Manuscript Photogeny— When Manuscripts Smile to the Camera

By Giulio Menna

Giulio is an intern on the ‘Turning Over a New Leaf’ project, and a current student of the Book and Digital Media Studies MA program at the University of Leiden.

“Taking photos of manuscripts that are centuries old.” Now, that’s something that I would never have imagined doing a year ago when I first landed in the Netherlands. Yet here I am with my trusty camera, taking pictures of medieval manuscripts.

Back in Rome I used to work as a photographer, mostly taking photos of buildings for the publishing house I used to work for. Other times I was asked to take photos of book presentations, other times my friends asked if I could take photos of their band performance at the local pub. I started taking pictures of everything and eventually my bachelor thesis became a photography work. But never had I thought of pointing my lens towards parchment and script.

When I was first asked to take photos of manuscripts from the Leiden University Special Collections as part of my internship, I had very few ideas about how to do that. The first thing I did, before taking any pictures, was to give a look through a few books on the subject. By examining the pictures taken by photographers more skilled than me, I understood that the best way to drive peoples’ attention to the details was to mix “out-of-focus corners” of the images with very sharp details. This naturally guides the viewer to the “protagonist” of the picture.

Take the following photo of a catchword for example. The main point of interest in this image is not centered, yet because most of the other details are out of focus, the viewer’s eye is led directly to “semper fore”:

A catchword from an Italian manuscript (15th century)
© Leiden University Library

But how can one decide what to photograph and what to pass over in a manuscript? Typically I like to compare elements that are on a manuscript page with elements that I have seen before. If there is something different, for example the position, the color, the quality of the ink, etc., I stop and take a picture. Perhaps a few manuscripts later I will find something similar and take another shot. (Thanks to digital photography, there is no need to limit the use of the shutter!)

When I find something I want to photograph, I always try to keep my audience in mind: Who will look at these photographs? And what do they expect to see? The project that I am working on endeavors to create a website designed for people “new to the manuscript world”— a place where anyone can learn about the production and use of medieval manuscripts. As the primary photographer for this project,  I have come to realize that taking a basic photo of a manuscript folio from the top is not the way to go. While such pictures are excellent for academic use, they result in a relatively plain (read: “boring”) visual experience, and it may be difficult for newly interested viewers to identify the more important details.

With these thoughts in mind, I look through my camera lens and begin to work with the angles, the focus and the light until I see the perfect shot— my finger automatically presses the button and the picture is done.

Two men “overlook” a repaired leaf (11th century)
© Leiden University Library

Thus far things have been going well. Besides some movement difficulties (often due to cables getting in the way), my work has been progressing steadily. Obviously it is not always easy. Manuscripts are delicate objects and taking very good pictures can involve the use of specific materials such as light reflectors, light umbrellas, flash units, etc. Clearly, a manuscript that is 1200 years old would not be happy to be taken out of its box and then suddenly submerged in a sea of light. Nor would the librarians be happy to see their precious manuscripts being constantly moved around to find the right angle for a shot; and I’m sure the other library patrons would not be pleased to listen to my constant movements and the noise of my camera’s shutter going off at all times. With time, however, you learn to be a ninja and taking pictures becomes a rather quiet operation once all is set up. It becomes an exercise where you have to mix your technique and your fantasy in order to deliver the best result you are capable of.

In all this, I am happy to have the opportunity to look at as many manuscripts as I like, and each time I order a manuscript box I am so excited to discover what’s inside. I’m borrowing a line from a famous coffee brand that perfectly fits my feeling doing this internship: “Manuscript photography, what else?”

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