Hidden around the back of Saltram House, near Plymouth, and standing at head height in an alcove, was Isis the ancient Egyptian goddess. She was first mentioned over 4,000 years ago, in the age of the pyramids where she resurrected her slain husband, the divine king Osiris. Isis had greater magical powers than all other gods and was worshipped throughout the Greek settlement of Egypt and well into Roman times. She holds a sistrum in her right hand, an ancient percussive musical instrument. This 18th Century lead sculpture by John Cheere fixes her protective gaze over Plympton and Plymouth alongside Venus, Mercury and a Vestal Virgin each in their own alcove and two sphinxes mounted outside the south front of the National Trust’s Mansion House.
My work was to photograph Isis and 26 other sculptures at Saltram House for ArtUK. Usually the outdoor sculptures have been photographed by volunteers but these 6 were considered challenging enough to have me add them to my list.
The weather forecast had always been ‘changeable’ with snow in the early hours, a frosty start and more snow coming later. I was ready for anything, but I was given some wonderful sunshine. However, the sun kept disappearing behind a cloud, so I needed a little patience even though I was against the clock! Studio flash is always used for indoor sculpture, but long trailing mains leads outside were not going to work. Instead, I set up a small, battery powered flash on a stand, through a softbox and fired it wirelessly to lighted the heavy shadows cast by winter’s low sun. Added to this was a reflector which Helen, my ArtUK regional coordinator held. After the standard pictures were taken ArtUK encourage a more creative photograph or a close-up. In the picture of Isis above I did both, making the most of the sepia toned, monochromatic look and using the shadows to emphasis form and bring balance to the composition.
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 an unknown artist 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!