I’m pleased to present the second installment of our Beattie Archive mini-series from Katherine Clough, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, all about the difficulties (and the interesting advantages) of photographing rugs. If you’ve never encountered rugs with feet before, read on!
The art of capturing carpets in pictorial records has a long history, with artworks depicting carpets, such as Persian miniatures and European paintings, offering invaluable clues to long-lost textiles.1 Carpets occur as decorative domestic floor and furniture coverings, as backdrops demarcating sacred spaces and as prestige items in portraiture, within a range of painted arts across cultures. However, the advent of photography in the late nineteenth century provided a new method of visualising woven textiles, and, with the camera’s ‘scientific eye’, carpets soon began to be photographed as subjects in themselves, for promotion in sales catalogues, museum publications and in the interests of research in carpet studies. A certain type of carpet photography has become a ubiquitous standard in publications: a high quality image, with the carpet flat, evenly lit and floating in negative space, isolated from its context to emphasise its visual qualities. However, photographs taken ‘in the field’, or those that happen to feature carpets, also provide additional contextual information, such as clues to location, suggestions of how carpets were used, and the inclusion of people and further material culture, which can be just as important for carpet research.
May Beattie valued the potential of photography in carpet research, taking photographs of carpets she visited and requesting and collecting images of carpets from museums, sales catalogues and other reproductions such as postcards, publications and newspapers. It is this type of material that makes up roughly one-third of the May Beattie Archive held at the Ashmolean Museum, constituting a formidable collection of carpet imagery, organised and filed into defined categories.
However, carpets are not necessarily easy to capture on camera. The image that featured in a previous blog post on the Armenian orphan rug is a great example of a photograph that shows the challenges of photographing large rugs in situ, and the potential benefit of added context: here the holders drape the carpet from the roof of a building in order to display it for the camera, with the whole scene providing an immediate sense of scale, a specific location, and their potentially recognisable faces, all of which add visual significance to the story of this particular rug. The difficulty of representing carpets photographically for use in research, both in the studio and in the field, is two-fold: firstly, the physical problems of photographing flexible, flat surfaces, especially with larger carpets, and secondly, limitations in capturing material detail to reveal production techniques rather than just visual design.
The challenges surrounding capturing carpets on camera are well represented in the Beattie Archive. Many of May Beattie’s own photographs held in the archive are ‘field’ images – carpets photographed in situ on her travels, held up by stretched arms, with glimpses of the holders and surrounding location framing the edges of the carpet. In many images fingers are barely visible, limited to the tips at the borders. Often what results is a series of almost surreal images with rugs shown as if autonomously standing, with feet and legs poking out underneath.
Edited versions of her photographs show how she later used correction fluid and cropping to alter some of these images to isolate the carpet and achieve the publication-quality standard image of a flat, floating carpet instead.
But, like the Armenian rug example mentioned above, unedited versions and wider location shots can also offer carpet researchers further information about the carpet, its context, and even the photographer. Friends and associates often appear incidentally in the archive: Colin Beattie, May’s husband, features in many of the photographs, assisting in the holding of rugs and standing in the background. Additionally, there is always the potential for taking copies of photographs to the depicted locations to see if faces and specific sites can be identified. Returning photographs in anthropological research (my own academic background) has proved a fruitful method for adding layers of knowledge to existing photographs, but also potentially for benefitting the communities featured in the images by gifting copies, supporting interest in local heritage and family histories, themes significantly associated with making carpets in many societies.2
Beattie’s correspondence also details the challenges of using photography in carpet research and the importance of good-quality images. In response to a letter from a collector in autumn 1976, who had written to ask for Beattie’s opinion on a rug (MBA Ref 18. Fols. 55–62), she affirms the importance of examining carpets in person, writing:
‘I cannot of course express any opinion on your carpet without seeing it.’
‘The difficulty about trying to assess a carpet from photos is that one does not know the technique and there are so many forgeries about that one is always reluctant to say much.’
Through the chain of correspondence she finally receives an ‘excellent photo’ of the said carpet via the Metropolitan Museum, and expresses her wish to use the image in her own lectures. The collector even describes the complications the Met had in achieving this image with the carpet described as being ‘too large to be photographed in its entirety in their studio’, instead being ‘done from the wall’, causing a delay in the provision of the image.
Similar complications in photographing textiles continue to face museums today. Current methods of photographing large textiles, such as carpets, at the Ashmolean require the participation of textile conservators and the photography studio. Prepared lengths of fuzzy Velcro, stitched to wide cotton tape, are temporarily fixed to the short end of a carpet, which is then carefully attached to a wooden baton prepared with hooked Velcro. The baton can then be suspended from the rigging in the photographic studio, with the weight of the carpet more evenly supported than using fingers, and where it can be evenly lit and photographed at the correct angle. Textile conservator, Sue Stanton, further confirmed it as a time-consuming process, only undertaken with planning and preparation. Photographs are increasingly being seen as important records of museum objects, entered onto museum databases and used on digital display platforms, in addition to printed publications.
The vast range and amount of photographic and other visual material in the Beattie Archive constitutes a fantastic resource for a variety of subjects within, and related to, the field of carpet studies. The current work on recording and providing support for the material demands of these images continues.
Beattie Archive Assistant
Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology
All images © Ashmolean Museum and original copyright holders of the two postcards featured above.
1. For early examples of texts exploring pictorial records of carpets, see: John Mill’s National Gallery text Carpets in Pictures (1975), revised as Carpets in Paintings (1983) or his Hali articles (1978, 1/3 pp. 234–243; 1978, 1/4 pp. 326–334; 1981, 4/1, pp. 53–55; 1981, 3/4 pp. 278–289); and the first section of Kurt Erdmann’s Seven Hundred Years of Carpets, of which May Beattie co-edited the 1970 English translation.
2. For examples of returning photographs in visual anthropological research, see: Joshua Bell’s chapter in Laura Peers and Alison Brown’s Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader (2003, London: Routledge Press, pp. 111–121); and J. Dudding’s ‘Visual Repatriation and Photo-elicitation: Recommendations on Principles and Practices for the Museum Worker’ in Journal of Museum Ethnography (2005, 17, pp. 218–231).