Photography at the Bodleian
Detail from MS. Barocci 170, fol. 23v
MS. Barocci 15, fol. 391v
Bwy. adds. 2/1, fol. a2v.
MS. Kennicott 1 open at fols 442v-443r.

This post was written by John Barrett, photographer with the Bodleian Libraries' Imaging Services.


The incredible scale of the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project is what makes it different from any project I’ve participated in before. I’ve been involved in several large projects in my twelve years as a photographer at the Bodleian Library, but what sets this challenge apart was the requirement to digitize so many early manuscripts in their entirety.


Starting in 2012, my colleagues and I began photographing volumes from the Bodleian’s Barocci collection of Greek manuscripts. The decision was made that we would progress through volumes in ascending shelfmark order, meaning that the initial manuscripts were some of the physically smallest items which we were required to photograph for this project. At typically just twelve to fifteen centimeters tall and often with three hundred to four hundred parchment folios, these volumes were almost as wide as they were tall.


This presented several challenges. Solutions needed to be found for holding the manuscripts open at a wide enough angle to be able to capture text and marginal annotations near the gutter of each opening, while also ensuring that the precious bindings were supported in a safe, conservation approved fashion.


Another of the trickiest problems to overcome when capturing very high-resolution images from such small volumes is how to deal with the incredibly limited depth of field. For the majority of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts digitized for this project, my colleagues and I used either forty or sixty million pixel medium format digital sensors. At these resolutions, a variation of just a couple of millimeters in the depth of a page can cause text to be pin sharp in some areas while unacceptably soft in others. Thick parchment pages with cockled surfaces, or pages from the middle of tightly bound volumes were therefore a big challenge to reproduce. Checking each image for sharpness in multiple areas and making minute focusing adjustments was essential.


MS. Barocci 15, fol. 391v

MS. Barocci 15, fol. 391v.

A new book cradle, a Grazer KT5242 conservation copy stand, was purchased to help overcome these problems. Along with our existing model, the Grazer CCS6545, these two book cradles were used to photograph all of the most delicate, precious, and difficult to handle material throughout the project. The Grazer cradles provide one of the only solutions for digitizing books and manuscripts without the need for glass or clear plastic to come into contact with surface of the page. The fore-edge of each page rests on a hollow bar with a line of small holes along its length. This is connected to a vacuum unit via a hose, which draws air through and holds the page exactly parallel to the lens and absolutely still while being photographed. Two movable plates ensure that the manuscripts are held safely and at an angle suitable to protect their fragile bindings. Visitors to the studio are often fascinated by the book cradles, the larger of the two taking up an entire room.


Photographer John Barrett, with a Grazer imaging cradle and open book.

John Barrett with a Grazer cradle.

While working in the Bodleian Library studio, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the most beautiful, rare and precious books and manuscripts in the world. Volumes digitized for this project are no exception. Of all of the Greek Manuscripts which I digitized for the project, perhaps MS. Barocci 170 was the most beautiful.


Detail from MS. Barocci 170, fol. 23v

MS. Barocci 170, fol. 23v.

It’s hard not to be thrilled while working with such amazing manuscripts, some dating from as far back as the ninth century.  Guidance from conservation staff regarding handling has been essential throughout the project. Many Greek and Hebrew manuscripts digitized for this project have needed to be handled with extreme care during photography. My colleagues and I have encountered volumes with insect damage, loose fragments, folios or quires, extremely fragile pages and bindings attached to volumes by a single thread. Balancing the requirement to provide such a huge quantity of images in the time allocated, while ensuring that the material is correctly handled is perhaps the most challenging aspect of large-scale digitization projects.


Working with the curators of the Greek, early printed and Hebrew collections has been important throughout the project too. It has truly been a collaborative process.


The second phase of the project involved digitizing hundreds of volumes of early printed material from the Bodleian’s collections.


What was most surprising about these books, considering their age, was their amazing condition. Boldly printed on thick bright paper and beautifully bound, these volumes were far easier to photograph… a welcome change from the difficulty of the previous phase.


Notably, the Bodleian’s two volumes of the Gutenberg Bible were photographed, as well as the Douce Pliny in its entirety. Other memorable beautifully coloured volumes included Byw. Adds. 2/1


Bwy. adds. 2/1, fol. a2v.

Byw. adds. 2/1, fol. a2r.

At around the time of photographing these volumes I developed a new lighting technique that enabled me to capture gold leaf with far more colour accuracy. This technique was put in to practice for the two volumes previously mentioned, as well as many of the Hebrew manuscripts that I would later photograph for this project.


The final phase of the project would involve photographing the Libraries’ collections of Hebrew material. Just as with the Greek manuscripts, my colleagues and I had both the good fortune of working with these incredibly beautiful volumes and the constant challenge of photographing them accurately.  By this point in the project though, we had established a good, consistent approach and we were able to progress through the material fairly efficiently.


It was in this phase of the project though, that the most difficult challenge presented itself. The Kennicott Bible is arguably the most beautiful Hebrew manuscript in the Bodleian Library’s collections. However, it is almost impossible to photograph well due to its binding. During my time at the Bodleian I’ve been asked to photograph pages from this fifteenth century manuscript, which contains over 450 folios, on a few occasions. Realising how difficult this is to do, when I was asked to photograph it in its entirety for the project, I knew that it would present a unique set of challenges.


What makes the Kennicott Bible so different is that its lower board is in fact not a board at all; it’s a box. To add to the problem, the folios fit very neatly in to the box with just a few millimeters of gap surrounding them and the pages are decorated with gold leaf. The principal problem was photographing the folios, especially the later folios, without the edges of the decorated pages being shadowed by sides of the box. Lighting from near the camera lens would result in a lack of saturation and the gold leaf being completely over exposed.


Through lots of experimentation with lighting and software, I eventually found a solution that enabled me to digitize the entire volume for the project. Needless to say, this was a slow process but also extremely rewarding and an amazing opportunity to spend several days with this beautiful manuscript.


MS. Kennicott 1 open at fols 442v-443r.

MS. Kennicott 1, fols. 442v-443r.

I’ve now spent five years producing images for the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project and it’s been a great privilege; not only to work with such amazing material from the Bodleian Libraries collections, but also to contribute to this valuable resource. Hopefully this resource and others like it will grow and that more of our collections will become accessible to everyone.