Digital Treasure Trove: Photographing in the Sculpture Study Center

Contributed by IMLS Grant Project Team

Summer in Philadelphia may be winding down, but things at PAFA are just starting to ramp up as we begin the early fall season. There is a lot to catch up on from just the last several weeks: the moving of the outdoor sculpture Grumman Greenhouse by Jordan Griska after 11 years on Lenfest Plaza, installation and prep of our upcoming shows Evade or Ensnare and Making American Artists, as well as fall classes at the school starting back up this month. And things with the IMLS Project Team is just as busy. We’ve continued working all summer on the most challenging phase of the IMLS grant project, photographing the permanent art collection.  

We’ve changed course from photographing 2D works to taking photographs of the 3D works specifically in the Museum’s Sculpture Study Center (SSC). In this gallery, there is a wide array of objects in various mediums, each with their own set of challenges for documentation. Additionally, since the SSC is open to the public during Museum hours, we only have a limited number of days per week when things are closed to setup a temporary photography environment, work through as many objects as possible, and then break down again to make way for visitors.  

We soon realized photographing sculptures presented other challenges in our workflow. First, art handling works on paper compared to 3D sculpture was dramatically different. Some works were fragile, while others were solid and sturdy. Art handling for sculptures made from bronze, stone, plaster, terracotta, or wood all proved challenging and required us to be really careful as some works were hundreds of years old or some were very heavy. The material/color of each sculpture also required different backdrops and lighting. We ended up planning our days around dark and light colored sculptures so we didn’t need to change the backdrop often. And finally, since a single 2D image cannot fully represent all viewing angles of a 3D space, each sculpture is being photographed at least ten times: four side views, four quarter angle views, and two 1/8th angle views. The effect of this will be a very useful (approximate) 360-degree global view of each artwork.  

This workflow requires staff to move a—potentially very heavy—object, refocusing the camera by hand, adjusting the lighting, and finally, taking the image. Overall, it has been a slow but rewarding process, and we feel the finished images will provide a much more comprehensive set of digital assets—for future researchers and the general public—to view online.  

In fact, the usefulness of a more comprehensive set of viewing angles has been immediately clear as we have spent time with each object. A good example might be any of the several Abraham Lincoln life masks currently on view in SSC. Aside from being interesting objects by themselves, they—like many of the objects in PAFA’s collections—have a variety of notes, marking, and surprising armatures on their reverse sides, that might not always be visible to the public, but all contribute to the unique character and story of each work. 

We will soon be turning our attention to back to Works on Paper (WOP) and different aspects of the IMLS grant but we have enjoyed our time with the objects in SSC this summer and hope you will too the next time you are visiting the musem or browsing the new and forthcoming online collection.  

This blog post is part of an ongoing series about Digital Collections that we are able to undertake thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

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 https://www.imls.gov/and follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Digital Treasure Trove: Project Update

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives & Collections

How time flies! It has been a year since we were awarded the IMLS grant. It seems fitting that I take this chance to provide an overview of all the changes and activities that have been completed so far.

The first major update is in regards to staffing changes. HoJun who served as the Project Museum Collections Assistant decided to leave the project early. In his place, we were fortunate to hire an amazing candidate, L Gnadinger. L is an artist, writer, and educator originally from Louisville, KT who has experience with art handling, writing, and arts administration. We’re happy to have L join the IMLS project team!

We’ve completed the first round of cataloging for all permanent works in PAFA’s collection. The main emphasis for this round of cataloging was to obtain accurate biographical information—life dates, place of birth, nationality, gender, race, etc. This round also included ensuring all objects had at least one subject access point, standardized date, copyright information, and of course, no spelling errors.

Photographing the collection has been challenging due to the staff change, technology problems, and institutional commitments. However, we managed to bounce back rather quickly when we switched to photographing 3D works (sculpture) in the second half of the summer. To date, we have photographed 82 small/medium sized sculptures (21%). In the past, we took 1-3 photos of a sculpture in a frontal view only. This time, we decided to photograph the sculpture 10 times to create a full 360 degree view of the work. We believe this added work would not only help PAFA document the work better, but also help curators and researchers view other markings such as a signature or date that is typically on the back of a sculpture.

PAFA’s legacy files are stored in a complex web of folders with tiff and jpg files intermixed with unconventional file naming standards. L has taken on the immense task of digital file management. Fortunately, L has Python programming skills that proved to be invaluable for this task. After a few weeks of brainstorming, testing, and team meetings, L was able to get a grasp of what the best approach would be.

I’ve been working closely with PAFA’s Registrar, Danielle McAdams, who is assisting with the CMS implementation phase of the project. The data migration and implementation of a new CMS is largely done by the vendors. We are currently reviewing the vendor’s feedback for crosswalks that aren’t compatible with the new CMS and determining if we require anything more customized for our needs. So far, there hasn’t been any major issues.

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.

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 https://www.imls.gov/and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Digital Treasure Trove: Project Update

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives

We are excited to announce the official launch of the IMLS grant funded project to photograph all works in PAFA’s permanent collection up to 2018. In addition, there will be a large scale data cleanup of the collection catalog records.

PAFA is happy to introduce HoJun Yu who will serve as the Project Museum Collections Assistant. HoJun is not your traditional museum professional. His educational background was actually in chemistry which may seem odd but there are definitely overlapping skills, particularly when it comes to critical thinking and analytical skills. For instance, these skills will be invaluable for his work reviewing, updating, and creating better catalog records for PAFA’s entire permanent art collection data.

The other portion of his duties is supporting PAFA’s efforts to photograph its permanent collection. HoJun has a passion for photography which is demonstrated by his work as a photographer during his undergraduate studies as well as freelance work (https://www.hojunyu.com/).

HoJun with camera

Please check back here regularly for updates on the project. 

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 https://www.imls.gov/and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Welcome back!

Two weeks ago, the Center for the Study of the American Artist welcomed its first class visit since its closure due to COVID-19. Professor Renee Foulks scheduled an appointment for her Low-Residency MFA class.

PAFA’s Low-Res MFA Class visit, August 2021.

The students selected a number of works from PAFA’s permanent collection for closer examination and discussion. Works included:

Thomas Anshutz – [Lady standing at window, with cat]

[Lady standing at window, with cat]
1971.8.69
Gift of Mrs. Edward R. Anshutz

Bruce Samuelson – Untitled

Untitled
2002.9.22
Gift of Benjamin D. Bernstein and Robin J. Bernstein

Mickalene Thomas – Interior: Blue Couch and Green Owl

Interior: Blue Couch and Green Owl
2017.31.1
© Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

More information about the Center for the Study of the American Artist can be found here.

Visual Culture in the John Rhoden papers Part 1: Richenda Rhoden’s Style

Contributed by Jahna Auerbach, Assistant Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

The John Rhoden papers have not only given us historical insight into John as an artist but great visual insight into American and international culture from the late 1930s through the 1990s as well. I wanted to take the time to highlight one of my favorite aspects of the collection, the clothing and fashion. We’ll start with the best representation of fashion over time in the collection: the outfits of Richenda Rhoden. 

Brooklyn, 1964

I first became interested in Richenda through the many photographs and travel slides in the collection. These images aren’t just fun to view; they also give context for how Richenda expressed herself as a Native American woman during the 20th century. By viewing event photos, candid shots, and hundreds of travel slides, we can see more than ‘Richenda Rhoden the model,’ or ‘Richenda Rhoden, John’s wife.’ Instead, we see a strong and insightful woman, an artist in her own right and a person unwilling to hide her own beauty and style.  

Below, we explore her travels, see her at home, and a personal favorite, in her bikinis and endless leopard print. Instead of looking at the fashion of bygone celebrities or Vogue, archival depiction of fashion reveals how everyday people dressed. It captures the personality and variety in a way that the established fashion resources can’t. Not everyone updates their closet every year or throws out an outfit once it’s out of style, so it’s only natural that the fashion authorities might not have their finger to the pulse of what real people wore.  

When Richenda traveled with John in the ‘50s and ‘60s she wore many classic silhouettes common to the era. Some of her favorite outfits were blouses with a full skirt, often paired with a headscarf and belt. Many of her travel outfits also include fitted blazers and suit sets, as well as full-skirted dresses.

The 1960s fashion was dominated by innovation and bohemian style inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and youth culture. For the most part, Richenda did not follow these trends. However, she did have a few staple outfits that fit the decade in her bathing suits and leopard print outfits. 

Leopard print was made famous by celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. Richenda’s leopard print catsuit reflected real 1960’s fashion, exuding style while still being comfortable.

Indonesia, 1963

Throughout her life, Richenda kept many staples from the 1950s in her wardrobe. For example, Richenda’s swimsuit in Bali is more reminiscent of a 1950’s bikini, with high waisted bikini shorts and a matching bra top. 

Some of Richenda’s best outfits were worn in her own home. She was regularly photographed in the garden, posing with her art, or with the family Christmas tree. Her at-home clothing choices do not reflect a period in fashion. Instead, they show how Richenda expressed herself – primarily in boldly patterned dresses. 

After taking the time to study Richenda’s fashion, I’m left with more questions than answers. I wish more than ever that I could sit down and have a conversation with her. I would gain insight into how she dressed as a Native American, how her travels in Europe and Asia affected her self expression, and how she wanted to present herself as a woman, artist, and partner to John Rhoden.  

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

John Rhoden’s Workspaces

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

John Rhoden’s studio at 23 Cranberry Street is his most iconic workspace. He worked there almost exclusively for over four decades. The studio space permits and even demands large, physical, and active sculpting. It was filled with tools, planning sketches and models, sculptures in progress, and sometimes even heavy equipment such as scaffolding. It gives a sense of how John worked and the environment he was comfortable in.

However, the John Rhoden papers show that John was adaptable and had many different work spaces during his early career. He did not always have the capacity for the monumental sculptures of his later years. Images in the archives show that John was able to work with and flourish in whatever space he could obtain.

Below is a look at John’s different sculpting studios, as represented in the archives. We will first start with his home-base workshop at 23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. to get a sense of his personally-curated space, and then get a view of the many places he worked in over the earlier years.

23 Cranberry Street (1960-2001)

John Rhoden in his studio at 23 Cranberry Street, circa 1970s.

23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. served as Rhoden’s home and studio from 1960 through John’s passing in 2001 and Richenda’s passing in 2016 (with the exception of their stint in Indonesia from 1961-1963). The space was unique in that it was formally a mechanic’s garage equipped with a freight elevator. The home was spacious enough to create large scale sculptures, store works of art, and all the necessary sculpting tools and supplies.

In the images below, one gets a sense of John’s preferred work space. There’s an element of chaos. It feels more like a construction site than the stereotypical artist’s studio.

In this studio is where John was able to really expand the scale of his artworks. His monumental sculpture commissions, such as Mitochondria for the Metropolitan Hospital (lower left) and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (lower right), were all conceived in this space.

Early Spaces (1938-1959)

John Rhoden working in the Baille Studio in New Jersey, 1946.

The archives do not reveal much about John’s early sculpting studios. John’s earliest work was carried out as a student in various schools, most notably Columbia University. It appears that his association with universities and faculty mentors provided him access to larger spaces and a wider variety of tools than would otherwise be possible, as evidenced by the photograph to the right. His first real studio in New York City was shared with Richmond Barthé in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan in 1938.

Italian Work Spaces (1951-1954)

John’s studio at the American Academy in Rome more closely reflected what one might assume an artists’ workspace would look like: blank, open, bright spaces. These studios were sparsely decorated with white walls and little clutter. In this space, John did not create monumental works of art, as evidenced by the modest size and absence of heavy-duty tools and equipment. Coincidentally, immediately following this period we see John’s only documented phase of gallery representation, where he sold modestly-sized pieces to private collectors.

Work Spaces Abroad with the U.S. State Department (1955-1959)

Kenya, circa 1955-1956.

John did not have a formal workshop while on his international tour with the United States Department of State, but that didn’t stop him from creating. In fact, during this period John was able to experiment and learn local techniques, broadening his sculpting knowledge and skills. Many images from this time period show John visiting artist communities to learn and perform demonstrations.

We do not have evidence of any of the sculpture that he created during this time, but it is interesting to note that, wherever he was, John always seemed willing to get his hands dirty, both to teach and to learn.

Above, John is crouched on the ground working on a wood carving with basic tools and materials in Kenya. Given the clothing and setting, this seems to have been an impromptu demonstration.

Philadelphia Work Space (1956-1957)

An outlier in John’s workspaces arose from his sculpture commission for the Philadelphia Sheraton Hotel. Due to the nature of the project, John had to do his work directly in the hotel’s construction site. The space and tools provided by this experience led to one of the first examples of John’s large-scale sculpture, Zodiacal Curved Wall.

Indonesia Work Space (1961-1963)

John spent several years in Indonesia, during which time he occupied one of his two long-term international studios (the other was in Rome). It seems John mostly worked on a patio outside of a home in Bandung.

He was there on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to set up a bronze foundry at the Bandung Institute of Technology. However, due to conflict in Indonesia that arose around the time of his arrival in 1961, John was unable to access any of his sculpting materials. As a result, he had concentrated time to experiment and work with what was available to him – wood. During this time, John made some of his largest and, in my opinion, most captivating wood sculpture.

I hope this serves as an interesting introduction to John’s work spaces over the years and as an example of one of the many ways an archive can be used to gain a better understanding of its subject!

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

John Rhoden Papers: Working From Home

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

Now that the John Rhoden papers team is back in the swing of things, I thought we should share a little bit about work from home life as an archivist during a global pandemic.

It is fair to wonder what on earth an archivist, especially a project archivist working with a physical collection, is able to do from home. We have not had access to any of the items in the collection for the past five months (mid-March to mid-August), so it would seem that the project would come to a standstill. Fortunately, due to the nature of the Rhoden project, that is far from the case. 

The NEH grant-funded John Rhoden project requires us to process the John Rhoden papers, digitize a minimum of 5,000 items from the John Rhoden papers, and make both the original physical and newly created digital collections available for use. Before the pandemic changed life as we know it, we were able to process the collection and digitize the required 5,000 items. 

Ever optimistic, in early March I was convinced that the virus would blow over fairly quickly. Hoang, the Project Director, had a better sense of the gravity of the situation and, per his recommendation, we transferred all of our documents, including the catalogs, inventory, and finding aid drafts, to Google Docs. Hoang converted all of our preservation-quality TIFFs to JPEGs and saved them to the archives’ dropbox account. This preparation, along with reaching the digitization goal, made it possible to continue the project when we were able to return to work remotely in July as we have digital access to all of the collection items and working documents. 

What we have been able to do from home given the preparation mentioned above is: 1) finish cataloging all 5,000 digitized items, 2) begin a thorough line-by-line review of the catalog/metadata, 3) begin post-processing on the 5,000 digitized items, 4) continue working on the finding aid, and 5) continue to write blog posts, 6) brainstorm ideas for presenting the digital collection online.

I have spent most of my time completing the catalog and reviewing the catalog with a fine toothed comb. Jahna, equipped with the workstation from PAFA, has been handling all of the post-processing for the TIFFs. 

Kelin’s work from home setup (some of the time).

Now that we have updated you on our progress, Jahna and I wanted to give a glimpse into our work from home setups to hopefully give a better sense of how the Rhoden project is now being carried out.

I am elated at the ability to drink coffee and tea while working! Working in an environment with candles and windows also feels incredibly luxurious. The downside is the fact that I live in an apartment with one small table and two remotely working adults. The peaceful setup seen above is only half the story – the rest of the time I am standing at the kitchen counter or sitting on the floor! 

Jahna’s work from home setup (featuring Soba).

Jahna’s work from home setup consists of the PAFA desktop setup and a new colleague, Soba. Soba’s work ethic is lacking, but she is delightful company!  

Archivists have always had to adapt and be flexible. The ability to work with what we have is a thread that ties us together. Working through a global pandemic is the ultimate test of this ability and I feel very blessed to join the leagues of archivists who are making it work in this unprecedented time. 

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

John Rhoden’s circle: Ásmundur Sveinsson

Contributed by Jahna Auerbach, Assistant Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

Next up in our series on John Rhoden’s circle is Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982). John met Sveinsson, an Icelandic sculptor, when he toured Iceland between 1958 and 1959. Many of the color slides in the John Rhoden papers from Iceland are of Ásmundur Sveinsson’s art and studio space. These images capture how happy Sveinsson was to share his home, his studio, and his art. 

Ásmundur Sveinsson was one of Iceland’s leading sculptors. His work is regarded as being some of the most essential “manifestations of the Icelandic narrative tradition, society, and nature in the 20th century.”

Ásmundur Sveinsson with his sculpture titled “Rafmagnið,” which means power or electricity.

His early work consists of abstract figurative sculptures influenced by Icelandic folklore and myths, animals, and nature as well as men and women at work. His works are reminiscent of a simpler time and invoke feelings of tradition and comfort. Later in his career, Sveinsson began to create more abstract artwork and was influenced by the development of technology. 

He lived during a time when science and technology were making huge leaps and bounds. Men were traveling to the moon, the sound barrier had been broken, travel was becoming easier with the help of airplanes, and nuclear power was being developed and used. Sveinsson embraced the modernity of the world he lived in and believed that it would improve people’s lives. These changes in society influenced later works of his, and he started creating more abstract forms and using different materials. 

The change in Sveinsson’s influences is clear when examining the titles of his artwork. Some examples of the titles of his later work, after the 1950s, are “The Future,” “Electricity,” and “Through the Sound Barrier,” titles of his earlier work are “The Washerwoman” and “The Water Carrier.” The Reykjavík Art Museum explains Ásmundur’s work perfectly, “Many of his pieces were conceived as a part of public space, an integral part of the surroundings, or were developed as design and craft works.” 

Exterior shot of Ásmundur Sveinsson’s home and studio in Reykjavík, Iceland. The Water Carrier is in the foreground and in the background, additional buildings are in the process of being built. Taken 1958-1959.

Sveinsson surrounded himself with his art, to the extent that he designed and built his own home and studio. The building took eight years to construct and was finished in 1950. The building’s exterior is white concrete and features geometric shapes, clean lines, slanted walls, and a large circular room with a domed ceiling. The design was inspired by Greek, Egyptian, and Turkish architecture. Ásmundur wanted the architecture of the building to be in harmony with the landscape, which he said was “treeless and naked.” He felt that buildings should complement their surroundings and thought that the stark whiteness of the building and design was perfect for the traditional Icelandic landscape. 

The grounds of his home/studio are filled with large scale sculptures of his own creation, some as tall as the building itself. The combination of the sculptures and the unique architecture of the buildings created a feeling of other-worldliness. 

Ásmundur wanted his art to be accessible not just by society’s elite but by the public as well. Not only are many of his pieces created to be in public spaces, but his home and studio were also donated to the city of Reykjavik after his death in 1983.

Images of Ásmundur Sveinsson with his sculptures from the Rhoden Collection.

For more information on Sveinsson’s early works, visit the Ásmundarsafan website at the following link: https://safneign.listasafnreykjavikur.is/en/%C3%81smundur

Sources

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

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