Developing Talent

By Kersting, Anthony | History Today, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Developing Talent


Kersting, Anthony, History Today


Anthony Kersting, architectural photographer, describes how his passion for buildings was fuelled by a Middle Eastern posting during the War.

IN 1928 WHEN I WAS in my early teens, I purchased my first camera -- a 2A Box Brownie -- and cycled to Hampton Court to expose my film on the Wren architecture which, even at that early age, I enjoyed, My father taught me how to develop the film, using a Kodak daylight developing tank and I printed it on daylight self-toning paper, using printing frames placed in the garden: the print was inspected from time to time until it was dark enough and then fixed in hypo, the whole process taking about half an hour. I next experimented with printing on gaslight, then bromide paper, both of which had to be used in the dark.

I had an uncle on my mother's side, who was a keen amateur photographer. I never met him, unfortunately: he was killed on the Somme in 1916, the year in which I was born. We inherited much of his equipment: a wooden Thornton Pickard half-plate field camera with double book form dark slides and rapid rectilinear lenses (anastigmat had not yet been introduced) and a half plate enlarger lit by a paraffin oil lamp. Also many of his beautiful quality half-plate glass negatives, mostly of architectural subjects and including interiors of cathedrals, both here and in Belgium. Some of the envelopes in which the negatives were stored gave details of the exposure time required to produce large prints using the paraffin oil lit enlarger, many requiring an exposure of an hour or more!

I experimented with the plate camera, using it on architectural subjects which interested me. I soon realised the value of a rising front for keeping verticals straight, which I have always considered essential to this branch of photography.

I measured and mixed my own chemicals to produce the type of negative I liked, and I converted the old paraffin oil-lit enlarger to electricity.

I spent my spare time photographing historical architectural subjects: Wren city churches, cathedrals and country houses, accumulating a worthwhile collection of negatives. I joined the Royal Photographic Society and had work hung at their annual exhibition from 1935 until the outbreak of war. I submitted work for my Fellowship and was elected in 1938.

I joined the RAF as a photographer and spent some months in this country before going overseas. About this time I was approached by the British Council, who had heard about work I had done and suggested they borrow my negatives for the duration to use for the propaganda displays they were sending abroad to publicise the British way of life.

In 1941 I was posted to the Middle East, stationed outside Cairo on a photographic unit, where my duties involved processing reconnaissance photographs of enemy (and our own) troop movements in the desert.

I found myself in a new world. The Ancient Egyptian architecture and monuments dating back over three thousand years, and in Cairo examples of every period of Islamic architecture from the Tulunid to the Ottoman. I had brought a small plate camera with me from England and my spare time was spent in photographing the mosques and other Islamic subjects in Cairo, of which I soon acquired a keen interest and knowledge.

My leaves were spent travelling further afield, exploring Palestine, Transjordan and photographing Crusader Castles in Syria and the Lebanon. My most thrilling adventure was to Petra, then still off the beaten track, in the company of a New Zealand nursing sister. Our journey started on the Hejaz Railway from Amman to El Ma'an and we finished bivouacking in Petra itself. Amongst other ascents, we climbed Jebel Haurun, the highest peak with Aaron's tomb on the summit, and consequently sacred to the Muslims. I learnt later from the Inspector of Antiquities in Amman that Peake Pasha used to make the ascent with a full Arab Legion escort, since when it was not known of any non-Muslim having climbed it! …

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