Photographing Art

Medieval POC has a post today about one of the works I photographed in the Gemäldegalerie. It’s not a photograph I’m especially happy with, suffering from a lot of reflection and over-exposure along the upper half, especially visible in the closeup. My fault for not buying a circular polarising filter. But! Not writing excuses here.

Mpoc (yeah, I actually say, “Em-pock” in my head) compares that photo, Sebastiano Ricci’s Bathsheba with the one on Wikipedia. The latter is much darker, slightly more saturation, and bonkers amounts of contrast. So here I am, writing about photographing art and what I try and do.

Let’s dispense with the assumption I have a fancy camera (as much as I’d love a Canon 5D (Mk III, DS, whatevz) or … OK, I shut up). I took many photos I love, and learnt masses about photography with my Sony Ericsson K750c, a now ten year old unsmart phone; went from that to a Panasonic LX3 which taught me masses about working with a fully manual camera, and then to my current LX7. The LX series, not quite a compact camera, nor a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, though when I first picked up a 5D Mk III, it was strangely familiar. I shoot mostly in Aperture mode, occasionally in Shutter if the light is too dim and I think I can get away with fixing a dark image (nope, not bloody likely). I use Available White Balance because even if the artificial lighting is the same in every room, the colour of the walls, the size of the room, even the position of the painting on the wall mean I’ll end up with something far further from reality if I try and be fancy and set it any other way. Oh, and I shoot in RAW. Probably the single thing that makes the most difference.

Having a stupidly amazing f/1.4 lens wide-angle lens (24-90mm, 35mm equivalent) means lens distortion, so I set the zoom around the middle, walk back and forth until I find the right framing (filling the frame with a bit of space to allow for cropping), then usually walk around again to find somewhere without reflected light glare. Being pedantic here, I hold my camera with both hands, like a two-handed gun grip, use the electronic level, and breathe out. I take as long as I like before squeezing the shutter, because half a millimetre off on the monitor corresponds to “OMG! WTF?!” once it’s on my laptop, and because museum lighting is deceptively dim so even with all that f/1.4 it’s a dance between limiting ISO to 400 and trying to keep exposure time faster than 1/30s. Describing it like that sounds slightly disturbed, but all of this is habit. This year already I’ve taken 4000 photos and probably half of them I’ve gone through this dance.

If I’m shooting details, I almost always use square format, otherwise I swap between 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9, whatever fits the painting or sculpture best. Something I’ve also been trying recently, and not quite sure if it makes things better or worse, but certainly allowed me to get presentable images out of the Alte Nationalgalerie is using exposure lock. Rather than letting the camera automatically set the exposure (and simultaneously white balance) on the painting, which particularly in works with a lot of dark colours or varnishing end up looking nasty, I set and lock the exposure on a neutralish spot on the frame and wall to one side, then move back to the painting. All this is of course relying on the LCD being remotely accurate to what the camera is doing. It’s not, but over the years of using these and other cameras, I have (I pretend to myself I have) a vague idea of the correspondence between what I’m seeing and what the camera sees.

What else? For particularly long or tall or large works where distortion is an issue (when a painting finishes 4 metres above my head, it’s an issue), or where reflection or light hot spots make a single image messy, I take multiple images and make a panorama from them later. Lots of work, yes, which is why the museum visit itself is not even half the process. But it is a museum visit. I’m going to see art just like everyone else, and part of that deal is not to be an obtrusive wanker, with or without a camera. I spend far more time looking at the pieces, reading the captions, listening to the audio guide than I do taking a few snapshots.

Home and sorting. I’m still using Aperture despite Apple canning it. Photos (the iPhoto replacement) doesn’t cut it, even though I only use Aperture for managing and not editing. Then to the Photoshop! I don’t do anything in RAW conversion, probably I should learn, but I find the tools in Photoshop itself better for the task.

The first thing is taking care of lens distortion. Even the sad mess of Hendrick Heerschop’s Die Mohrenkönig Caspar (it’s worse in the gallery) scrubs up surprisingly well. Usually a bit of vertical (and occasionally horizontal) alignment, removing barrelling, and slight rotation brings even what look like hopeless cases into line. Then there’s the skew transform to fix up the corners, and occasionally warp transform for asymmetric barrelling and pinning. It’s a lot of unavoidable manual work. I’ve tried plugins that claim to automate somewhat or speed up the process but the results are sad.

Cropping time. I always crop out the dark edges where the painting frame has left a shadow, they cause too many problems in the next steps, and anyway, doing this fifty or eighty times per museum when I already have a tendency to take things too far, it’s not like pissing around over 20 pixels is going to do the end result any favours. All this is only for the full painting or sculpture; for details photos it’s straight to ‘colour balancing’.

Inverted commas, yes. Photoshop’s default automatic contrast, tone, and colour balancing work on the assumption that skin colour is Teutonic. (Or it’s an automatic “LOL! Blackface!” generator, in which case, my bad, works perfectly.) Going manual is honestly no better (because the same algorithms underlie the process). Anyway, I try and do as little as possible, seeing I’m not working on images photographed with a colour chart and so only have my poor memory of the artwork to work against. First thing then, duplicate the layer. Knowing what I’m going to do later, mostly the auto contrast I can get away with, and auto tone about half the time (and half of that needing its own duplicate layer to wreak ‘balancing’ on). Auto colour though, oh am I laughing. Its interpretation of gilt, which there is no shortage of in mediæval art is something approximating copper when it’s oxidising and turning green. Then I drop the edited layer’s opacity down to zero and scrub back and forth until I’m not too appalled. Mostly between 27 and 36%, though depending on the conditions as high as 63%. It’s reasonably minimal. I’m trying to clarify what the camera saw, compensating for its slight under-contrast and colour softness, rather than making something up from my memory, or creating an idealising artifice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it turns everything to shit.

Save as tif, close, next. Repeat until finished. Unless …

Sometimes parts of images even without reflection end up with odd, horribly blown-out parts, or the upper half or one upper corner is significantly lighter. In that case, it’s duplicate layer time once more. I’m going to mangle things. I use curves and the ‘darker’ preset. Often twice. Then a layer mask to hide everything, and brush back in only the upper part. Then that opacity-scrubbing thing again until I work out approximately where the stygian upper parts match the original lower parts. More brushing and erasing on the layer mask, and repeat with more layer as necessary. There are some improvisational tricks I pull to deal with extreme reflected glare also, but eh … it’s kinda desperate and the whole time everyone in the painting is whispering, “Just fucking buy the fucking polariser already. Fuck’s sake.” and giving me the side eye.

It feels somewhat mindless, but without the luxury of being paid to do this, setting up softboxes, using colour charts, amazing camera and lenses, doing the editing next to the painting on a balanced monitor, the whole doodaa, this is what it takes me to turn what often look decidedly average coming out of the camera into something occasionally I look at and know what I’ve done isn’t fooling myself, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s it, that’s what it was, that’s what I felt when I looked at it, that’s how awesome it was, that’s fucking art.”

… and!

Comparisons. First: Sebastiano Ricci’s Bathsheba as I photographed it, followed by my edited version, followed by the version on Wikimedia. (I’m not sure mine’s an improvement over the original RAW, but the real painting is nothing like Wikimedia version.) I’m often surprised how little contrast and how soft the colours are in so much art, and how seductive it is to bump but the contrast and saturation. Second: Hendrick Heerschop’s Die Mohrenkönig Caspar. A truly beautiful painting made nearly worthless by its glass covering and being hung opposite the windows, so all the subtleties in the dark golds and browns of his clothing, in his skin, in the background even, are lost.

Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 1: Sebastiano Ricci— Bathsheba, original RAW
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 1: Sebastiano Ricci— Bathsheba, original RAW
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 2: Sebastiano Ricci— Bathsheba, edited jpg
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 2: Sebastiano Ricci— Bathsheba, edited jpg
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 3: Sebastiano Ricci— Bathsheba, Wikimedia
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 3: Sebastiano Ricci— Bathsheba, Wikimedia
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 4: Hendrick Heerschop — Die Mohrenkönig Caspar, original RAW
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 4: Hendrick Heerschop — Die Mohrenkönig Caspar, original RAW
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 5: Hendrick Heerschop — Die Mohrenkönig Caspar, edited jpg
Gemäldegalerie Berlin — 5: Hendrick Heerschop — Die Mohrenkönig Caspar, edited jpg

Video

Eine choreografische LeseVerbindung

Late-2012, I helped Dasniya and Hartmut Fischer with the video for their performance, Die Liebe und ihr Gegenteil oder Mädchenmörder Brunke – Eine choreografische LeseVerbindung. Some of this was collecting their own video of rehearsals, some was joining them on trips around Berlin by ferry or Ring-Bahn, and some was cutting it all together. The performance happened first in Tübingen at Club Voltaire, then again in a different form in Berlin at the Club der polnischen Versager. Hartmut had the unpublished manuscripts of Thomas Brasch, a Jewish Berlin playwright, writer, and director, which are what appear tied up and suspended in the middle part of the video. The first part is Dasniya and Hartmut organising the papers, which arrived as an unsorted mass in an old suitcase. The third part, on the Spree ferry goes past where Brasch used to live in Mitte when it was East Berlin. Finally, we three went on a ride on the S-Bahn, arriving at Ostkreuz just as the sun was setting. It’s not an especially spectacular piece of video, but it does represent – or document – a period of my life in Berlin, as well as parts of the city of Berlin itself. Mostly it’s silent.

Gallery

Colours of Bruises Film Shoot Day 2

Some photos from Tuesday, the second day of shooting Jennifer Evans‘ video for her song, Colours of Bruises, with Dasniya Sommer doing all the rope work and generally directing, and Valquire Veljkovic filming. Altogether we were seven: Jennifer accompanied by Emily; Valquire with Nata on second camera, and Isabelle assisting with set and props. As on Monday, I was up and down the ladder making use of many clove hitches and Dasniya’s new static rope and climbing pulleys (which finally got put to use!). When not up the ladder, I continued pointing my camera at things.

The second day was much more of building a rope installation, which was added to over the day, collapsing in on itself to the final state of both Jennifer and Emily suspended in the midst of almost every rope of every kind we had, chairs, clothes, books, twigs and branches, a table, many carabiners, slings, rings, static rope, pulleys, all of which somehow allowed for Jennifer to be slowly lowered down and out of it over several minutes.

These photos over the two days show only some of what went on. Sometimes it was too dim and with movement too fast for me to capture anything; other times I was up a ladder, or otherwise pulling on gear without an extra set of hands for my camera. The last photos were taken with my old LX3, which I was very surprised at the substantial difference in quality between it and my new LX7. As usual, these get added to my increasing stack of photos I’ve taken over the last few years, making me think it’s getting close to enough for an exhibition.

These images were private for some time; the first day of shooting is here: Colours of Bruises Film Shoot Day 1.

Image

First Light (Panasonic LX7)

Something telescopes do … the first image.

4 1/2 years ago I did this with my Panasonic LX3 looking at the Bötzow Brauerei. This time I try and do it with the Uferhallen. Alas the sun is directly down the barrel. Instead, I look along Uferstr, where the light cuts across.

1/500 exposure at f/1.4 (!!!), ISO 125, shot in Aperture mode using the ND filter (more exclamation marks!), focal length 24mm (at 35mm equivalent), auto-white balance, and everything else normal or off. It’s not an especially interesting image, but it tells me that despite looking much the same as my LX3, it’s quite different. Slightly more barreling for one, a small bit of purple fringing, and disturbingly wide field of view, but that lens, for a compact camera, it’s insane!

I didn’t exactly need a new camera; I’d also imagined my next camera would be a Panasonic Micro Four Thirds, and I’d spend quite a lot of money indeed on it. As I’m staring down the neck of having to buy a new laptop in the coming months, and having a small amount of cash for a change, and that the LX7 with fancy leather case costs less than what I paid for my LX3, well, we can see where that’s going.

It’s slightly bigger in all dimensions than my old camera, though some elements are identical (the never-used flash, the springy battery / SD card door). What’s added is what makes it in my mind the best serious compact camera around.

Last time, it was a toss-up between Canon’s G10 and the LX3. This time, the “enthusiast compact camera” market has at least eight contenders, including Canon’s G16, cameras from Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Sony’s RX100 II (which, due to its large sensor is regarded as a bit of an LX7 killer, though it’s almost twice the price), and the Fujifilm X20, the camera I almost bought.

This time again it was the lens that did it for me. The LX3 had an f/2 lens, the only compact camera with such a massive slab of glass. In the intervening years that’s become standard, so Panasonic does the obvious and makes it f/1.4, going to a mere f/2.3 when zoomed. It lets in so much light it’s obscene. So they put a Neutral Density filter in the camera, with a switch for it on the back. Brilliant!

They also gave it an aperture ring! Which admittedly is more common with cameras of this type now, but it’s still well cool. No more faffing around with knobs on the back; it’s a proper camera now. And they stuck the aspect ratio (including 1:1, which is now muck-common) selector just behind the ring, next to the focus selector. It’s very much a tactile camera now, especially for someone like me who holds even this one as I would a DSLR.

And what else? 1920×1080 Full HD video at 60fps (AVCHD and mpeg-4), with manual mode while filming. Stereo microphones. Massively improved LCD screen. Monster burst rate options. A slightly larger sensor, upgraded to CMOS. Improved zoom (which admittedly arrived with the LX5) … a bunch of other things like ISO, shutter speed, auto-focus, image processing all have also been bumped up. Shooting in RAW has sod-all noise and stonking dynamic range, and it’s got OIS image stabilisation. I had a play with the electronic viewfinder in the shop, something I always wanted for my LX3, even though it costs almost as much as the camera. I’m seriously considering buying; it’s so very good.

For me and what I tend to use it for, a combination of landscape, macro, interior, low light, plus some videoing, I think none of the more-or-less equivalent high-end compact cameras are either that flexible, nor could do so well based off their specs, and usually cost more. As well, it’s just such a joy to use. It’s really a camera for someone whose idea of how a camera should feel is thoroughly seeped in SLR. I can go from this to say a Panasonic G5 or a Canon 5D and the feeling is the same (ok, yes, they weigh more and are much bigger). My LX3 is also happy to have a sibling.

Gallery

The Last Parsifal in Bologna

A matinee is a strange performance to finish a season on.

I thought to take some photos of the theatre, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, where we’ve been the last month; particularly the piazza where the theatre is placed on the north-west-ish side. Saturday, following the wet greyness of Friday was oppositely calm, warm, and a vault of blue. The theatre looked spectacular.

There was another photo I wanted. The first time taking the elevator to the Salle Ballo, thinking it was high up and therefore on the top floor, I ended up in the roof space above the grid, with a small window looking out across the city, through the towers to Santuario della Madonna di San Luca, a view scarcely bettered by any other high point in the city, and one only for those fortunate enough to be lost in the theatre.

We warmed up for the last time, Bonnie, Dasniya, Pericles, and I, pinning on wigs, slathering white body paint, tying up ropes, and then, once again, it was finished.

One final evening in that beautiful city, and today fleeing across the directions of the compass: Bonnie southwards, Pericles east, and Dasniya and I splitting the difference between North, her to Zürich and me to Berlin.

Gallery

Riserva Naturale Contrafforte Pliocenico

Rain, rain, rain, cold. A perfect day for wandering in the bush. If I had a rain jacket. The last free day in Bologna, and I’d decided some days ago I wanted to get out of the city and see the countryside a little, preferably somewhere in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines which fall on the south-east side of the Via Emilia and Bologna. One place that looked especially attractive was the Riserva Naturale Contrafforte Pliocenico, sadly a long journey by bus, but excitingly close in a car. Which we pile into with Bonnie and Giovanni and the family a bit after midday.

It rains. The clouds drop, mist rises. Visibility plunges to a score of metres. More rain and colder. We drive around, decide wandering is largely a muddy, slippery, sodden proposition, and keep in the car along the winding (sideways and up-down) narrow road looking for somewhere to eat. Closed, closed, also closed. Possibly a winter thing. I’d forgotten the name by the time I got home, so pieced together the junctions on the videos out the side window I was making while in the car, and matched them on a map until I came up with Ca’ Shin on the edge of Parco Cavaioni. Also closed. But they opened for us and served a very typical platter of cheese, cured meat, bread, and honey, which we had two of (yes, that good), followed by apple tart and coffee, all local and part of an bio food community, I think.

It’s utterly beautiful up there, hills and escarpments, too steep to be described as rolling, and despite being so close to the city, having a wildness I like very much. I would be very happy to wander these hills on a day like today.

Gallery

Museo Civico Medievale

Tuesday before the evening performance, I decide for another museum, this time the Museo Civico Medievale, which I thought could be a good accompaniment to the Museo della Storia di Bologna I visited with Dasniya last week. Again set in a palace, this one being the Renaissance palazzo Ghisilardi, built in the late-15th century and containing one of the city’s towers, Torre dei Conoscenti. It’s very beautiful, with delicate arches; the upper floor ones being half the size of the lower. The museum itself is somewhere between Museo della Storia di Bologna and Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna, having the grumpy, stalky attendants with their coats and books thrown on their chairs of the former, and the smart, room-by-room exhibits of the latter.

It also has the not-so-good audio guide of the former, a combination of the same narrator (probably employed for a bulk job on all the museums) suffering from frequent, abrupt finishings mid-exposition, and either cryptically placed numbers beside exhibits or entirely absent. I discovered though, instead of searching for the numbers, I’d just enter the subsequent one and look around until I recognised what was being discussed. In this way, I found myself quite well-educated on around a third of the exhibits otherwise unmarked.

Besides that – and I found myself enjoying it for the perverse anti-social quality – it is a solid and delightful museum on its own, and in combination with Museo della Storia di Bologna gives a comprehensive introduction to the city for someone like me, an outsider with no knowledge.

It caught my attention over the many other museums for the medieval focus, covering roughly a period from 10th to 15th centuries with some overflow prior – a significant period in the city’s history, and much can be understood by examining this span. Curiously, it starts with two rooms that are not exactly this focus; the second though contains collections of from the 15th century including one cabinet full of Chinese and Japanese works. Outside that door are three Jewish gravestones and one Muslim, which were left homeless due to a papal edict.

Getting into the museum proper then, I find unlike almost every European pre-modern museum filled with religious clutter, this one has rooms and rooms celebrating the university, or more precisely the deaths of its professors. A lot of religious stuff too, though I found the beauty of it, both aesthetically and in the craft of construction caused me to put aside atheist tendencies and be overcome by the sublime. Some of these works are deeply poignant; others joyous. It’s not possible for me to devalue them merely because they have a religious theme or content.

Later, there is a small statue of Mercury, and one of Archangel smiting Lucifer – very similar to the one in Madrid. Then I arrive at war.

Into a red room, suits of polished armour, lines of pikes, hatchets, broadswords and rapiers, helmets, chain mail, jousting lances, mauls, shields, flanged maces … one suit was especially impressive, an asymmetric jousting armour with three massive, square bolts and their threads protruding from the chest, and a solid facepiece except for three tiny holes.

Continuing into the room with 15th century guns, and I was about to get kicked out. I think they are Snaphances or something similar, long-barreled, with a highly-decorative stock and ornate firing mechanism. I ran out of time here, being shooed out by the attendants, grumpy as ever. It had taken me around 2 1/2 hours to get through 17 of the 22 rooms, and missing also a proper wander around the palazzo.

I was thinking also about what makes a ‘good’ museum, and why I might not want every museum to be ‘good’. The Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna is not exemplary by current ideas of what a museum should be and do, being as an acquaintance described it, “a museum of a museum”, yet in its inaccessibility, it also provides for something other than a single superficial visit, a tourist itinerary. The museums I’ve seen recently seem to sit precariously on incomplete history, colonialism, kitsch, populism, a meta-narrative of the subject they attend to. At one and the same time, they also are beguiling and disarming in their love of their subject, the concise summary of the work of uncounted people over centuries. Perhaps one of my basic propositions – however critical I might be of a specific museum or museums, or how museums as a whole currently function – is that I do not question whether there should in fact be museums. Museums, books, art, culture, music, dance, idleness, walking, getting lost … without the arts and culture, humanity is in poverty, and for most of us it is only museums that provide direct access to this from our past.

San Michele in Bosco

We usually get home from the theatre around 1am, and another couple of hours for sitting around before properly sleeping means getting up at 10am to go to the theatre again was a wobbly experience. A pause for coffee and croissant and then for me wandering directly south to Monastero di San Michele in Bosco, which I found easily enough, but then my attempt to reach Parco di Forte Bandiera was a complete failure and I ended up wandering among villas along narrow, winding streets without footpaths in the hills with cars being driven with gusto. Coincidently, I bumped into Anna, one of the contortionists while standing in front of San Michele, right about where I took the photos for the panorama.

Foyer ceiling of Teatro Comunale di Bologna – 1
Foyer ceiling of Teatro Comunale di Bologna – 1
Foyer ceiling of Teatro Comunale di Bologna – 2
Foyer ceiling of Teatro Comunale di Bologna – 2
San Michele in Bosco
San Michele in Bosco
Panorama of Bologna from San Michele in Bosco
Panorama of Bologna from San Michele in Bosco

Gallery

Torri Asinelli

A lazy day and no museums open, with Martin arrived from Freiburg, we set off for a wander southwards with the plan to climb Torri Asinelli, the highest tower still standing in Bologna, and one we pass often, being at the hub of a radial set of roads which lead variously towards home, the theatre, south, and other easterly directions. Mostly I wanted to see the city from above and see how the ragged curves of the streets resolved themselves.

The greasy, narrow, steep stairs and head-buttingly low ceilings were completely worth the 3 euros it cost to make the climb, and the damp, grey air somehow also well-suited. I’m sure it looks sublime at the height of summer, but to see it subdued also has its rewards. As for the tower, now 900 years old, it’s sad and dilapidated, far from the days when the city was full of nearly 200 similar such fortifications, impossible to say whether the gaping, toothless holes were part of the original internal floor structure or later additions and removals.