures a bee hovering over a foxglove has won a National Trust photographic competition that celebrates the role green places play in people’s lives.

Taken by Laura Elliot in her parent’s garden in Northern Ireland, ‘Don’t bee choosy’ was shot using an iPhone 4 on the instagram photo app – winning both the smartphone category and the overall competition.

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Laura Elliot, who lives in Co. Fermanagh, said:

“I was shocked to find out I’d won. I’m studying dentistry at university and photography is just my hobby. It was late in the afternoon so there was just enough light to capture the shot. I feel this photo represents my space, reflects my love for nature, photography, and captures the spirit of the competition.

Top landscape photographer Joe Cornish, who was one of the judges, said:

“The smartphone category was the most exciting. As professional photographers we found it inspiring – and garnered lots of ideas. Laura’s image is stunning. The colours sing and the composition is striking. This is a photo that you want to blow up and hang on your wall.”

More than 5,700 entries were submitted in the four categories of the competition which ran from May until August 2012.

Photographers were asked to capture the spirit of National Trust founder Octavia Hill on camera and celebrate her passionate belief in the importance of green space and spending time in the outdoors.

A panel of experts, including the acclaimed photographers Mary McCartney, Joe Cornish, Arnhel de Serra, Charlie Waite and National Trust Photographic Manager, Chris Lacey, discussed and debated the shortlisted images to come up with the four category winners and then an overall competition winner. One of the category winners was then chosen to be the overall winner of the competition.

Charlie Waite, one of the judges and founder of Light and Land photography, said:

“The standard of photography suggests to me that photographers are no longer seeing the camera as just a recording device but as a wonderfully creative tool to aid the individual in expressing their own particular response to their world around them.”

The winner of the 10-and-under category is James Ashton, aged 9, from Doncaster with his intimate image of ducks feeding at Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire. Tilly Rose Bellinger, aged 16,from Somerset won the 11-to-16 set with Jurassic mist, an atmospheric black and white image of the Jurassic Coastline in Dorset. The winner of the over 16 award is Eleanor Bennett from Cheshire, having composed a clever photograph of silhouettes of walkers amongst bare trees in Lyme Park, Cheshire. All three of these places are looked after by the National Trust.

All of the winners are featured in the spring edition of the National Trust Magazine and on the National Trust Your Space website.

Eight highly commended runners up are being entered into an online public vote for the British public to choose their favourites.