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The Multi-shot & the Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Captures Exquisite ColIection Images.

Detail from The River Nile, Giovanni Volpato, ca. 1735-1803, Italian. Made in Italy, ca. 1785-95. Biscuit porcelain, height 11-7/16 in. (29 cm.), length 22-1/2 in. (57 cm.), width 11-7/16 in. (29 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Isak and Rose Weinman Foundation Inc. Gift, 2001.

Saber, Turkish, Ottoman period, 19th century. Steel, jade, gold, and assorted jewels. Length 39 3/4 in. (100.97 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Giulia P. Morosini, in memory of her father Giovanni P. Morosini, 1923.

Detail of clock face from Clock with Pedestal, made in Paris, France, ca. 1690. Case maker: Attributed to André-Charles Boulle, 1642-1732, after design by Jean Bérain I. Clock maker: Jacques III Thuret, 1669-1738, or Isaac II Thuret, 1630-1706. Oak, tortoiseshell, bronze gilt, brass, engraved pewter. Total height 7 ft., 3-1/4 in. (221.6 cm); clock and crest height 24-1/2 in. (62.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1958.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a cultural hub in New York City since 1870, realized by the early 1900s that there was a natural affinity between the museum with its works of art and photography. Shortly after establishing a photo studio in 1906 to document its artworks, the Museum’s Photo Studio began shooting large-format, black-and-white photos of paintings, and sculptures in its collection. After World War II, 35mm color sides were introduced and by the mid- to late-1970s, large-format, color film was introduced. By the early 1990s, most museum publications were in full color. The Met entered the digital realm in 1996 with the purchase of two Leaf DCBs. For the next several years, they acquired cameras of varying makes and formats, generally one or two at a time, for their 11-person photo studio. In 2006, they purchased their first two Hasselblad digital cameras, H2Ds.

“During our 10-year transition to digital, we had a rolling implementation where every three years we moved another one to three people from analog to digital capture,” says Barbara Bridgers, General Manager for Imaging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two of the studio’s long-term photographers, who had previously worked with Leaf cameras then Sinars, were moved to Hasselblads. Five of the photo studio’s 11 photographers now use Hasselblad cameras.

“The most amazing thing about digital is the quality of the result, coupled with the expediency of the capture,” says Bridgers. “It has transformed our ability to present the museum collection and our ability to dig deeper and deeper into the collection, capturing more than we were ever able to with film. Digital photography provides a whole new way of looking at an object for the curator and the conservator because the detail is so great.”

“A breakthrough for the department came in 2006, with the Hasselblad H2D multi-shot,” says Bridgers. “It was wonderful to find a single camera that we could use to shoot works on paper, paintings, and large, three-dimensional works of art. With the multi-shot, you’re taking four shots and blending together all that information, so there’s no interpolation. That's what makes the images so crystal clear. The multi-shot also gives us the option to shoot single shot, untethered, around the Museum, which is a real bonus.”

The Metropolitan Museum’s studio photographers provide images for a variety of clients. Among them are the Museum’s in-house publications department, 17 curatorial departments, Merchandising, Communications, and the Image Library. They also support the in-house Web group and provide images for Art Resource, the Museum’s external image vendor - the gateway for anyone outside the museum who needs an image for an article, textbook, magazine, et al. 

“This spring, I used the multi-shot to capture the new American Wing,” says chief photographer Joseph Coscia. “The files are 18x31-inches. We’re not going to be shooting the extensive Wing collection again any time soon, so we wanted to get the maximum amount of information from every file. The H2DII multi-shot is much faster than a scanning back, especially for flat work. Our flat-work photographer, Mark Morosse, can produce many more images in one day with the multi-shot than he can waiting for five-minute or seven-minute exposures with a scanning back.”

The H2D multi-shot helps the photographers shoot highly detailed works of art with fine lines, complex tonal ranges, and complicated textures and details without breaking up or looking artificial. “Whether we’re shooting 17th century American decorative arts, medieval armor, Renaissance drawings, Islamic carpets, Egyptian statuary, or European sculpture, when we enlarge the files, the curators and conservators see things they’ve never seen before,” says Coscia. “The Hasselblad also gives us the most accurate color of any digital camera we’ve ever used. Color that faithful to the original is crucial when photographing a work of art.”

Unlike commercial and fine art photographers, who put their individual stamp on their work, the Museum’s studio photographers are trained to capture images that are true to the works of art themselves. “We’re trying to create a body of work where the images are consistent, where it looks like the entire repository was created by a single hand,” says Bridgers.

Elegance, precision, and uniformity are the touchstones of their work. Creativity, self-discipline, and patience begin to define their skill set. “We try not to leave our individual marks on the work. We try to be as invisible as we can be,” says Coscia. “At the same time, we have to create a look that enhances the work of art and brings it to life. I want viewers to connect with the art to the point that they want to come to the Museum see it in person. Sometimes I’m the only one working on a book project, but often three or four of us work on a single project, so we have to keep the work uniform, consistent.”

“With our enormous workload, speed is essential. And when we’re capturing the finest details of our works of art - American decorative arts, Islamic carpets and armor, European porcelain, or DaVinci prints - file resolution, color, and size are essential. The Hasselblad multi-shot helps us achieve incredible results,” says Bridgers.

The Museum may not purchase every camera upgrade, so it’s fortunate that the H2Ds are still producing beautiful, high-quality images. Nonetheless, the Photo Studio has a long list of projects that would benefit from the H3DII-39 multi-shot and the new tilt-and-shift adapter.

“When Joe Coscia shot the new American Wing period room recently, he had to take a series of images from slightly different angles,” says Bridgers. “Then Thomas Ling, Assistant Manger in charge of our post-production and fine editing group, had to pull those different views together to create a single room and tie the different perspectives back together. With the tilt-and-shift adapter, it is likely just one image would have been necessary.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - with the desire to push its imaging program to new places, and Hasselblad - with its high-quality, flexible cameras, together have created the best images of its works of art the Museum has ever had.

Photographs by Joseph Coscia Jr., Photograph Studio, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alice B. Miller is the owner of Plum Communications Inc. (www.plumcomm.com), a Long Island, NY-based editorial services and marketing communications company that supports the photo industry. Formerly editor of Studio Photography magazine, Alice has a growing clientele that includes photographers, manufacturers, publications, and associations. She is the director of public relations for the International Photographic Council and an advisory board member of NyghtFalcon photography studios.