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How Do Museums Photograph Objects?

Six flower vases stand in a row on a white surface. Each vase consists of a cube-shaped transparent glass base and a long, curved tube sticking up from the cube. Four of the vases have transparent tubes, while one has a bright blue and one has a purple tube. Each vase has a rose sticking out of it. A colour checker displaying a palette with multiple squares of different colours sits next to the vases.

Photograph of Shiro Kuramata's Flower Vase Ephemera (1989) with colour checker

A museum’s process of photography is involved, especially when the museum building isn’t finished yet. Learn about the unique digitisation process at M+.

Every day museum visitors take photographs of objects and artworks with their phones. But a museum’s process of photography is much more involved. At M+, the team has been working creatively in a temporary facility whilst preparing for their move to a purpose-built studio in the new building in West Kowloon.

For this article, the Rights and Reproductions team at M+, which leads the museum’s digitisation process, talks about what this process looks like. We spoke with Tom Morgan (Manager, Rights & Reproductions), Davis Leung (Copyright & Images Officer), and Dan Leung (Picture Editor).

What is ‘digitisation’?

Tom: It is about creating digital images of objects in our collections. In a wider sense, digitisation also includes text records around the image; anything involved in representing collection objects digitally.

As an institution, we aim to meet recognised international standards and operate according to best international practice. Once we move into the museum building, we will have access to a dedicated photography studio environment. In the meantime, we’re working creatively within practical constraints to deliver what the museum needs now.

A small sculpture is being photographed. The sculpture consists of three vase-shaped objects stacked on top of each other, made out of layers of red-white-blue canvas material. The sculpture is set up on a white table against a white background. It’s being lit by a large lamp and photographed by a person standing in front of it. The rest of the room is dark, with multiple people around the photoshoot.

Photographing back to the future / redwhiteblue 10 (2006) by Stanley Wong

Davis: As a contemporary institution, we are still young and our current equipment, studio, budget, and time frame are all very different compared to those of more established institutions. The international standards, which right now mostly apply to 2D items such as paintings, photographic prints, sketches, and architectural drawings, could be relatively manageable to achieve. It is harder to attain consistent standards for the range of installations, sculptures, furniture, neon signs, and other objects in the M+ Collections.

Can there ever be a standard way of representing, for example, a performance art piece or modular sculpture? We are fortunate to be able to work closely with our curators and, occasionally, with artists, to make sure we produce an accurate representation of their work.

How does digitisation work?

Davis: Our current process starts by compiling a list of objects that other M+ team members want us to photograph. We prioritise the list based on different set-ups—some objects are large, some are small, some are 3D, some are 2D. The registrars and conservators then help us assess which items are ready for a photo session and the logistics of how we are going to arrange the sequence of items during digitisation.

Tom: There are challenges to photographing different types of objects. Even something seemingly simple, such as photographing a painting, presents all sorts of technical challenges with lighting. Paintings can be highly textured, and if you use very focused light you’re likely to get lots of bright points on the surface, which really distract from your reading of the image.

Davis: And some paintings are made of different kinds of materials that interact with the light differently. We have to refine how we light it, as well as how to capture it, step by step.

Two people sit in front of a laptop on a table. The laptop screen displays a painting of a canvas depicting a man looking at a canvas depicting a man looking at a canvas. The real-life painting sits behind the laptop on the table.

Photographing Untitled (1995) by Ma Yunfei

Tom: A lot of thought also goes into composing the images. It’s absolutely part of the museum’s storytelling ability.

Davis: That’s actually the most challenging part. We can overcome technical constraints, but deciding on how to photograph a particular object for a particular purpose will ultimately impact the message we want to communicate. Different curators for the same object might want to represent it in different ways. Although it may sometimes seem more like a science than an art, an important part of museum photography is understanding how artworks and objects are made, as well as how they may be interpreted.

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is mounted on a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and held up on a metal framework. The work is being backlit, with light shining through. A group of people stand around the set-up, and a camera is pointed at the work.

Photographing Act of Quiet (1976) by Kwok Mang-ho (a.k.a. Frog King)

Tom: We also always need to keep in mind the business of handling the artwork. The absolute foundation of everything we do is care of the collections. We want to minimise the number of times we put any of these objects in front of a camera. Sometimes, it’s our only opportunity to photograph them, particularly if they then go out on loan to another museum or gallery, so we have to document as much as we can while we have the opportunity.

All of these factors make photographing the objects an interesting challenge. And because we’re currently working in such an ad hoc situation, we have to be creative in the way we approach each photo shoot.

Dan: After the photo is taken, I edit and do other post-production. I mainly work on reducing the ‘noise’ in the pictures. This includes unwanted interference from moiré patterns, which, in digital images, often look like smudgy radiating circles, spoiling the natural gradient from light to shade. I also battle with dust, which is everyone’s mortal enemy, and which randomly sticks onto either the camera lens or the surface of the objects we are photographing, creating bright or dark spots on the image.

I was previously a commercial photographer and as such, I tried to make the photo more beautiful than the object it represented. In a museum, however, it’s all about trying to reflect what the object actually looks like. I have to strike a careful balance. It’s acceptable to remove visual interference, but it is also important to create an accurate record of the object exactly as it is.

One of the tools I use is the colour checker, which tells the camera and computer what the colour should be, to keep it consistent. It consists of a palette with twenty-four colours. You can use it as a fixed point of reference for the colour of the object to avoid possible colour shifts.

Tom: We haven’t really mentioned rights management, which isn’t literally about digitisation but which is crucial to actually making the images available. We are committed to respecting creators’ rights, and have to be sure that we have the legal permissions to share our digitised objects with the public, online and through publications. We work to identify the rights holders and make agreements with them so that all of the images we’re producing can be published and used.

What have been some particularly challenging or interesting objects to digitise?

Two images side by side showing the same magazine lying on a white surface. On its cover are multiple layered materials of different colours, with what appears to be a spray painted V and C on top. Patches of neon blue, red, and orange appear on the cover. In the image on the right, these neon colours appear much brighter. A colour checker displaying a palette with multiple squares of different colours lies next to the magazine.

Photographs of Theseus Chan’s magazine WERK No. 19: CLUB 21 X COMME des GARÇONS, 2012, before and after colour correction to correctly represent the neon colours

Davis: There’s a magazine by Theseus Chan, WERK No. 19: CLUB 21 X COMME des GARÇONS (2012), with different kinds of materials on the cover, including neon colours. This is tricky because neon colours are naughty. Cameras cannot capture them, not even with the help of colour profile software, which tells machines how to look at colour ‘correctly’. We need Photoshop or Capture One software and our skillful retoucher in order to reproduce them, as well as trial and error.

We had to correct the colour after we captured the magazine, and put it in a colour correction light environment. Currently, we use the D65 standard illuminant to light objects. Then we looked at the magazine and at the colour-graded monitor to compare the two, and used image editing software to make sure that the colours looked as similar as possible, at least on screen (not to mention in print). On screen it can be further complicated, as every application can represent colours differently. For example, what we see on one screen or browser may not be the same as on another.

Tom: Again, when you take the photographs, you have to make a decision about what story you’re telling. For this magazine, there’s one way of shooting it that is just showcasing the cover and images on the pages. Then there’s another way of shooting, which can emphasise the texture of the paper and the design decisions that have been taken with cut-outs or the edge of the paper.

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows an installation artwork consisting of two cream-coloured armchairs in a corner with a metal ashtray bin in between them. Five canvases with a graphic print of flowers on a pink background hang on the wall above them. This print also appears on the side and back of the left armchair, and on the seat cushion of the right armchair. The wooden floor underneath the armchairs has been halfway covered by a large sheet of grey paper. The image on the right depicts the same installation, but in this image the floor is grey all over.

Michael Lin’s untitled, cigarette break before and after post-production

On a few occasions we’ve had to photograph small installations that demanded we be quite inventive in our approach.

Davis: For example, we photographed Michael Lin’s artwork untitled, cigarette break (1999), which consists of two sofas and five paintings hanging on the wall. In this case, the artist was also there to provide guidance. After we set everything up, the artist realised that the floor wasn’t right. We ended up photographing a version of the floor with grey paper covering it. This allowed Dan to retouch a better floor later.

What is the future of digitisation at M+?

Tom: We’re gearing up and looking forward to getting into our new studio once the museum building is finished, and getting familiar with improved equipment and new processes. We really look forward to being able to work at a more moderate pace, in a situation where we have full control over the lighting conditions. I’m proud of what we have achieved to date with the resources we have, but it’s going to be a huge leap to operate in a purpose-built studio.

Davis: We’re constantly trying to embrace more international standards and frameworks. We will also experiment in collaboration with conservation to do multispectral imaging with infrared X-ray, UV light photography, and reflectance transformation imaging, as well as photogrammetry.

As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). The above interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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