“If you go and Google the Mona Lisa,” says Andy Romer of Andy Romer Photography, “I guarantee you she’ll have a dozen different complexions or tonalities.” Only one, of course, accurately represents the masterpiece. How can contemporary artists and institutions make sure that what they’re showing matches up with what the public sees online and in books and catalogs? This is where Romer comes in. He photographs artwork for artists, galleries, and museums to ensure that they have the best documentation possible. Images of art (perhaps even more than the physical works themselves) shape perception of both individual pieces and artists’ entire oeuvres.
“What’s the number one way you interact with artwork?” asks Romer. “It’s not in museums or in auctions or in person. It’s online, it’s through pictures…it’s a digital experience.” Frequently, the public sees the representation of a work of art, whether on the Internet or a book, before the work itself. Certainly, there’s something to be said for lasting first impressions.
“A museum’s collections are both our cultural heritage and legacy yet only a small fraction of its holdings are on view at a given time,” writes Deborah Bright, and artist on the board of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art who also chairs the Department of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute. “Photographs are the only way that art-lovers, artists, scholars and curators can discover which works (or editions of works) are in particular collections.” Bright notes that there’s an entire sub-specialty of art historical research that explores the photography of works of art and its impact on academic studies and interpretations. If a work is poorly photographed, no matter how good it may be, it will be passed over quickly or ignored.
Today, top-notch photography of art is critical across the art world. Collectors, museums, galleries, curators and artists most procure and maintain accurate, compelling images of both individual works and entire exhibitions - great photographs in auction, gallery and museum catalogs can inspire bids, trips to the museum and academic study; generate interest and buzz on social and online platforms; and preserve temporary exhibitions in a digital space.
We've complied more information about photography of art service providers - how they entered the field, why it matters to you + what new technologies they're using. And be sure to check out The Clarion List’s database of professional photographers of art, the behind-the-scenes wizards who light and capture images of art for posterity.
Exhibition photo by Andy Romer
Who Gets Into Art Photography
According to Andy Romer, he has the coolest job in the world. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Romer was considering whether to pursue commercial or fine art work after graduation. Photographing artwork combined the best of both worlds. “You get to hang out, interact, work with the coolest people,” he says. His job regularly connects him with artists, curators, and museum directors; his clients include such elite galleries and institutions as the Philip Johnson Glass House, the New York City Ballet, Venus Over Manhattan, and Luxembourg & Dayan and artists including Frank Stella, Gaetano Pesce, and Dustin Yellin. Talk about a good network.
Romer learned from one of the biggest names in the business, Tom Powel. Offering services including still capture, HD video, 360-degree panorama, and time-lapse, Powel has worked with an extensive client list that reads as a kind of “who’s who” in the art world. One the artist side, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, and Yoko Ono have all entrusted Powel with the job of documenting their work. Gagosian Gallery, Christie’s, David Zwirner Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art have also used his services. That’s just scratching the surface.
Concerns When Photographing Works of Art
Both Romer and Powel emphasize how important it is, in their line of work, to deeply engage with the art before photographing it. Powel writes that one of his most important concerns is “understanding the work of art first so you can see its true power and beauty. Once you feel both, then you can light the artwork properly.” According to him, the photography “must be invisible so that the image of the work of art transcends the photograph.”
Powel also recommends different types of documentation for different media. “If the work is sculptural then we recommend still photography and orbital video, if it’s an exhibition of paintings then we suggest stills and 360 panoramic VR tour,” he writes.
Urs Fischer, image: Tom Powel Imaging
Why Photography of Art Matters
If you’re about to spend a few million dollars (or even a few hundred) on a work of art, you’ll certainly want to know what it looks like. Many art collectors rely on catalog images to accurately represent auction offerings. When they want to resell, they’ll often need better images than the ones already out there. In that case, they’ll call Powel. “More than half of my business is reshooting works of art that should have been done properly at first,” he writes. He also notes that technological advances have created greater demand for his services. “As channels such as YouTube and Vimeo become more entrenched in our culture, demand for video animation content of fine art will grow, so high quality image capture will be particularly vital in the future.” He predicts that this content development will open up new revenue streams for artists.
Artist Jesse Chun mentions how important art photography can be in creating representations of an artwork’s scale. “I think variation is important too, even of the same piece, so people can have an idea of what it’s like to view it at a different angle. Her work, which includes watermarked prints, requires photography that shows the small details so crucial to the work’s intent.
Spencer Brownstone Gallery’s managing director, Jae Cho, notes the growing social media platforms where images of art circulate. It’s important for him and his business to develop compelling, high-quality images.
Instagram presence is quickly becoming a must for galleries, requiring them to post pictures of shows that will draw first eyes, then crowds, then hopefully inquiries about the work.
Services that Go Above and Beyond
Both Powel and Romer incorporate increasingly sophisticated technologies into their work. By 2018, according to Powel, we will see the 250 megapixel barrier surpassed, which will create endless options for artists’ personal, publicity, and content development uses. “The only thing that will remain unchanged is the photographers’ ability to see work and determine how to light it best,” he writes. A good eye will always be necessary to evoke the true beauty of a work of art.
Powel produces videos in multiple categories, including artist interviews, event time lapses, orbital videos of sculpture, short form exhibition documentaries, and long form process documentaries. He creates 360 panoramic immersive tours of exhibitions “so the viewer can experience exhibitions at their pace.” They can rotate their view to any angle and zoom into specific details.
Romer offers planaView, which he describes as a high resolution, 360-degree virtual tour. He says it’s a successful way to forever capture an exhibition that will be taken down in a matter of weeks or months. Composed of several hundred images stitched together, the final product allows viewers to interact with a show and zoom into details as minute as a brushstroke on canvas.
Art photographers are rapidly closing the gap between digital and in-person art viewing experiences. As documentation technology evolves, check out work by practitioners such as Powel and Romer, whose photography is, in many ways, an art itself.