Written by Ariel Polokoff, ICFA Intern (Spring 2015), The George Washington University, Class of 2015
This past Spring semester, I had the privilege of interning in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. This internship offered a two-fold benefit to my undergraduate education—it was both a class and a work experience. Walking into ICFA on my first day, I possessed a basic familiarity with Byzantine art, but over the next few months my knowledge of Byzantine art and architecture, my ability to identify and describe images, my general research skills, and my understanding of archival research practices grew exponentially.
My project involved working with the images by the scholar Thomas F. Mathews (TFM) that are housed within ICFA’s collections. Mathews (1934 – ) is a scholar of Byzantine and Early Christian art and architecture whose works involving Byzantine subjects have been deposited at Dumbarton Oaks to provide scholars with access to his exhaustive collection of images. The collection includes: over 8,540 original negatives in cold storage, six (6) so-called “LEICA binders” that hold contact sheets for 7,523 of his negatives (not including those images that have been crossed out and did not receive an image number), and at least 818 black and white photographic prints. The negatives are all from the years 1968 to 1971 (sometimes referred to as the “Istanbul Project”), while the black and white prints seem to be from the years ca. 1968-1973. All of Mathews’ photographs taken between 1968 and 1973 were “made with Pentax 35mm cameras with lenses of 28, 35, 55, 135, and 200mm,” as he stated in the foreword to The Byzantine Churches of Istanbul: A Photographic Survey (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976). The choice for the convenience of a 35mm camera with a selection of standard lenses will be clearly reflected in the variety of views described further below. For my internship, the major tasks were: to create an inventory of Mathews’ images in ICFA by identifying, grouping, and describing the 7,500+ negatives; conducting research on Mathews publications and how they relate to his photographic campaigns; determining the acquisition history for his negatives and prints; and drafting the processing information to be incorporated into a future finding aid.
Since the deposit of Matthews’ photograph collection in the 1970s—one batch in 1974 and subsequent installments from 1975-1978—ICFA staff and interns have done some preliminary work, such as numbering the contact sheets, cataloging the black and white prints, and rehousing the negatives for cold storage. My part, on the other hand, constituted of creating a complete inventory of Mathews’ negatives. I was responsible for identifying, grouping, and minimally describing these images. I had originally thought that I could rely on the notes provided in the “LEICA binders,” but I quickly discovered that there was little to no description within them. Instead, I identified the images from publications that directly resulted from the photographs that I was working with: The Byzantine Churches of Istanbul: A Photographic Survey (1976) and The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971) both by Mathews himself. In addition, I consulted the online exhibit of the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection, which provided easy access to reference images for many of the sites photographed by Mathews. For the Ottoman buildings, which were not the main focus of Mathews’ research, I used Constantinopolis / Istanbul: Cultural Encounter, Imperial Vision, and the Construction of the Ottoman Capital (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009) by Çiğdem Kafescioğlu and A History of Ottoman Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971) by Godfrey Goodwin. Mathews also photographed many objects in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Fortunately, I was able to individually identify every piece by using La sculpture Byzantine figurée au Musée Archéologique d’Istanbul (Paris: Librairie d’Amerique et d’Orient Adrien Maisonneuve, Jean Maisonneuve Successeur, 1990) by Nezih Fıratlı.
As the internship progressed, I became more comfortable with Byzantine art and architecture, as well as Mathews photographs. In the beginning, I read Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998) edited by Linda Safran and Master Builders of Byzantium (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2008) by Robert G. Ousterhout to gain a basic familiarity with Byzantine art, its functions, and Byzantine architectural forms. Soon, after looking through hundreds of images of buildings in Istanbul, I found myself able to recognize images, often without relying on the source materials listed above. This was possible because of the way that Mathews photographed buildings. Since his aim was to create an exhaustive survey of Byzantine ecclesiastical art and architecture in Istanbul, he methodically photographed general views, interior and exterior, and the principal aspects of each building, such as its structure, masonry, and decoration. Furthermore, for each of these different views Mathews often took numerous photographs, returning to the same site multiple times. Working with the contact sheets in the “LEICA binders,” the images are ordered in the same sequence as in their original negative rolls. These contact sheets were then divided up according to the years in which the photographs were taken. I found often that the same building or site would occur several times in each binder, meaning Mathews must have not only visited the same sites every year, but multiple times during each year’s photographic campaign. The repetition of each site or building gave me ample time and experience to learn about Byzantine art and architecture, as well as to become familiar with Mathews’ photographic approach.
In creating the inventory list, I found a multitude of subjects within the variety of photographs that Mathews took to create his “comprehensive coverage.” Mathews’ general views of interiors and exteriors, as well as closer detail photographs were numerous, but there were some subjects that recur frequently. For exterior general views, he would photograph the building or site from each side, from the roof, from the street, and from afar. For interior general views, he would normally photograph each major room or space from at least two sides. For the more detailed views, Mathews would photograph the structure more closely, including: vaulting, arches, domes, entrance ways, and windows; masonry, including stonework on the walls and pavement; and decoration, including capitals, bases, columns, entablatures, cornices, and architectural sculpture.
Mathews was careful to photograph each of the approximately 52 sites and buildings that he covered in his dissertation extensively. The structures photographed most often and with the greatest variation in angles and details are: Eski Imaret Camii, Fenari Isa Camii, Fethiye Camii, Gül Camii, Hagia Eirene, Hagia Sophia, Kariye Camii, Saint John of Stoudios, Saints Sergius and Bacchus, Zeyrek Camii. Hagia Sophia is the most prominently represented. The extensive photographic documentation that Mathews created resulted in his dissertation on The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy and an exhaustive survey of church architecture in Istanbul.
The work I pursued was painstaking, but also educational and rewarding. After completing my project I feel that I have gained an in-depth knowledge of Byzantine churches in Istanbul, an appreciation for Mathews’ photographic skills and scholarly work, a keen ability to identify images with little descriptive or available information, a better understanding of archival research practices, and a love for photographic archives. It has been a pleasure to conclude my undergraduate studies on such a positive note, and I am most grateful to all who helped to make this opportunity possible.