Digital Treasure Trove: Photographing works of art

Contributed by HoJun Yu, Project Museum Collections Assistant

My first glimpse of museum collection photography began when I was employed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the Met, I worked on a similar grant funded project that gave me the opportunity to see how works of art were photographed by collection staff. I was thrilled about the possibility of doing such work myself when I was hired by PAFA.

As PAFA’s collection photographer, Adrian Cubillas has provided me guidance, supervision, and support in learning the intricate processes for photographing works of art. The first phase of the project would focus on photographing works on paper. During the first few photographing sessions we photographed unframed and unmatted prints.

It was great working with another photographer who brought his perspective and experience in collection photograph. He walked me through all the basics of photographing an artwork and once I learned the essentials, we were able to speed through the work as he and I are both photographers. Even though I have been a photographer for quite some time now, I have been learning about new techniques as most of my photographic work involves people, rather than objects.

Using studio lights to photograph works of art can take much meticulousness, as we need to accurately capture the brightness and colors. The most challenging part has been troubleshooting the glares we come across every now and then, especially with prints that have more reflective surfaces. Once again, as Adrian and I are both photographers, combining our knowledge and efforts has been helping significantly. To troubleshoot such problems regarding the glare, we adjusted the angles of the strobe lights. Rather than lighting up the artwork directly, we decided to turn the strobes around to bounce them off the walls. By doing so, we were able to reduce the glares that kept appearing especially on photographic prints.

Another obstacle that we encountered was the condition of some of the prints themselves. While most of the prints we have been photographing have been relatively flat, the rest have seemed to retain a slight curl from being previously rolled up. The curl posed a minor problem as certain parts of the print will not be not be completely sharp. To solve this, we simply went with a slightly deeper, wider depth of field to make sure all parts of the print were in focus. While convenient, changing the depth of field requires subtlety and care. If the depth of field is too deep, the ISO will have to be increased, which will consequently produce a photograph with more noise. The changes in the depth of field need to be conservative and as small as possible.

For the first month of photographing, we managed to photograph 85 works on paper.

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