With a background and education that took in both science and fine art, Antonia Reeve finds her photography informed by both of these seemingly disparate fields. But as she explains the technicalities behind capturing artists and their works, or the colours at play whilst photographing heart surgery, the gulf between the two seems to narrow. EIZO spoke to Reeve about capturing the intricacies of the colourplay in a painting with accuracy, and how a bit of chemistry and physics can stand a photographer in good stead.
What are the challenges of photographing works of art?
It depends on what the artist wants if you’re working directly with the artist. With galleries and museums, they need to know that it’s the right colour. There are particular difficulties with certain artists’ work if they used particular pigments that don’t reproduce accurately. For instance, William McTaggart used a particular green-cyan pigment that emits infrared light which the eye can’t see, so adding green-cyan and the emitted red together and you get a brown or neutral colour on film. This means that all the colour subtlety in the stormy skies and the weight in the sea disappears, and that is a major problem. Now I’m glad to say that my Phase One back does see the green-cyan colour in McTaggart paintings.
Since your photos of an artwork will probably be seen by more people than the artwork itself, accuracy must be key?
I’ve just photographed a painting of a racehorse which was very interesting because the painter uses a shade of red, which the camera over responds to. I can’t even use colour patches to get it looking accurate at all. I have to actually manipulate it in the file afterwards.
You manipulate the image to make it look more truthful?
Yes. There must be something in one of the paints that the camera sensor is oversensitive to because it comes up much, much too saturated. I have asked the artist to make a set of paint patches so I can do accurate tests.
Which monitors do you use?
I’ve used EIZOs for quite some time; I think I’m on about my 4th generation of them. The one I’ve just got now, which is the CG247, is just fantastic. It blows the previous ones out of the water. In the past, despite calibrating and profiling everything backwards and forwards, I couldn’t quite guarantee that I could print something that looked exactly as it did on screen. Now I can, which is great.
How do you know you’ve got the balance of saturation, hue, tone, light etc correct when you deliver a final image?
The National Galleries, Tate, and Galleries & Museums around the world specify linear files, which look flat, but they’ve got every tone in the picture that it’s possible to capture - all the details in the darks and all the details in the highlights. If you think of a Rembrandt you’ll get often a lot of detail in the near-blacks running right into black, but also you quite often have a white ruff and that’s got lots of details in the near-whites and whites. So you’re working with an image that has the whole range across the full histogram - you can’t afford to clip anything. They then make files for printing, web etc, secure in the knowledge that all the tones are in the starting file.
It sounds as though there’s a real science to photographing art. Does having an education in science, as well as art, help your practice?
I started when most photography was black and white, there was a little colour but it wasn’t very accurate because the films weren’t very good. So when you’re processing film, if you can understand what’s happening on the chemistry & physics side, the graphs and the levels and so on, then that helps if using different types of chemicals to process film for different effects. So yes, the science helps there, and now also in understanding digital capture & files.
And you also use science as a subject for your photography
Another area, just something that I’m interested in is medical photography. I’ve worked with several surgeons photographing their work in the operating theatre, which is very different from fine art. Although you still have to get the colour balance right because the nuances between the different colours of red in the flesh and the blood are very important, for instance, if you’re photographing open-heart surgery.
So the colour precision is similar to your work with art?
Yes, I usually have to use flash as well as the theatre lights so you’re getting a combination, but when the colour balance is correctly adjusted you find that suddenly you can see the different kinds of flesh as visually separate.
Now that you explain it, it doesn’t seem that much of a leap from your other work.
You can see from my website that I love photographing people at work, I like going into people’s studios, I like photographing skilled people doing things and visually describing the process of how they do it, so it’s just another branch of that. It stops me from getting bored!
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