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Seeing into the Infra Red: On Cameras, Connections and Conservation Documentation

My guess is that you’ve never considered what motorcycles, medical illustrators, Madrid, two cameras that can see into the Infra Red, and underdrawings in Renaissance-era paintings have in common.  Frankly, before last summer I hadn’t either, and now that I’ve started out this way it’s going to take some work to connect all of these things together.  To do it, I’m going to break this post into two parts. Today I’ll give my side of the story and tomorrow you’ll hear from my new friend, Charles Falco, who will tell his.

Group IR Shot.  David Miller, Charles Falco, Richard McCoy, Zina Deretsky, Aimee Allen, Christina Milton-O'cconell, and Linda Witkowski

Group IR Shot. David Miller, Charles Falco, Richard McCoy, Zina Deretsky, Aimee Allen, Christina Milton-O'Connell, and Linda Witkowski

Part I: Making the Connections

The year: 1998
The place: Madrid, Spain.

In Madrid I was learning encuadernación and life drawing when I met Zina Deretsky who at the time was illustrating many different species of Iberian lacewings at the same Universidad Complutense.  We became good friends and began trading stories on our walks to la Universidad.  My stories revolved around my upbringing in the agra-centric world of Indiana – topics included sports, people I knew in Future Farmers of America (FFA), unnecessarily large trucks owned by adolescent boys, and a now-defunct yearly event at my high school called “Farm Day.”  Farm Day was amazing, but I’m not going into that here.  Zina’s stories revolved around sunny California, Yale, and her quasi-scientific vodka sampling.  She went on to grad school at Johns Hopkins and later became an illustrator who works for the National Science Foundation.  And after grad school in New York, I went on to come back to Indiana as an art conservator for the IMA.

Antlion by Zina Deretsky

Antlion by Zina Deretsky

So, last summer I was more than happy to help Zina organize a workshop at the IMA for the American Medical Illustrators Annual Meeting.  And how did Zina get to Indy from her D.C. area home?  By motorcycle, of course

Zina Deretsky on the road with one of her bikes

I quickly found out that one of the big highlights of the AMI Annual Meeting is the “Salon” where medical illustrators exhibit and celebrate their recent illustrations and projects.  After checking out some of gruesomely fascinating work (that one of the car accident for the court trial still troubles me) we bumped into University of Arizona PhD student, Aimee Allen, who had just finished teaching a workshop with Zina on drawing with camera obscuras. The cameras that they used for the workshop happened to be owned by Charles Falco  (who from here on, for sake of continuity and accuracy, will be referred to simply as “Falco”).

Falco was at the AMI Annual Meeting giving a couple of lectures including one on the “Use of Mirrors and Optics in Early Renaissance Painting.” Knowing a little about the Falco from his work on the Hockney-Falco thesis, and as the co-curator of “The Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim Museum, I really wanted to catch one of his lectures.  But I never could get away from the IMA to go hear him.

To make a long story short, Falco, Aimee, and Zina came by the conservation lab to have a look on the work currently being done on the renaissance-era painting by Sebestian Mainardi.   You may have seen this work in the Star Studio as part of the conservation exhibition.  If not, here’s an introductory video:

Note: as of last month you can now come and visit the painting installed in the Clowes Courtyard. (Yeah, it’s worth a special trip!)

I was surprised when Falco brought a modified digital SLR camera with him that allowed him to photograph the Infrared Region (IR) of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Conservators have been using IR cameras as an examination and documentation technique for decades, but usually the process requires a more complicated set up than the SLR camera Falco was carrying around.

You now might have realized that the first image in this post looks a little different.  It’s not that it’s black and white: it’s an IR image taken by Falco’s camera in front of the Mainardi.

For example, the IMA has owned an IR video camera in its lab for close to 30 years. Being able to see into the IR is particularly helpful when looking at paintings that have underdrawings – literally I mean drawings underneath the paint layers that artists would have used as guides while making paintings (if you want to see how a renaissance artist would have used an under drawing in a panel painting go here).   Simply stated, using an IR camera to look at a painting allows us to “see” behind certain paint layers.  This is quite helpful for conservators doing research into an artist’s techniques and materials and it can also guide conservators in their approach in the event an intervention is required.

Laurence Robinson of Opus Instruments Ltd demonstrating the Osiris IR camera at the IMA

Laurence Robinson of Opus Instruments Ltd demonstrating the Osiris IR camera at the IMA

Having Falco visit when he did was convenient because a few weeks prior we were visited by Laurence Robinson of Opus Instruments Ltd. who came to the IMA from the UK to demonstrate a new digital IRR camera system.  This “Osiris” camera is fabulous. It produces high-quality and high-resolution digital images using an array of sensors.  This camera has the capacity to see into a greater range of the IR spectrum than the camera that Falco brought with him.  Though this camera is rather portable, it’s not nearly as portable as Falco’s modified hand-held SLR camera.  Also it’s considerably more expensive and requires some expertise to use properly.

Obviously, we were all thrilled to escort Falco and the rest of the gang around the lab as they looked at and photographed some other paintings that we had recently examined using the Osiris camera.  Falco snapped away in the lab and up in the galleries.  We were impressed with the immediate results of his easy-to-use camera.

And it’s at this point in the story that I will stop.  You’ll have to come back tomorrow to read Falco’s side of the story.  I’ll give you a hint, though, he shows some great examples of what he’s been seeing with his camera for the past year, and also talks about an upcoming publication in the July 2009 issue of the ‘Review of Scientific Instruments’.

Filed under: Art, Conservation

4 Responses to “Seeing into the Infra Red: On Cameras, Connections and Conservation Documentation”

  • avatar
    Mary Striegel Says:

    Interesting blog and a cliff hanger to boot! I’m interested in getting a review copy of the 2009 review of scientific instruments.

    In 1993, I had the good fortune to be at Brooks Photographic Intitute learning about technical photography from Vern Miller ( who once examined the Shroud of Turin). As part of a Getty Conservation Institute project for King Tut’s Tomb, I had a chance to ply around with two early digital cameras — a 3 CCD Leaf camera and a Kodak camera. We learned then that digital cameras could extend into the IR range. The bigger issue however was getting the images off the camera. Fifty % of the time when you connected the camera to a computer the computer died!

    Who would have thought that digital cameras would come so far!

  • avatar

    @Mary – the infra red debate continues through Mamiya whom this week announced a new digital camera kit for professional photographers, the Mamiya RZ33. The RZ33 is a large-sensor digital camera kit featuring a 33 megapixel CCD sensor, cable-free integrated-operation, and is compatible with all Mamiya RZ system lenses, viewfinders and most accessories. Mamiya’s newest lenses which are consistent with all new lenses being developed for the D Series, these new lenses contain a 16bit CPU allowing easy firmware upgrading, finer lens characteristic correction and filters. A great step forward from the orginal days of the 3 CCD Leaf camera I would suggest!

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