Digital Photography at the Government Art Collection: Looking Behind the Image

Welcome to the Government Art Collection photography studio!

Here, our Digital Media & Photography Manager, Tony Harris, takes us behind-the-scenes for the careful process of photographing Lucy Skaer’s Me VIII (2012), as part of his job doing the photo-documentation of the Collection. This is a key part of documentation and collection maintenance at the GAC, which is used on an everyday basis with our database. The images are also available for you to view online.

Set-up for photography of Lucy Skaer’s Me VIII (2012)

So, how does Tony do it?

First, you need a studio, with a high quality camera (for us lay-people, this means a medium-format digital camera), high quality lighting (including flash lighting), and quality control devices – such as colour target charts that allow you to apply colour correction without human intervention. Tony notes that ‘you need to make sure that the sharpness is constant’ – something that is not an easy task with a three-dimensional artwork with differently-angled surfaces, such as Lucy Skaer’s Me VIII (2012). Once the photograph has been taken, you need to run it through colour management software on a computer to undertake all the necessary quality checks

Photographing artworks

Photographing an artwork for collection documenting purposes is a bit different to your regular on-the-go street photography. Ideally, you want your visual of the artwork to look the same as if colleagues in museums around the world had photographed it. This means adhering to a series of standards. Tony Harris is Secretary to the UK Museums Photography Standards Group that keeps up to speed with best practice in the industry, and helps people adopt the established standards. He remarks that while there is an international standard (ISO) for two-dimensional cultural heritage photography, which was published in 2017 – there isn’t one for three-dimensional objects yet.

Lucy Skaer, Me VIII (2012)

A certain type of image

The photographs that come out of the GAC’s photo studio are intended for documentation purposes. Tony notes how this is a ‘different image to what would be done for a publication for example’. The objective is ‘clarity’ rather than aesthetic appeal. The challenge is to bring out ‘the best aspects of the object’. The lighting should ‘enhance rather than detract from the object’.

Studio on the go

With its collection in constant travel, the GAC needs a responsive photographer. As highlighted by Tony, ‘the objects aren’t on site all the time and getting good, accurate, photography of the work is important for inventory purposes. We often have a small window of opportunity to photograph objects following any conservation, and before they go out.’ A photograph will be needed whenever an artwork leaves the building to record the latest state of the object – and ‘we’re constantly lending!’. This might mean setting up an impromptu photography booth on location, as most recently the case when auditing the works on loan to the British Embassy in Gibraltar.

What happens to these photographs?

Once taken, Tony’s digital photographs are stored on the Cloud, where we also have digitally-scanned copies of our historic film archive 35mm transparency (i.e. slides), as well as 5×4 transparencies, 5×4 black-and-white negatives. The photographs in our image catalogue are notably used on our website, as well as for publicity purposes, or in our interpretation materials– where GAC curators explain what the art is about. They might also end up in a publication, or even in your home as a print-out. Ultimately, Tony remarks ‘these photographs inject further narrative – it’s about making our Collection accessible’.