Creative Setups for Photographing  

Contribute by Zoe Smith, IMLS Collections Photographer 

Photographing sculptures that have ornate details or a unique shape can cause some logistical issues. For each one, we need to assess how to photograph it individually in the safest way. Occasionally we mount paintings or sculptures to a wall or an easel, use foam blocks to protect the corners, and other times we can place an artwork directly on a table to photograph.  For the piece Thomas P. Anshutz by Adam Pietz (accession #1938.6) there were tiny legs underneath the rectangular portion of the work. Because of this, it wouldn’t fit on our easel right side up, so we had to place it on its side. I wanted the lighting of each relief sculpture to be consistent throughout our collection, so I had to get creative with the lighting. I had to place a large soft box above the sculpture facing the hair of Thomas P. Anshutz. Another smaller softbox was below the camera also pointed at the face. I needed a little more highlights on the top and bottom of the piece, so I added a reflector and an umbrella attached to a light set to a low power. The result had a mix of lighting to show the shape and dimension of the relief, and it matched the other relief photographs.

Another setup included hanging a fragile plaster piece by Beatrice Fenton, Life Cast of Emily Clayton Bishop’s Left Hand (accession #1984.43). We screwed into a piece of wood and used white gaff tape to cover the hardware to minimize any unwanted color cast onto the sculpture. Every piece requires a new and challenging setup to get the best results.   

Digital Treasure Trove: Preventing unwanted reflections part 2, DIY V Flats 

Contributed by Zoe Smith, IMLS Museum Collections Assistant and Photographer

A challenge when photographing glazed works of art is the reflective nature of the plexiglass. To minimize reflections, we need to make everything around the camera black. In a previous post, we mentioned the process of using a large black velvet cloth set up on a backdrop. While that setup worked for many of our glazed works, the cloth was too small for our very large works.

Since PAFA does not have a dedicated photography studio, we also wanted to create a more portable solution that would also help us address the reflection issues of oversized works. I did some research and found some DIY ways to make a V Flat. A V Flat is a black piece of foam core that folds in half creating a V shape. Sharon Yoon (Museum Collections Assistant) and I made some mini prototypes to test out a couple ways to make this with materials we had in the museum before we scaled up to create the larger v flats.

Sharon and Zoe

V Flat prototypes

Instead of the foam folding only one way, we wanted to have it be in quarters to make it even more portable and easy to store. To do this we had to find a non-reflective and strong way to fasten two sides together that was removable. We tried Velcro strips, but they weren’t as strong as we wanted. The next method used framing materials we had, this allowed us to pull the pieces together tightly and the entire structure was much more solid. We used black gaff tape to combine all 4 panels and seal off any potential light leaks at the seam. We made three different V Flats that we can now line up and photograph large reflective pieces like this one by Barbara Krueger (accession 1984.19). Here are before and after images to see the differences when using the V flats.

Photograph without V Flats

Photograph with V Flats

Making these DIY V Flats is a versatile solution to many issues we encounter while photographing and allows us to capture each artwork without distractions. 

Reference and Research Services

Contributed by Sharon Yoon, Museum Collections Assistant

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy the most while working at PAFA is assisting researchers with research requests. The archives contain a trove of information that is vital for not only documenting institutional history, but also the artists that have trained or exhibited here at the Academy.

Because of our long history, we receive a wide range of research requests. The most common questions are regarding an artwork’s provenance, exhibition history, or whether an artist studied at PAFA.

With access being a core component of the archives’ mission, we welcome all researchers to visit and consult sources in-person. Understanding that not everyone is able to physically come to PAFA, staff work to provide assistance through email—if you have a question about PAFA history, we will (most likely) have answers (! 

For the past few months, I was able to gain insights on historical research methods, as well as learn a lot about PAFA’s archival collection and which collections would lead to the best records.

For this blog post, I’d like to share the thought process of how I handled a recent research request. A scholar sent an email requesting more information on May Howard Jackson (1877-1931), a Black artist and sculptor who attended classes at the Academy beginning in 1895. The researcher was specifically interested in Jackson’s student records, particularly the details of the scholarship that afforded her the opportunity to attend PAFA as well as her activities during her time at PAFA.

Unfortunately, the student records collected from this time period were not as comprehensive as our 20th century student records. Since there was no designated academic student file for Jackson, some digging into other sources was required. Many secondary sources online suggested Jackson attended PAFA in 1895 so that was my starting date. With this date, this led me to look into our student registers—large ledger books that listed students by year. Sifting through the student register, I found her entry! Note that these specific student registers were signed by the student/artist themselves.

See line 92; Student Register 1894-1904 (RG.03.03.04) 

Given that the student register only provided a name, an address, a class she took, and the scholarship, it could be implied that this was the same May Howard Jackson that the researcher requested information on. However, to be a bit more thorough, I used the address listed for Howard in the student register and cross-referenced it with Philadelphia census records. The 1890 Philadelphia census records were largely destroyed by fire but looking into the 1900 records confirmed that May Howard (Jackson) did live at the address written in the student register.  This was further confirmed by looking up maps of Philadelphia wards and checking that her address in the student register fell in the geographic area of the 2nd ward. The provided house number, names of known family members, and occupations listed in the census also lined up with known information on May Howard Jackson. 

See line 66, 67.  “United States Census, 1900”, , FamilySearch ( :
Tue Mar 05 19:56:11 UTC 2024), Entry for Floarda Howard and May Howard, 1900. 

The next step was to find more information on the scholarship she received to attend the Academy. Listed as “Scholarship Bd Ed.”, I looked into the minutes of the Committee on Instruction and Board of Directors from the 1890s in hopes of finding details or conditions of the scholarship. In a February 1895 meeting of the Board of Directors, it was recorded that

“The President referred to the efforts made by the Academy to secure an appropriation from the city, and said that a bill appropriating $5000 had passed through Councils and had been signed by the Mayor; and in accordance with the request of the Board of Public Education, the President was authorized to form a committee of three to confer with a similar committee from that body on the subject of the scholarships to be given.” 

The minutes confirmed that a scholarship was established in 1895 by the Academy in conjunction with the Board of Public Education. Other notes (not pictured) stated that the scholarship would enact in the fall of 1895. 

Reading into the Committee on Instruction minutes was next, as I hoped there would be more illuminating information regarding the conditions of the scholarship and how May Howard Jackson would have been a recipient. Notes taken a few years after 1895 clearly outlined the scholarship’s requirements— namely that students of the Public Industrial Art School could register for an examination to be awarded one. This was a great find, as secondary sources and articles published about May Howard Jackson state that she attended J. Liberty Tadd’s Philadelphia Art School— more well known as the Public Industrial Art School of Philadelphia. She was among the first students to attend classes at the Academy with this scholarship, and the first Black female student to attend on scholarship. 

Committee on Instruction records, Minutes 1895-1903 

With this information at hand, I was able to provide the researcher with detailed answers about May Howard Jackson and personally learn more about this artist and the Academy’s history.

PAFA has two works by May Howard Jackson: 

Testing a new method to digitize archival collections

Since much of our archival collections are digitized by work study students or interns, the archives has always relied on flatbed scanners to perform the work. The most obvious benefits for the department include reducing user-errors as well as reducing technical training—digitizers would input the correct settings and basically scan the item. The major downside for scanning archival collections is the time required to scan at preservation level standards. Depending on the size of the record/object, the scan could take anywhere from one to three minutes per item. The minutes surely add up for very large collections.

PAFA is very familiar with using digital cameras to digitize collections—the museum has used cameras to digitize/document its permanent art collection and exhibitions since 2007!

Since we had a spare DSLR camera and copy stand, we thought it would be interesting to test out this new method. We selected a small collection to pilot this digitizing method. The work was completed by Annie Thompson (MFA), the archives’ long-term work-study student.

copystand setup

The pilot project allowed us to get a better sense of the speed and image quality to formulate a baseline to compare to the scanning workflow. While cultural institutions typically focus on creating high-quality reproductions, we kept our expectations low since the technical skills required to use a DSLR with all its settings properly was a huge learning curve.

The obvious benefit of using a camera to digitize collections is the sheer speed—it takes literally a few seconds to create a digital capture. One major hurdle we faced with this new approach was the post-processing time. All digital captures required straightening, cropping, and color adjustments. Some workstations in the archives were too slow to use some software, which made post-processing time consuming.

The pilot project selected the Miscellaneous Photographs collection of cartes-de-visite to photograph. Browse the collection here:

New Digitized Collections

We are excited to announce that the archives has completed digitizing a few more photograph collections. The work was completed by Victoria Black (MFA), the archives’ winter work-study student.

The first collection consists of 679 photographs that document the various prizes that students compete for, typically at the end of the school year. These prizes are sometimes referred to as the Spring Scholarship and Prize Competitions.

You can browse the Student Prizes photograph collection here:

The second collection consists of 149 photographs that document the Edmund Stewardson Prize in Sculpture. The annual prize is competed for by students of the Academy. The subject for the competition is a full-length figure from life, in the round. 

You can browse the Edmund Stewardson Prize in Sculpture photographs here:

Digital Treasure Trove: Shaping 3d Work with Light

Contributed by Zoe Smith, IMLS Project Museum Collections Assistant

In our studio we find immense joy in getting to creatively light sculptures. While works on paper are very evenly lit, there is more room to play around with 3d works.  Sculpture busts for example we light as individual portraits, each has distinct features and nuances.

For this plaster bust of Mrs. Allan Clyde Hale by George H. Borst (accession 2013.31.5), we wanted to light it in a dynamic way but keep the lighting balanced enough to match the rest of the collection.

Key Light: The key light is the main light used to light a subject. We decided to use a Rembrandt style lighting technique. This is a commonly used method of lighting in photography that comes from the distinct style of the 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

Fill Light: The fill light’s purpose is to even out shadows and provide a gentle illumination that complements the key light. This was achieved by bouncing the light into the ceiling in front of the subject. This method makes the light incredibly soft and even.

Kicker Light: The kicker light, the final piece of the puzzle, subtly outlines the profile of the subject. The kicker is the most subtle of the lights, but really lets the object stand apart from the background.

As we were planning the lighting, we captured individual exposures with each of the three lights independently. This allowed us to see the subtle differences each light makes.

While the differences may seem minuscule, their cumulative effect makes a dramatic difference when it comes to the final image. Working out these intricate details is some of the most rewarding work when it comes to photographing our extensive collection.

Here are some examples of the lighting techniques that we implemented.

Key Light:

Fill Light:

Kicker Light:


About the Institute of Museum and Library Services

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Digital Treasure Trove: Photographing Naima (2001) by Elizabeth Catlett 

Contribute by Zoe Smith, Project Museum Collections Assistant

This week at PAFA we continued photographing sculptures as a part of the IMLS grant. While some 3D objects are straight forward, the beautiful sculpture Naima by Elizabeth Catlett was quite the challenge to photograph. I had so much fun creating the set up for this piece. We started using the light box that we have been using for smaller pieces, but because this sculpture is so reflective, we could see everything surrounding the object. We had to get creative and use the structure of the lightbox but switch the reflective sides to diffusion material. Our light source needed to be bigger than the object we were photographing and needed to seamlessly surround it. We had to combine multiple pieces of fabric to surround the work, and then we were able to use two soft boxes to get a beautiful quality of light. This piece has been one of my favorites to photograph so far, and I had a great time working with the photographer Adrian Cubillas to figure it out.  

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Digital Treasure Trove: Macro Photography

Contribute by Zoe Smith, Project Museum Collections Assistant

PAFA’s collection primarily consists of paintings, works on paper, and sculpture. There are some more unique objects in the collection such as medals! PAFA has a discrete collection of medals that were sculpted for the many prizes it awarded artists during its Annual Exhibitions. These objects are much smaller in comparison to the typical objects that we have photographed for the past year. Because of their size, the photography workflow needed to change to obtain a preservation quality image. The project team added a lightbox and new Helicon Focus software. Together, these dramatically improved our capabilities and efficiency.

One of the benefits of using this workflow with the medium format camera is once the photograph is completed, you can zoom in on miniscule details, showcasing the precision and skills of the artist.

The miniatures in the collection are even smaller than the medals–smaller than a quarter! The focus stacking technique allows us to capture stunning details throughout each piece. Using this technology to photograph these objects brings a new life to each piece. This detail from a Temple Trust Fund Medal is less than 2 inches and shows an amazing rendering of PAFA.  

About the Institute of Museum and Library Service

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

New Staff

PAFA is excited to welcome Sharon Yoon as our new Museum Collections Assistant. Sharon recently completed her bachelor’s degree at Drexel University studying Art History. She will help support many activities that help promote the care and use of the collection as help conduct research.

Digital Treasure Trove: Parallel projects-John Rhoden sculptures 

Contributed by Adrian Cubillas, Photographer and Digital Collection Coordinator & Zoe Smith, IMLS Project Museum Collections Assistant

PAFA’s Digital Treasure Trove project and the exhibition Determined to be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden both embody the institution’s mission by expanding the stories of American art. The grant project preserves and makes artworks more accessible to the public, while the exhibition showcases the work of an artist whose contributions challenge conventions and broaden the understanding of American art. Together, these projects reinforce our commitment to inspiring and educating through its world-class museum and school. For the Rhoden exhibition, Dr. Brittany Webb, Evelyn and Will Kaplan Curator of Twentieth Century Art.

John W. Rhoden (1916-2001). Three Headed Lion, 1954. Bronze, The John Walter Rhoden and Richanda Phillips Rhoden Collection, 2019.27.3

Zoe and I had the pleasure of attending the opening of Determined to be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden. We were lucky enough to walk through the exhibit as it was being installed with the curator Dr. Brittany Webb. Getting to see the behind-the-scenes as well as the final exhibit was a great experience that opened my eyes to how much goes into creating such a big show. We also had the amazing opportunity to make some gifs of the sculptures to promote the show! (see below). We loved being able to contribute to such a wonderful project.