Extracts from a Q & A publication:
1. How did you get started photographing art & objects?
In the early 1980’s, I was specializing in advertising photography and shooting in the studio and on location. My subject matter ranged from cars, Liquor bottles and perfume, to surgical instruments and highly reflective titanium prosthesis implants. In other words, a full range of material that provided me with the expertise that would later give me the experience to shoot the type of material found in Fine and Decorative Arts. In the late 1980’s I won an assignment with The National Gallery of Art to photograph Turkish Art in Istanbul, followed by a commission from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art to photograph Strip Weaving in West Africa. This led onto many connections within the Art World.
2. Describe a few of your more memorable assignments.
In this business, you never know where the next phone call or email will lead to. Recently, I photographed The Woodlawn Cemetery over a four-seasons period. (See ‘Blog’ section on this website). Two other memorable assignments were the American furniture photoshoot at the White House and a commission to shoot architectural interiors that included many art objects at The George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
3. What are some of the most challenging aspects of object photography?
The safety of the object takes precedence over all else, so the photographic set has to be constructed primarily with this in mind, while also following all of the guidelines and curatorial rules that I have learnt over the years. In the end, it is all about lighting. For example, rake lighting is used across a carved leg on a piece of furniture to show the cut of the chisel or direct lighting onto a stoneware pot so that the color and texture of the potter’s material under the glaze is revealed. On the other hand, a photo shoot might instead require the use of soft lighting under a photographic tent, controlling the reflections on glass, ceramics or metal.
4. How has digital technology changed what and how you can shoot objects?
After 25 years of shooting film, high resolution digital capture has converted me into ‘A digital pioneer’. Very few shoots go by without discovering a new technique to achieve an even higher standard than I had previously produced. I can now paint with light using multiple shots which later, in processing, get layered together to produce a perfectly lit image in one-third of the time compared to film, as there would have, inevitably, been a compromise due to the limitations of ‘set up time’ prior to digital photography. A good analogy would be the demise of the typwriter, carbon paper and white out, to the personal computer and word processing.
5. How does image manipulation (Photoshop, etc.) figure into object and art photography? How has it changed the way you work?
As a Fine and Decorative Arts Photographer, I am very aware of the dangers of any form of digital restoration. Photoshop and digital photography are a marriage that needs to be treated with understanding and respect. Digital has allowed the Photographer in many situations to use natural lighting, especially with architectural interiors and art objects shot in situ, taking on a more natural look and supplemented at times by some additional photographic lighting.
6. What are some hints or trade secrets you would be willing to share for taking better photographs of objects?
As mentioned earlier, it is primarily about lighting and shooting in high resolution. I have been trained by top curators in their field on how to handle a variety of art objects and I also ask a lot of questions about the final image requirements and its intended end use. I then work as a team member to produce a photograph that emulates the client’s vision, making adjustments on screen until the perfect shot is achieved or can be composited together in post-production. I try to squeeze out every drop of quality from every shot and deliver to my client a set of strictly color-managed files that meet my exacting standards, which can then be handed off to a pre-press house without requiring much additional work prior to going ‘on press’. This can also have significant cost savings on ‘printing and publishing’, which is typically the largest expense.
7. Describe a “basic” set-up that you would use for an object shoot.
Preparation is everything and you can only tackle the problems that arise on location if you have the correct tools and equipment at hand. Every assignment is different, therefore, the ‘basic kit’ needs to be supplemented with those little extras so that problems can be solved fast and efficiently. I carry weight bags to secure light stands when working in the vicinity of art, curatorially approved brushes to remove dust, furniture straps to secure upper case doors when moving large furniture in situations where Museum technicians are not available, cotton and rubber gloves, etc. The list of essential back-up supplies is endless, as art needs to be handled with expert care.
8. Your photography has given you the opportunity to handle and to see many masterpieces close up—have any surprised you? Have you observed anything about these objects that was striking?
Most objects in private collections are displayed in room settings using overhead flat illumination that is not tailored to any specific object, unless it has been carefully lit for display. When I drop out the busy backgrounds and instead design the lighting tailored to that specific object, we get what I call the ‘wow’ factor. Collectors, curators and historians look at the image on my calibrated screen as if it were the first time they are seeing it.
“Wow”, they say, “I didn’t know it had so much detail!”
It never ceases to amaze me that the craftsmen, cabinet makers and potters during those early days, working at times with the simplest of tools, managed to create such exquisite objects of art that have not only stood the test of time, but are having their secrets revealed almost for the first time through the use of this new technology. It is very exciting to be a digital photographer at this moment in the history of photography.