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Beyond Documentation

As a museum photographer, I get asked on occasion what is involved with my work.  What do I do?  My response is fairly straightforward, “I document the objects and exhibitions at the IMA.” But the specifics of my work are rarely detailed. And that is what I intend to do here. If you feel the intricacies of museum photography are best left unwritten then stop reading at, “I [just] document the objects and exhibitions at the IMA.”

For those of you who have a taste for the technical and an appreciation of process, begin reading here:

Art Directed Photography

Unfortunately for me (and I would argue the patron), this is what I get to do the least.

Art Directed photography requires a fair amount pre-planning and time to explore an approach to photography of an object or setting.  It requires the input of multiple parties, is of high quality, and has a distinct “look” to the final image.  These images are generally intended for more targeted uses in magazine and catalogues.

The images below of Alberto Meda’s Light-Light chair were taken with a Mamiya 645D and a Phase One P45 digital back. The inspiration came from our Senior Curator of Design Arts Craig Miller, who wanted to focus on the texture of the material. The silhouette of the chair legs emerges from the darkness to reveal the back and the carbon fiber texture.

Alberto Media, "Light-Light chair (prototype)," 1988, carbon fiber and Nomex composite. Purchased with funds provided by James E. and Patricia J. LaCrosse.

Here’s another example of an art directed photo shoot:

Allesandro Mendini and Alessandro Guerriero, "Side chair from Ollo Collection,"1988, plastic, laminate. Frank Curtis Springer and Irving Moxley Springer Purchase Fund. © Alessandro Guerriero.

Publication Photography

Occurring much more frequently than art directed projects, publication photography is what you will typically find me doing day to day. It generally consists of high quality documentation photography, which requires more setup time and use of higher end equipment. The background may be white or gradated. Publication photography fulfills the need of catalogues and other external requests that require large image sizes.

Below are images of a more straightforward nature.  A generic gradient background is used rather than something more dramatic. Therefore the background or lighting does not become a distraction or a more obvious component of the image.  We have recently moved away from using the gradients.  Much of our work is shot on a plain white background to give all the attention to the art object.

Documentation Photography
This approach is similar to publication photography, however the intended results are more focused on a specific collection.  The drive behind this type of photography is to get a clear visual record of the object.

 Documentation photography is a systematic approach to photographing objects in the collection. The image is captured in a very generic setting (usually with a white background). Although quick snapshots can also be utilized as documentation, the goal of the Publishing & Media department is to acquire a clean, representative image of the work of art.  The resulting image can then be utilized for 80-90% of image needs (small press, newspaper, online, magazine, some catalogue uses).

We tend to create these images with Canon 5D Mark IIs and similar full frame digital cameras. A group of photographers are usually involved with any systematic documentation of the collection, along with staff from other departments coordinating the object movements.  See image below:

The role of the museum photographer is an exciting and rewarding one, and – as with many jobs in the museum – you frequently have the opportunity to get up-close with a variety of artwork.  And as a photographer, we get to see the work in its best light.  Future posts from me will be dealing with specific objects and how we shoot them, including images of our setup and some trial and error photographs, if I can get them by our editor.  Stay tuned!

Filed under: Art, IMA Staff, Photography

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