Photographing museum artifacts is an activity prone to multiple interpretations, from the pure documentary capture to the reinterpretation of the objects being displayed. Let me take you through some of my own experiences.
Moving Lights over History is the title of a project that has kept me busy for some time now, and one I’ve translated into workshops where people explore, with me, the effects of light inside museums, or one museum in particular: the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas, a History museum in the region of Sintra, in Portugal.
With a rich collection of Roman artifacts, due to the presence of the Romans in the region for a long period of time, the museum also covers other periods from History, in a rich tapestry telling the stories of different occupations since Prehistoric times. Still being expanded with new collections, the museum’s roots can be traced back to the XVI century, when a Portuguese artist, Francisco d’Ollanda, decided to pile the first Roman slabs found in the region against the external walls of the small chapel close by.
The first photographic work I created for the museum was in the early 1980s, some Prehistoric artifacts for a leaflet supporting an exhibit. Because of my activity as a freelancer journalist and photographer writing for multiple publications, and my keen interest in History, that was the start of a long relationship, which gave me the opportunity to write come of the most exciting stories about the discoveries made by the teams working at the museum.
Throughout the last decades, I’ve had the opportunity to use the museum’s exhibits and rooms as a playground for my photographic experiments. Photography has a close relation to museums, as an important tool to document places and objects collected at each site explored. It is also present at exhibits, and modernly it also represents, in many cases, the experience visitors have of a museum, through images captured during a visit and shared on social media websites.
The opening of a new exhibit at the museum, in 2014, created the conditions for a new phase in my work. The exhibit “Diis Manibus — Rituals of death during the Roman Age”, brought to light an important collection of archaeological materials found in the region of Sintra, with special emphasis on those that are witness to the assorted funerary practices in use from the early Empire to the end of Late Antiquity. Its thematic approach allowed me to explore new ways to relate photography with the museum.
The reinterpretation of museum’s exhibits allow photographers to explore different paths, and give their own view of subjects that most people will only see under one light scheme, the one chosen for the exhibit
Reinterpreting the Museum
Some documentary images were created, but I could not stop imagining a different vision of the artifacts. Although the public exhibit uses intense lighting, for the photographic sessions I opted to maintain a low level of light, to recreate the theme’s atmosphere, from my point of view. I turned the room lights off and used both flash and LED panels to create the photos for a slideshow, a four minute journey into the magic of some of the artifacts… created with a challenge: the objects were photographed inside the display cabinets, meaning you’ve to find ways to keep reflections, even the dust on some panes of glass, hidden in your final photograph.
The slideshow confirmed me I was on the right track: to offer viewers an interesting experience that, more than revealing the whole exhibit, invites you to go from the virtual tour to the REAL THING, by visiting the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas. That’s something that has been discussed widely: how photography can reinterpret museum’s collections. The theme was the object of some papers presented for the 2nd International Conference of Photography and Theory, which took place in 2012 at the Thalassa Museum in Agia Napa, Cyprus. The biannual conference, created to provide an outlet for an interdisciplinary and critical theoretical exploration of photography and photographic practices, had “Photography and Museums” as its core theme, aiming to “critically investigate the diverse relationships between photography and museums.”
First “Moving Lights”
An introductory note for the event, signed by Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert and Elena Stylianou, both editors and also founding members of the International Association of Photography and Theory (IAPT) indicates that “Photography obviously has a long and complex relationship with the museum as well as different functions within and outside its walls” but adds that “Despite the close relationship and interdependency of museums and photography, there is limited research that examines the roles that photography plays in the formation of cultural, historic or social narratives inside museums. In addition, museums, and also contemporary artists, have been showing a renewed interest in photography and its potential to challenge museum orthodoxy, as well as in the medium’s expanding possibilities through the use of new media technologies.”
The theme is interesting to me, because I feel that my own experiences at the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas fit in the category of reinterpretations of its exhibits. While photographing the exhibit in 2014, I decided I wanted to take things further and experiment with video and moving lights. As these projects are always the result of explorations made in my free time, it took me almost two years to be able to create a video. It should be noted that, again, the artifacts are inside the exhibit cabinets, creating some challenges in terms of light and reflections, even more so with video. Some of the ideas I had in mind could not be put to practice due to the glass panels. Still, the result, from my point of view, offers a unique perspective, revealing an exhibit without giving it all away, which is also the idea behind these videos.
Control of light and depth of field allows to create more than a pure document of the objects inside the display cabinets
New exhibit, new experiences
This year I returned to the project, using a new exhibit, “Farmers and Shepherds from Prehistory”. I am also exploring some new ideas and techniques, and that’s what I want to share in this article. Before, though, let’s look at what influenced me to explore lighting this way in both photography and video.
The idea of moving lights results from multiple influences received throughout years. One of them is inside the museum itself: during historical reenactments or other events at the museum, which happen at night, actors holding torches move around the different rooms, only lit by candles. As they walk, they create shadows on the stone slabs with inscriptions, a unique visual experience that created an impression on me. Those moving shadows are amazing, although I believe the public following the actors, does not pay much attention to them. I did, and years of covering the shows helped to build the basis for my own experiences with moving lights.
The movement of clouds in the sky, in windy days, with the shadows they project on Earth as they move, is also responsible for my interest for moving lights. A photographic technique contributing to the project is light painting, which I use in different ways, but which is very much related to the moving lights with video. In fact, one of the ways to create moving lights with photographs is as simple as photographing the same object with different lights and then create a slideshow – or a simple Animated GIF – as I’ve done with the Prehistoric idol figurine shown in this page. Because Animated GIFs tend to have many Mbytes, sometimes it is best to convert them into a small MP4 file.
Museum artifacts painted with light
Those interested in the exploration of the Animated GIF path can read a previous article published here at Manfrotto School of Xcellence, where I explain the technique. Here we look at other aspects of my Moving Lights over History project, both the techniques applied and material used.
This new exhibit follows the same logic of the previous exhibit (which now has moved to another room within the Museum), and uses similar display cabinets, meaning you’ve the exact same challenges. The introduction of light painting, essential for the Moving Lights over History concept, creates new problems for the photographs, asking for some changes in approach. While for the original slideshow I used fixed lights, I decided to go ahead and paint with light some of the most emblematic objects of the exhibit, creating series of photographs that are each a unique moment not repeatable.
Before we continue, let me explain how the placement of the exhibits defines the final results. The Roman exhibit room is at the end of the new exhibit area, meaning its light and panels are always present – unless I turn the lights off – as a background. My first experiences demonstrated it worked well as a contrasting background, as long as I could keep it out of focus.
With the lights off in the room of the Farmers and Shepherds exhibit, I used a Lykos BiColor LED panel – about which I wrote before – to paint the objects photographed. The first tests revealed some problems: in order to have a long exposure time, allowing me a better control of light painting, I needed to close the aperture, meaning the background would start to show in more than a blurred mix of colours. Short exposures, on the other hand didn’t allow for much control of the movement of the LED over the object’s surface. I also needed to control exposure in order to not overexpose the background.
The solution was twofold: LED light and Neutral Density filters. The Lykos BiColor gives you complete control over the light emission, through the small panel on the back. I dialled a low value while, at the same time, using a Neutral Density filter in front of the lens, giving me control over the depth of field and exposure, so I could have 30 second exposures without overexposing the background, which was kept out of focus.
This gave me an exposure time long enough to play with the light, moving the LED panel over the object photographed. The images published here represent obtainable results. While many times people will use light painting techniques for a single photo, I wanted to extend their use here, creating animations. One note about the photos showing series of images: I used the RAW files converted directly and resized for the final photo, without any editing. This will give you an idea of the potential once you take some time to edit the photos. I also show, as is the case with the vase, its original placement inside the cabinet, which suggests how challenging it can be to photograph these artifacts.
A new video with “Moving Lights”
The final animations, created from sequences of single images, are a path I want to explore further. In fact, I’ve tried it with different subjects, and the technique can be used in many other areas, from architecture to… portrait, using both LED panels and flash. More about this in another article.
While series of photographs make good animations, video, which is nothing more than a series of stills shown in sequence, also works to give you a unique reinterpretation of individual objects at an exhibit. As mentioned above, I’ve tried this before, but I am still exploring different methods, to understand all the options, and I believe I am still at the very beginning of an exciting path of exploration.
The new video, created to reveal the recent exhibit, is a major step forward in my experiences. For the video I used, initially, a single light, the Lykos BiColor LED panel, but ended using two lights, by adding a Manfrotto Spectra LED 900S, used as a moving light, while the Lykos, at a low setting, was used as the base light. I still want to go back to experimenting with one light, but this time the two LED panels offered a faster solution while allowing me better control of all the variables. There is so much to try, I just wish I had time to play with the different options.
I believe the photographs and the video itself will give readers the essential cues they need. And I am always open to discuss these things over email, if someone is interested and wants to know more about the process or share their own experiences. As a final note, let me refer some of the materials used throughtout this project.
For the light painting for photos I used a Lykos BiColor LED panel and Manfrotto ND filters – ND8 and ND64 references. For the video I used the Lykos BiColor LED panel and a Manfrotto Spectra LED 900S. A Manfrotto 190 tripod with a XPRO ball-head was my trusted support for all the photographs and videos, while Manfrotto Nano Photo Stand, small portable lightstands, were used for the LED panel when I was not moving them.