In this post we continue looking at photography of the portraits in our Unwrapping an Icon project. Sir William Stirling Maxwell was a pioneer of photography of art and the reproduction of art through techniques that were then new and experimental. As mentioned in our introductory post for this blog, his Annals of the Artists of Spain (1848) was the first photographically illustrated book on art. The process used by the photographer Nicolaas Henneman, assistant to the inventor William Henry Fox Talbot, produced results that were not yet stable or consistent. Photographing large paintings was not yet very practical, and so most of the photographic illustrations for the Annals were of engraved or painted copies, like the one of the Lady in a Fur Wrap, which was, in fact, of a watercolour of the original oil painting (Figs. 1 & 2). To our eyes, this seems rather quaint to say the least, but it marked an important first step nonetheless.*
Even though Stirling Maxwell himself regarded the volume of Talbotype Illustrations to the Annals as a failure – most of the photographs faded almost immediately – he was soon back in the vanguard with another experimental photographic reproduction from 1853 of a painting in his collection, this time of the portrait of Don John of Austria that we’ve also been studying for our project (Fig. 3). It’s an albumen print of a direct photograph of the original painting, though it too wasn’t very successful, partly because conveying red through black-and-white photography was a particular problem, especially in those early days. But it was another step towards the use of photography as a viable method of reproducing art.
In the interview below, Glasgow Museums photographer Maureen Kinnear tells us more about today’s methods, including how much things have changed in the last few decades. Imagine how delighted and surprised Stirling Maxwell would be by the high-quality, high-resolution digital images that can be produced today!
What are some of the challenges of photographing paintings?
The main challenges are with dark oil paintings where it can be difficult to get the detail in dark areas whilst also retaining detail in the highlights. If the paint surface is very thick and textured then the lights will produce very distracting highlights – in the worse cases of this we use polarizing filters on the lights and the camera to eliminate them.
Ensuring that the colour in the photograph is true to the colour in the painting is also a challenge. We insert a colour chart in all our photos of paintings so that the colour can then be checked in any reproduction of the painting (Fig. 4) – and we supply proof prints too as a further check.
What kind of lighting is best for photographing paintings?
We usually photograph paintings with even light from each side at an angle of 45 degrees. If, for research purposes, more information is required on the condition of the surface of the painting then a raking light from one side is used (Fig. 5). This technique will show up any cracking, flaking or paint losses.
Are there special filters you tend to use, for example, to create particular lighting conditions for research purposes?
Yes, we use a B&W 093 infrared filter. This is an opaque filter that blocks most of the visible light, with a cut-off point of 930 nanometers. It’s used for infrared photography of paintings, which can be useful in making it possible to detect underdrawing or changes to the composition – such as the position of the head, and especially the eye, in the portrait of Don John of Austria by Rúa (Fig. 6). We use this filter on the Nikon D1X with the infrared blocking filter removed. The lights we use with the filter are tungsten Redhead Continuous Lights which enable us to change the angle of light from spot to flood.
We also use an ultraviolet filter – the Wratten No2E filter. This is a gelatin filter placed in front of the lens on the Hasselblad camera. It’s used to block the unwanted reflective UV which would give the image the wrong colour. UV is useful in showing up areas of overpaint on the surface of paintings. We’ve also used it in photography of tapestries and banners in Glasgow Museums collections. For the lighting with this filter we use two UV Vertical Luminaire tubes with four UV Longwave Blacklight UV tubes.
What about the frames of paintings, is there a particular lighting that you find works well for them without casting too much shadow onto the paintings?
Yes, we usually use flash heads with so-called soft boxes attached over them. This gives a soft quality to the light with fewer shadows cast by the frames. It also shows up the depth of the ornate gilded frames. We generally photograph paintings with and without their frames. The frames can be important in their own right and are part of the history of the painting (Fig. 7).
Presumably, you started out as a photographer before the advent of digital photography. How have things changed since then in the case of photography of painting and does digital produce better results than analogue photography?
When the first digital cameras came out, the quality was poor compared to analogue, so we would just scan our 5x4inch transparencies if we needed a digital file. The quality nowadays is superb and the detail is really good when zooming in to focus on the paint surface.
With analogue, it used to take a lot longer to photograph paintings with large format cameras because we had to send the film away for processing, and then check it for exposure and colour corrections. After the adjustments were made, the film was then sent away again for the final processing. As a result, photographing a painting could take two days to complete. Now we see the results on screen immediately and make any adjustments quickly and easily so the photography can be done within an hour. Some processing time is needed to correctly name and add metadata to the image files before they are stored on our server/database.
The down side of digital is that the Hasselblad large-format camera is extremely expensive, though I must say the quality is really amazing. The other thing is that image files today are enormous and so finding the storage capacity can be a bit of a problem. And maintaining the hardware is a challenge too.
*See Copied by the Sun: Talbotype Illustrations to the Annals of the Artists of Spain by Sir William Stirling Maxwell, ed. Hilary Macartney and José Manuel Matilla (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado & Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2016). This is a facsimile and critical edition of the rare 4th volume of photographic illustrations that accompanied the 3 text volumes of the Annals. The images in the facsimile are digital reconstructions.