Photographing art works in ZSL Library - this month we feature a person, James Godwin, rather than an `artefact'

by Ann Sylph on

We regularly feature the photography of James Godwin on twitter @ZSLLibrary and so we invited him to blog, here is the result.


I have been working in ZSL Library & Archives since 2006, and using Photoshop editing digital photographs since the late nineties. My last job had been for a paparazzi agency in Clerkenwell where I was literally meta tagging and editing celebrity photographs all day. I was quickly able to transfer these skills to ZSL Library as even in 2006 digital photography was still more or less in its infancy and demand from ZSL Library’s vast collection of 35mm slides still considerable. Following some good fortune, I was able to get myself a professional full-frame camera and have subsequently spent ten years photographing ZSL Library’s artwork; an extensive collection both in frame and folio; to date thousands of plates, illustrations, and works of art; including the works of Francis Day, Brian Houghton Hodgson, Henry Jones, J.G. Keulemans, Roelandt Savery, Joseph Smit, Joseph Wolf, Edward Lear, and John Gould.


A volume of paintings with supports to aid photography and James's camera
One of the larger volumes in the collection and one of my cameras for size.


Photographing plates from books is always a bit tricky. In the absence of anything remotely resembling a studio, I’ve been utilising the Reading Room desks. Most of the books I’ve been photographing are eighteenth and nineteenth century and kept locked away in the Library’s `strong room’, and they are quite simply huge, so physically handling them can be a challenge itself. They are also old so every attention to care must be made. My solution is to use foam wedges, but even then the challenge has only just begun, invariably I have to use book `snakes’ to keep the books open at the page I’m photographing. I generally use a tripod these days as well.


A display of drawings of mammals and birds of Nepal in the Aquarium of ZSL London Zoo
The Brian Houghton Hodgson exhibition in ZSL London Zoo’s Aquarium in 2015. Celebrating 200 years of diplomatic relations between Britain and Nepal.


There is real sense of satisfaction digitising these art works and making them available for potential use. We are currently have an exhibition of Francis Day's collection of fish drawings in the Aquarium at ZSL London Zoo. We’ve previously displayed illustrations from Brian Houghton Hodgson’s birds and mammals of Nepal and India, of which we hold the original artwork and manuscripts. We have also exhibited there reproductions from the John Reeves Collection of drawings from China (1820-1840).


ZSL Library has a long-established relationship with a few publishers who ask us for illustrations. ZSL publications featured many of beautiful illustrations and plates such as those published in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London going back to 1830, I have photographed many of these as well.


A large colour painting of a chiru, a Tibetan antelope
Chiru in the Hodgson collection. Due to the size of the original artwork I had to photograph this twice and stitch it together in Photoshop. It was used on the cover of Tibet Wild by George Schaller.


Obviously, photo sales to publishers generates some income for ZSL but there is an equal measure of satisfaction providing photographs to staff for presentations or scientific papers. We have also provided the artwork to television production companies,  National Geographic,  Sir David Attenborough’s recent programme on Jumbo the elephant, Attenborough and the Giant Elephant much of which was filmed in ZSL Library. 


I add thumbnails of artworks, artefacts and sculptures to their catalogue record in the ZSL Library online catalogue, this enhances the record and aids retrieval.


Many of the art works in ZSL Library were first produced for scientific purposes sometimes depicting a newly discovered animal. The art works and their often scientific nature  help people reconnect with nature and to take action to protect it. They and the ZSL Library collections are inspiring, informing, empowering - Working for wildlife.


Ultimately, photographing art works in the Zoological Society’s collection with a focus on zoological conservation, is infinitely more interesting  and inspiring than my previous working environment of paparazzi images, the resulting photographs help to increase awareness of and access to our collections.


A coloured illustration of a snow leopard
Snow Leopard, by Joseph Wolf & Joseph Smit. Lithographic print in Daniel Giraud Elliot’s Monograph of the Felidae


On AGM day, 13 November we will have a special display in ZSL Library of art works depicting endangered and extinct species – Art of the lost and rare so do call in to view them.


Read Ann Datta’s Introduction to ZSL’s drawings and prints collection


ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is a wonderful and unique information resource about animals and their conservation – we aim to inspire, inform, and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct. Information is vitally important in conservation.

Our collections can be explored and discovered in a variety of ways –



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