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. 

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

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.

Digital Treasure Trove: Project Update

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives & Collections and Zoe Smith, IMLS Project Museum Collections Assistant

It’s been a busy summer at PAFA. At the end of June, we had to say good-bye to our IMLS Collections Assistant L. L had an amazing job opportunity to work for a local artist as a studio assistant. We wish L all the best and thank them for all their hard work and dedication! L’s work helped us hit major milestones on the project–completing 99% of works on paper photography, completing all subject terms in the catalog records, and pushing us over 60% completion of the project!

We were fortunate to rehire the position quickly. Our new IMLS Collections Assistant is Zoe Smith who started August 21, 2023. Please read Zoe’s introduction blog below:

My name is Zoe Smith, I am a recent graduate of Drexel University where I completed a bachelor of science in photography. I have a love of nature and art that merges into the work that I make. I am passionate for printing my photographs, and experimenting with alternative printing methods. I am extremely excited to use my photographic experience to contribute to the art world by updating PAFA’s amazing collection of art. This task feels exceptionally important to me, and I hope people are able to learn and grow from this fantastic resource.

My work at PAFA consists of assisting in photographing and digitizing the extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, and other works of art. Being able to look into the history of each one of these objects is an immense privilege that I am very much looking forward to. 

My first week here I dove right in and began photographing various medallions. The intricate carvings on each of these surfaces have been a fun challenge to photograph. Using a lightbox to evenly light the subject, we have been using multiple exposures to get different parts of the medallion perfectly in focus. This is necessary because of the various depths of the carving on these objects. 

After photographing I have been bringing the 2 to 6 exposures into a focus stacking software and combining them into one photo. This technique can be challenging and it has been great training my eye to see the slight differences in focus. I am looking forward to using the same technique on small busts and sculptures.  Each artwork poses an exciting new challenge in photographing that has been very rewarding. I love to imagine the thousands of people before me that have had a connection to this art, which deepens my own personal connection to it.

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: Unwanted Reflections

Contributed by PAFA Museum Collections

One of the many challenges we face when photographing works from the collection is avoiding different kinds of unwanted reflections. Even small adjustments to our lights can result in everything from an overpowering glare to a flattening of any surface texture in the final image. Even trickier is dealing with works that are behind glass/plexiglass, which often reflect the environment back like a mirror.

Addressing this requires making sure that anything within the frame of the shot is cloaked in dark fabric, which won’t reflect enough light to interfere with the image. In addition to cloaking the equipment, we also must ensure that we personally are kept behind the fabric when operating the camera. At times it can look a little odd, but it goes a long way in improving the quality of the museum’s documentation of work.

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: Recto//Verso

Contributed by PAFA Museum Collections

As the collections team has been photographing some of PAFA’s framed paintings over the last several weeks, we have been able to enjoy documenting the rarely seen reverse side of these works.

In the museum world, we define recto as the front or main image and the verso as the back or reverse secondary image. So why may we want to photograph the verso?

Many paintings in our collection have a long exhibition and ownership history, and this provenance can be followed through various notes, labels, stickers, and other markings on the backs of frames. Pictured below are a few examples of works in the middle of being photographed showing the front side view (recto), followed by the corresponding reverse side of the painting (verso).

Charles Burchfield, End of the Day, 1938. Watercolor over pencil and charcoal on white paper, 28 x 48 in. Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1940.3


John Neagle, The Studious Artist, 1836. Oil on canvas. 30 1/8 x 25 1/16 in. Gift of John Frederick Lewis, 1922.1.3

Thomas Eakins, Walt Whitman, 1887. Oil on canvas, framed-shadow box: 38 1/8 x 32 1/4 x 4 in. General Fund, 1917.1

Francis Martin Drexel, Unidentified Girl, 1818. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 24 1/4 in. Gift of John Frederick Lewis, 1923.8.19

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: Ongoing 16-Bit Photography

Contributed by PAFA Museum Collection

Digitization continues this month here at PAFA. With a permanent collection as large as ours, and with storage and exhibition space spread out across multiple sites and buildings, we need to be flexible, and it keeps us on the move. Currently, we are set up in one of our controlled storage facilities where a large number of our framed paintings are held on storage racks. We have between 150 to 200 works to photograph (or re-photograph) in high resolution, or 16-bit image depth, for future record keeping and image licensing. Not all, but many of the works we have recently photographed coincidentally included those from the Museum’s current exhibition, Making American Artists: Stories from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1776–1976.

PAFA Collections photographing the work Dr. Jean Piccard (1946), by Raymond Breinin, 48 1/8 x 37 1/8 in. (122.2 x 94.3 cm.), 1948.2, Joseph E. Temple Fund

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: Post-Production / Image Cropping

Contributed by PAFA Museum Collections

An important step of the digitization workflow is post-production. This step always performed after the actual digital asset is created, hence the prefix “post”. This crucial process allows us to make minor adjustments for things like light and color, as well as cropping the dimensions to match the work being viewed. Sometimes, this is as simple as matching the rectangular edge of a TIFF file to the edge of a rectangular painting. Other times, this is more complicated, with works that are not perfectly square, are three-dimensional, or have other non-standard edges. In any case, it is our job to produce and maintain these cleaned up images—what we would call “access files” for broad dissemination to our audiences. These files are unique and distinct from our archival “master files,” which do not get the ‘post-production’ treatment and are kept for posterity.

It has been a slow task, with the need to go through and edit images one by one, but we are nearly finished. In fact, the Museum is almost ready to integrate these legacy files with the newly photographed works of art taken this year.

Evelyn Statsinger (1927-2016) – Forest Rythms, uncropped (1983), Oil on linen, 33 x 39 in. (83.82 x 99.06 cm.), Gift of the Evelyn Statsinger Cohen Trust, © Evelyn Statsinger Cohen Trust, 2018.36.35
Evelyn Statsinger (1927-2016) – Forest Rythms, cropped (1983), Oil on linen, 33 x 39 in. (83.82 x 99.06 cm.), Gift of the Evelyn Statsinger Cohen Trust, © Evelyn Statsinger Cohen Trust, 2018.36.35

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: Introducing the New Museum Collections Assistant

Contributed by PAFA Museum Collections

The Museum Collections Team is pleased to introduce L Autumn Gnadinger (they/them/theirs), who will be stepping into the role of the Museums Collections Assistant through the remainder of the IMLS grant project. L is an artist, writer, and educator with a background in museum work. They earned their MFA from Tyler School of Art and Architecture and have previously studied at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN and Transylvania University in Lexington, KY. L is a former Core Fellow of Penland School of Craft in Bakersville, NC, and an editor and co-founder of the journal Ruckus, which engages art in the American Midsouth and Midwest.

With a range of experience in photography, design, and file management stemming from their work with Ruckus, L will be helping PAFA with its core goals of photographing works of art in the permanent collection, updating the file management connected to the permanent collection, and finally testing out the new content management system for the new—forthcoming—online collection.

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.