‘A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words’ Part II

There are currently well over a quarter of a million images of V&A objects available online through Search the Collections, but the V&A Photographic Studio is always in demand to photograph more. The Photographers are kept very busy with a steady stream (at times perhaps more a ‘torrent’) of objects coming through their doors to be photographed for various exhibitions and publications. This photography happens alongside long-term projects aimed at fully documenting all of the collections.

With over 1,000 objects going into the Europe Galleries I needed to be sure that we will be making best use of the Photographers’ time and not risk flooding the studio with objects. This means I have to have a clear understanding of exactly which objects require new photography; when they will be ready; where they will be; and how they need to be photographed.

The first step in co-ordinating the photography programme for the new galleries was to record which of the objects require new photography. The initial basic question being:

Are there existing digital photographs of the object?

For some objects, like this wooden gingerbread mould, the only images we had were old black & white photographs in hard-copy folders.

For some objects, like this wooden gingerbread mould, the only images we had were old black & white photographs in hard-copy folders. V&A 112-1906

Snapshot of an old photograph held on file V&A 112-1906

Those without images obviously require new photography. For the others, I had to assess the quality of existing photographs and record any which had insufficient or out-of-date images.

I went through the images with Curators from each collection to identify any objects which needed additional photography. Being familiar with the objects was important as it meant that we knew if there were maker’s marks or additional details that weren’t currently recorded.

caskets

The maker’s mark and town mark on the base of this 17th century, silver casket are now visually recorded. The maker’s mark is that of Antonio Pérez de Montalto and the town mark is that of Toledo.V&A 275-1879

In other cases, existing images might show an object in a slightly confusing or deceptive manner – this can occur with particularly three-dimensional objects which can sometimes appear rather flat in older photographs. As mentioned in my previous post, our aim is to provide the most accurate visual representation of objects, as close as possible to the experience of seeing them in person.

The gingerbread mould is a good example of why good lighting and multiple shots are important for understanding the three-dimensional nature of some objects.

The gingerbread mould is a good example of why good lighting and multiple shots are important for understanding the three-dimensional nature of objects.

spoons

The same goes for this Norwegian carved, wooden spoon. V&A W.22-1925

Conservation work is a major element of our project and so a crucial question for all of the objects (regardless of existing photographs) was:

Will this object change in appearance following conservation work?

Our very obliging Conservators helped me to identify any objects whose appearance would change. This meant they would need to be re-photographed once Conservation work was complete. The two paintings below are a good reminder of how much conservation work can change the appearance of objects.

Before and after recent conservation work. 'A Lady Seen in Full Face', oil painting, Luca Carlevarijs, probably Italy, ca.1700-1710 V&A P.78-1938

Before and after recent conservation work. ‘A Lady Seen in Full Face’ by Luca Carlevarijs is now much more visible V&A P.78-1938

Before and after photographs of Frans Snyders' 'Still Life with a Dead Stag', Flemish school, 1640s V&A 4418-1857

Before and after photographs of Frans Snyders’ ‘Still Life with a Dead Stag’ V&A 4418-1857. During the removal of heavily discoloured varnish, conservators discovered Snyders’ signature between the legs of the stag, confirming that it was indeed painted by Snyders and not one of his followers.

With many hundreds of our objects requiring new photography, it has been important to carefully plan when each object can be photographed and co-ordinate who may need to be involved for it to happen.

The objects need to be photographed before they are installed in the galleries but we need to have them ready in a timely fashion and avoid any last-minute rushes for the photo studio which might delay installation. We have worked to spread the photography of objects across as long a period of time as possible to avoid swamping the Photographic Studio with an unfeasible number of objects at one time and disrupting their work on other projects.

Many objects could only be photographed after many hours of conservation work were completed and so in the meantime we prioritised the photography of objects which didn’t require conservation.

Two other groups of objects that needed to be prioritised were:

  • Objects that will feature in the new publication

This book is being produced to accompany the new galleries and features over 200 photographs of V&A objects. Achieving the early-July photography deadline was the result of some hard-work by the conservators and photographers.

  • Objects required for interpretation visuals

This included objects being used to provide content for some of our interpretation features (such as interactives and facsimile books), which need to be prepared many months before installation.

Pages from volumes of Picart's publication 'Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde' needed to be photographed to create a facsimile book for visitors to use in the gallery.

Pages from Picart’s publication ‘Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde’ (1723-43) needed to be photographed in order to create a facsimile book for visitors.

 

Plates from Diderot and d'Alembert's 'Encyclopédie' have been photographed for use in an interactive exploring trades and the construction of various objects.

Plates from Diderot and d’Alembert’s ‘Encyclopédie’ (1751-65) have been photographed for use in an interactive exploring trades and the construction of various objects.

This blue japanned cabinet needs to be displayed with its front closed but a photograph showing what the inside looks like will be included on the gallery label strip.

This blue japanned cabinet needs to be displayed with its front closed but a photograph showing the inside will be included on the gallery label strip. V&A W.62-1979

It is important to be aware which individuals may need to be involved in the photography of an object and to ensure that they will be available when needed. Some objects may require curators, conservators or technicians to be on hand when they are photographed.

Particularly large, heavy or otherwise ‘awkward’ objects will require Technical Services to move them to the Photography Studio.

This two-stage oak cupboard is nearly 2 metres high and over 120cm wide. As it is so big, its two parts are ordinarily stored separately in our rolling racks. A number of technicians were required to transport and assemble this piece. V&A 860-1907

This Dutch two-stage oak cupboard is nearly 2 metres high and over 120cm wide. Its two parts are ordinarily stored separately in our rolling racks (shown on the left). A number of technicians were required to move and assemble this piece. V&A 860-1907

Some particularly delicate or complicated objects may require conservators to prepare them for the camera. An example of this is clothing which needs to be mounted on mannequins by Textile Conservators.

This coat forms part of one of my favourite objects - a miniature three-piece suit, consisting of a coat, waistcoat and breeches, that date from about 1760-65. Textile conservation will be mounting the suit on a made-to-measure mannequin for both photography and display. V&A T.282-1978

This coat forms part of one of my favourite objects – a miniature (approximately half-size) three-piece suit, dating from about 1760-65. Textile conservation will mount the suit on a made-to-measure mannequin for both photography and display. V&A T.282-1978

Curators may also need to be on-hand to guide on an object’s appearance. For example, if a group of objects are being photographed together, or if they require setting up in some way. This was the case for a number of photographs for the gallery publication as it was important for the image to fit both with the content of the text accompanying it and also the overall book layout.

Some objects, like this 17th century travelling razor set, have multiple parts which could be shown in a number of ways. V&A 192-1881

Some objects, like this 17th century travelling razor set, have multiple parts which could be shown in a number of ways. V&A 192-1881

This spinning wheel will require conservators and curators to be present to ensure that all of its pieces are correctly assembled for photography. V&A 4475-1858

This spinning wheel will require conservators and curators to be present to ensure that all of its pieces are correctly assembled before being photographed. V&A 4475-1858

2 thoughts on “‘A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words’ Part II

Robert Thornhill:

Dawn, you are doing a splendid job of keeping us informed of the progress being made towards the new European galleries, thank you. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the new displays of what has always been a particular favourite part of the V&A.
Please could you blog about how and why choices have been made in selecting the items of sculpture and of furniture which will go into the new galleries?

Dawn Hoskin:

Hi Robert,
Thanks for your comment.
Just to let you know, I’ve been putting together a post or two to explain more about our selection of furniture and sculpture objects. I’m hoping to get it up online in a few days, so do pop by the blog again soon.
Dawn

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