It’s a Fine Art

August 7, 2015
After Skopas, Greek, Youthful Hero or God, Roman, 1st–2nd century CE. Parian marble. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Mrs. K. G. T. Webster, 1926.48. 

This story is part of a series of articles about “museum-speak,” or the lingo of those who work in museums, as well as museum-related knowledge. It is intended to deepen your understanding of the behind-the-scenes workings of a museum, and in particular the operations of the Harvard Art Museums.

Not everyone knows that most large museums have one or more fine art photographers on staff. Here at the Harvard Art Museums, we are fortunate to have two, Natalja Kent and Katya Kallsen.

A fine art photographer’s role, said Kent, is to document—as accurately and as timelessly as possible—the objects in our collections so that they can be viewed by the general public and scholars, primarily through our online object records, printed catalogues, and other special collections.

Furthering access to our collections is one of the most important goals of the job. The images need to be in very high resolution for this reason, so that viewers can zoom in to see the finest details.

“If a researcher in Istanbul is writing about a painting in our collections, and he can’t come here to look at it,” said Kent, “we want to provide an image so richly detailed that it’s like experiencing it in person.”

While 91 percent of our objects have images associated with their online records, not all of the images match the high quality that our photographers are able to achieve today. “We believe in quality over quantity,” said Kent—a stance made all the more challenging because taking just one photograph involves multiple steps beyond the clicks of the camera.

The first step is to set up the lighting; every object requires a different setting. Some paintings, for instance, might have a heavy varnish or thick paint, resulting in an uneven surface. The lighting has to be adjusted to most clearly show that texture. The camera has dedicated software that is used to match photographs to the lighting in the studio, which is set at a daylight level, the ideal viewing condition, equivalent to mid-morning or mid-afternoon light.

Then the photographer tackles “color management,” setting up a daylight-balanced fluorescent light and comparing the specially lit object to the monitor, which has also been calibrated to daylight lighting. When comparing the work to what is on the monitor, the photographer checks to see if, say, “the red pigment absorbed light a bit differently than the camera expected it to, or if the green reflected a little more because it might have a little more wax pigment in it,” said Kent. “We look at those slight variations and make tiny adjustments based on factors that might be out of the system’s control.”

The job isn’t merely technical, however. To Kent, photographing objects in our collections is inspiring. “It feels like a holy act. You’re touching these objects that are priceless.” There’s also no shortage of learning on the job. When preparing to photograph the 1st–2nd century CE sculpture Youthful Hero or God, Kent received direction from Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art, to highlight the figure’s brow. In ancient culture, the brow signified that the gods had bestowed on the person a certain amount of power. “I never would have thought of that,” Kent said. “There’s a way I can light the sculpture so that you can see the brow more.”

Kent also brings her experience as an established artist in fine art/conceptual photography. Her work has been shown in galleries throughout the Northeast, including the nearby Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, as well as in Japan and England.

We asked her if she had any tips for museum visitors hoping to take a good quality picture in the galleries—using just their phones. She first warned not to expect “true” color.

“A lot of mobile devices are pumping up the color in very highly saturated ways to make it more appealing on a consumer level. So if you were holding up your phone to Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, you would see two very different things, because your mobile device is increasing the contrast and the color.”

One thing that you can do easily, Kent said, is to center the work in the photo frame. “Sometimes phones or cameras have a grid. Use that! It’s very satisfying.”

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