I’ve recently been photographing for ArtUK again, this time in South Devon and Bristol. Firstly, after a treacherous drive on snow packed icy roads over Dartmoor to National Trust’s Buckland Abbey. Here my trusty two wheeled cart, over-loaded with studio gear, was no match to the flights of stairs up to the top floor where the sculpture was located.
The biggest challenge here at Buckland Abbey was photographing the huge plaster sculpture of Sir Francis Drake. The sculpture had been discovered in 1999, hidden in undergrowth in the woods on Haldon Hill in Devon by a member of the public. The image top left is from the National Trust website. Towering over 3 metres high and set even higher on a plinth; it was displayed at the top of a steep staircase. I would normally want to position my camera at a height mid-way between the top and bottom of a sculpture, or a little higher than the centre when the top has important features, but this was impossible with Drake without moving him or making a heavily distorted image with an ultrawide lens from close up.
Lighting and background was also an issue: I would normally use studio flash and reflectors to submerge the sculpture in soft light to reveal its features against a plain grey background. But here the shear scale of Drake (the original plaster model for the bronze statue of Sir Francis Drake at Tavistock) and the limited time I was allotted meant a compromise had to be met. Controlled lighting was achieved by balancing flash with ambient daylight and making a long shutter exposure. Care had to be taken to prevent overexposure due to the slow shutter speed by positioning my backdrop in front of a window and using stiff foam reflectors to disguise bright highlights elsewhere. With no plain background it was important to keep the images as simple as possible by removing any ‘clutter’ visually through my camera angle and position, and, in the example of the front view, by keeping some of the straight lines parallel to the camera frame.
Plymouth museum is closed at the moment for refurbishing and will open again as The Box in 2020. All of their collection of sculpture is being held offsite in an industrial estate on the edge of town, which is where I was to be based. The day started with fresh coffee, made by Lottie and an assortment of biscuits and cake at 8:30, and I was building the studio by 9am. This was hot work especially in the warm basement, I was feeling uncomfortable the pressure was on! Plymouth Museum were providing their own, hand built, extra-large table to photograph on, so my 2.7m width backdrop was deployed. The museum staff had been planning these two days for months and there was a big team of staff and volunteers to help me with the photographing. ArtUK had made it clear that photographers were not to be object handlers and Plymouth had many hands able to do this. My job was simply to photograph, although photography isn’t that simple is it?
The lighting was a single Bowen’s head with softbox mounted on a boom arm stand. This had to be positioned with reflectors to light each sculpture evenly with a little definition through shadows but without those shadows losing any detail. The background always needed to look clean and without dark shadows. Photographs needed to be in focus and sharp and have enough depth of field so that the whole sculpture was in focus, with the background out of focus. The first photograph of any sculpture would include a QP card, so that white balance could remain constant through mine and through all the other photographers working on the project.
The front view, the first of six mandatory images, was often widely debated by the Museum staff, in particular the modern pieces. With a traditional sculpture e.g. the head and shoulders of a famous person, the front view is looking straight into the face. However, nonfigurative contemporary and modern work is often designed to be seen from all angles; so from which angle did the sculptor consider the front? The sequence of photographs always then took the same order, the second image taken with the sculpture moved 45° anticlockwise the third after it has been moved another 45° therefore giving the left-hand view of the object. The fourth photograph was the rear view then the right-hand side view the sixth and final view was 45° again or 45° clockwise from the front view. Once these images had been taken from a fixed camera point, same focal length and with similar lighting, a close-up, more creative, or abstract photograph could be taken. Time constraints might mean moving the sculpture around with the lighting static, and then taking the camera off the tripod to photograph the close-up. But sometimes the lighting would be made at a lower angle or less diffused to bring out the detail in a relief or an inscription.
The first day in Plymouth was spent photographing smaller sculpture. Because of their size they were light enough for raising up to and placing on the table and easy enough for a single object handler to move. I was able to keep up a good speed on making my photographs. Moving the sculptures around was straightforward and a single, close-up image, was generally made at the end of each shoot. One of the biggest photographic problems encountered on this day was getting the whole, or as much as possible of these sometimes, quite small sculptures, in focus. Adjustments were made with closing the lens aperture down and raising the iso to get a satisfactory image; I still haven’t worked out how high I can raise the iso for an image that would still be acceptable with my new camera. I was covering my bases, and all of those pictures looked great on my computer monitor later!
I was doing so well for time near the end of the day that a couple of sculptures were added to the schedule which weren’t on the original list.
Day two was dedicated to the big and heavy sculptures, including this Barbara Hepworth marble. It was always going to take a lot longer to photograph these! The studio table was used initially but the effort it took to lift even smaller of these sculptures onto it was immense; and turning these heavy brutes around to their 6 positions tended to scratch and ruffle the background paper (of which I had already needed to cut off, and discard many metres of, in order to keep it clean). There were a few busts of famous people in this batch, often made of bronze, and rather than lift these onto the table they were photographed on the floor with background paper curved underneath them. Even moving these sculptures around was a backbreaking and tiresome job for the object handlers. Often these heavy sculptures were loaded onto a crate trolley, with a square of background paper beneath it, so that it could be moved around on wheels instead of having to physically lift it. Whilst I was engaged in this fashion, photographing large busts in the new floor-standing studio, the Museum staff were carefully unpacking a life size figure from a crate.
There was a real excitement throughout the day as sculptures, often hidden away from public view, in wooden packing crates, were seen by museum staff for the very first time. It was also a time for staff to study the work at close quarters, noticing things that hadn’t come to light before; questioning some of the attributed names given to what presumably would have been ‘famous’ faces. One of their hopes through adding their sculpture collection to the huge ArtUK website/database, is that more information about the work might come to light. In fact for 25% of the sculpture that I photographed the artist’s name was not known. For example this life size bronze bust by ‘?’ was called ‘(portrait head, unknown sitter)’.
My latest contract work is with ArtUK, I’m one of the 50 odd photographers working with them on photographing 170,000 sculptures, held in public collections, by the end of May 2020. This blog series is an account of two days work for them at Plymouth museums recently. But firstly, here’s a preamble:
I had decided to treat myself to a new camera, keep up-to-date with things, at the end of my contract with Beaford arts. Reading the details of what was required for ArtUK, amongst other things was a digital camera with a sensor bigger than 30 megapixels. I decided to go for the best camera I could afford and future proof myself by buying a Nikon D850 which has top of the range 45 megapixels. I’ve never been gadget-man, so I wanted to keep my kit to the essentials; therefore, could I get away with just two lenses for my new camera? I have fallen back in love with prime lenses after noticing that my zoom lens, through its lens barrel movement, was seemingly more likely to add dust to a camera sensor. So, I tried an interesting exercise: I looked at the meta data regarding lens length full-frame equivalent, for every one of what I considered where my best images from the last couple of years, and it brought me to an interesting conclusion as to which prime lenses I should buy. The clear majority of these pictures were either shot at 35mm or at approximately 60mm, I therefore started looking to see which lenses might work best for my new full frame camera. After much deliberation I decided on the Sigma 35mm Art Lens and the Nikon 60mm macro. I haven’t looked back; these lenses are perfect for me!
I also needed to update my portable studio. I have had, and used, studio lighting for the whole of my time as a freelance photographer, but I’ve never had a portable background stand, so this was something I needed to buy. Art UK also required a specific background colour, storm grey, which I bought in both 2.7m and 1.3m widths. I had heard of the problems from other ArtUK photographers have had with transporting their kit around and through various institutions; not been able to park right outside, having to take their kit up and down stairs, moving from room to room often with the general public about etc. I was determined to make my kitbag transportable and ideally being able to carry everything myself, all at once, if I needed to. I managed this with a small two wheeled suitcase trolley and by packing a bag on my back too – The only addition to this one-man operation was the large paper background and a collapsible table if needed. The kitbag I took to Plymouth is as follows:
Follow this link for Part 2: Photographing Sculpture!
My thoughts as Hidden Histories digitiser and as a photographer with a wealth of black-and-white photography experience on the development of both photographers:
Although these are simply thoughts as they are unsubstantiated because there is very little written evidence for either photographer in terms of their creative/artistic/photographic development, either through their own notes or diary or through academic research.
Ravilious was a gifted image maker in terms of composition right from the start of his time at Beaford, this was clearly due to his art training and family nurturing. However, his technical ability, image exposure and developing of the negative, is inconsistent and errs to the under exposure/under-development side. This produced thin negatives that were often difficult to print. Ravilious said of himself that he is “badly self-taught” and he was scathing about the technical quality of his early pictures through the first decade of the Beaford project. He talks later about using Ansel Adams Zone System in an adapted format, essentially exposing for the shadows and developing for the highlights: it was interesting to come across a contact sheet RAV-02-1456, from November 1981, which has test shots for the use of the Zone System.
This is followed by a number of well exposed and well developed rolls of film including RAV-03-1461 which holds some landscape photographs reminiscent of Adams own. Although Ravilious surprisingly deemed these images as only ‘fair’. There is certainly greater consistency in his second decade, after this Zone system revelation. By this time, he had also acquired noncoated lenses for his Leica cameras which would give him a greater range of tones, and the Ilford 400 ISO film he used had been updated from HP4 to HP5 from 1977. His use of the same film sensitivity throughout his time at Beaford is often the mark of a good photographer, taking a lead from his photographic inspiration Cartier Bresson, and using film speed that he could really get to know intimately. This is demonstrated time and again with excellent use of shutter speed to freeze movement that mattered like a person’s face but allow movement in the frame from things like a football, shuttlecock, Wellington (RAV-03-1713-59A) or moving animals etc. A good example of his masterly technique is RAV-03-1526–22 when he pans a reveller dressed in drag sat in a pushchair being raced at a carnival, the pushchair and rider are frozen in the picture and yet the hedge behind seems to blur through his camera movement. Another good example is on contact sheet 1985 where Ravilious sets up his camera on a tripod in school and uses a slow shutter to emphasise the number of children in the overflowing classroom.
Looking again at Ravilious’s chosen ‘Best’ and ‘Good’ image distribution throughout the archive, he chooses a greater percentage from his early years despite his poor technical ability at the time and his admittance that many of his images from this era would be very difficult to print. I have found that an advantage of digitising the negatives is that a greater range of tones can be captured in a RAW file than is possible in a print; therefore it ought to be possible ultimately to make better ‘digital’ prints from some of these earlier negatives that Ravilious might well have struck of as ‘Fair’ or ‘Poor’ because the exposure or development dictated it thus.
Deakins was also art trained, a gifted painter at school he came to Beaford at 21, fresh from Bath Academy of Art. Working on the Beaford Archive was to be his ‘gap-year’ before pursuing his passion for cinema at the National Film School. Deakins was not at Beaford for long enough for me to discuss development and, of course, without a consecutive timeline of photographs it would be impossible to make any assessment. However, what we do have is a remarkable archive, the beginning, of what was to become an incredibly successful career at the highest level in cinematography. There are certainly innumerable references, within this year of images, which demonstrate a cinematic leaning and dramatization of the subject. There is a continuous searching for style through Deakins work; a lot of experimentation, pushing himself to try making images outside of his comfort zone and his technical ability as a way of learning and improving on his ‘seeing’ and his craft. Deakins also pushed the boundaries of ‘taste’ or ‘acceptability’ of an urbanite choosing to unsympathetically document a fox hunt and a stag hunt and kill, a cow slaughtered in an abattoir and cut into pieces for the butchers, death at lambing time and chickens killed, plucked and ready for the table. These images were shot in a cold but honest, undramatised fashion, accurately recording the grittier side of typical rural life.
I’ve come across many inconsistencies where we read, and we think we know something about James Ravilious but in fact the truth is less certain. For example, it is said that he never used flash, and yet contact sheet RAV-02-1605 from an early January morning in 1983 women are pouring milk into bottles before delivery. I can’t say for absolute certain that Ravilious has used flash but the lighting in the workshop where the women are photographed would be extremely uncomfortable and difficult to work under. We were also told that he never set any of his pictures up, however it’s hard to believe examples like RAV-02-1718-21, RAV-02-418-10A, RAV-02-683-37 and RAV-02-1123-2 have simply arranged themselves.