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The Big Interview - Ivor Kerslake, The British Museum

The Big Interview - Ivor Kerslake, The British Museum

Ivor Kerslake -  Head of Imaging & Photography at The British Museum 

Words - Lou O’Shea
Photography Les Wilson -

Ivor Kerslake is Head of Imaging & Photography at The British Museum. In his role , which has so far spanned over 35 years, Ivor is responsible for providing a complete photographic and imaging service in support of The British Museum.

In this month’s BIG INTERVIEW ,  I had the chance to meet and interview Ivor about his photographic work at The British Museum, the importance behind the image creation and how the inner photographic workings at The British Museum operate.

Ivor you are Head of imaging at the British Museum & have worked here for over 35 Years , what exactly does your role involve?

I manage a team of 8 photographers and imaging specialists in providing a creative, high quality service in support of the Museum’s public and research programmes. I am the point of contact between the photographers and clients be they the Director or the sales team from our commercial arm, BM Images. I work closely with the Chief Photographer in setting style, maintaining deadlines and ensuring the final product is up to the standards we set ourselves.

Why did you choose to become a photographer?

I actually wanted to be a journalist when I was at school but a position arose with a commercial and advertising photographer in my home town of Bournemouth so I took the opportunity to learn and also earn some money at the same time.

You have had the opportunity to photograph some pretty incredible pieces of history what has been your favourite artifact?

I have been so fortunate in my career at the Museum to work on some fabulous things but the ultimate for me was photographing the marble sculptures from the Parthenon.

Why do you feel it is so important to have a record of historic artifacts?

There are so many reasons but for me it is being able to present the objects, via the web and through books, to people who may never have the opportunity to see them in person.

Albrecht Dürer print being photographed in the studio.

Do you know how many artifacts you have photographed over the years?

I really don’t have a clue but I recently finished an online catalogue of African Gold Weights which numbered over a thousand objects in one collection.

How has digital &  social media changed the way you work?

Through being able to communicate and share skills with like minded professionals. I think this has resulted in a much higher standard of photography being produced in the cultural heritage sector.

You have worked here for over 35 years what are the most influential changes in your working environment?

Without a doubt it is the transformation from film to digital. Having spent far too many years with chapped hands sloshing around in chemicals I would never like to go back to the old ways.

What is the most challenging part of your work? & how has your work evolved over the years?

Strangely, working in a Museum that has been around for over 200 years, the most challenging thing about my job is meeting production deadlines. When you are producing a catalogue, photography tends to be at the end of a chain that starts with conservation assessments of the objects and there never seems to be enough time to get the images to the publishers. We’ve not yet failed to meet a deadline though which is to the credit of my entire team.

Is it difficult to light & shoot such a diverse range of items?

Each object provides a challenge from highly polished metalwork to 4000 year old mummies but my team are highly skilled and experienced and I never fail to be impressed with stunning images they manage to produce.

Do you have a style of lighting you prefer to use in your work or do you have to tailor make this for each item photographed?

We like to think we have a recognisable style which shows the object to its best advantage. We tend to use neutral backgrounds so as not to detract from the beauty of the subject. I like to give the impression that there is one main source with a single shadow while in fact there could be up to six lights subtly placed to bring out fine details.

How is workflow organized, for example do you have a team of photographers , post production and multiple lighting set ups?

Each photographer is responsible for their own space and they tend to see the whole job through themselves from requesting the delivery of an object to the studio to processing the final image for uploading to the Museum’s asset database.

What camera gear and lighting do you shoot with & why?

Since the adoption of digital technology we have stayed loyal to Phase One for our capture and Elinchrom for our lighting. While always looking at alternatives and new products on the market, the quality and support we have received from both of these companies has meant there is no advantage in changing at the moment.

Albrecht Dürer print being photographed in the studio. 

Do you shoot all artifacts in the British Museum studio  regardless of the size of the piece or do you sometimes have to shoot on location ?

We moved into a new suite of studios 2 years ago and now have the ability to shoot almost anything in the collection however some objects cannot physically be transported from their public display so we will load up a barrow and take the studio to them.

You recently refurbished the Photographic studio at The British Museum , tell us about the implementation &  how the new studio space has changed your work?

Two years ago we moved into a completely new suite of studios as part of the redevelopment of the North West corner of the Museum. For the first time in my career the whole of the photographic department came together in the same space. This has enabled us to work together as a team feeding ideas off each other and being able to step in to give a hand to others when things get hectic.

Has your workflow / technology changed over the years since you began working at the museum?

When I started there were over thirty photographers working across the whole range of skills from processing film and producing thousands of black and white prints to producing 35mm slides for reference and lecture purposes. They were supported by a large administration team responsible for invoicing and despatch. With the advent of online access to images this changed and as a result the staff complement changed to reflect these changes.

How has digital changed the way you work?

In terms of workflow it is much better for a photographer to see the finished product almost immediately rather than have to wait for film to be processed. However I have always encouraged the team to get things right in the camera before pressing the shutter to minimise the amount of post production needed.

I understand that you have co written books on artifacts can you tell us a little bit about this?

A few years ago, Dr Ian Jenkins, a world renowned authority on the Parthenon sculptures asked myself and a colleague, Dudley Hubbard, to provide the photographs for a new book he was producing. The aim was to look at the sculptures from the perspective of the objects themselves and we were given creative licence to interpret them as we saw them. We worked every day for ten days, securing the area around us, and became a star attraction for the visitors who were most interested in what we were doing. (The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum, by Ian Jenkins with photographs by Ivor Kerslake and Dudley Hubbard is still available in the Museum bookshop and also online) The Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum are unrivalled examples of classical Greek art that have inspired sculptors, artists, poets and writers

Outside of your role at The British Museum, do you have an interest in preserving information such as Genealogy or archiving?

I have worked extensively on my own family history.

What’s the most important bit of photographic equipment in your kit bag?

These days it’s my glasses

You are retiring in September, do you plan to continue shooting?

I certainly intend to. I have spent 50 years taking photos for other people and would like to start working up a personal portfolio of my own.

What words of wisdom do you have for all the aspiring up and coming  photographers reading this article?

Buy into every job that comes your way. The more you can relate to the subject the better the result will likely be. Triple check everything and do your homework before setting out on an assignment and try to minimise any surprises that will surely come along.


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