Photographing Our Painting Collection

Here in the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Department we have embarked on an exciting new project to digitize selected objects from our paintings holdings. This is the first time we have shot paintings and, while every object in our collection requires special attention while being photographed, when we start a new medium there are always new things to consider. In this case we had to think about how to deal with shiny surfaces that reflect light and create highlights that are hard to remove by merely adjusting the angle of our lights. We purchased custom filters for our Broncolor Lightbars fit with a polarized film and then attached a polarizing filter to the lens of our Hasselblad H4D. If you have ever worn polarized sunglasses then you know that looking through a polarizing filter greatly reduces glare and reflections from shiny surfaces. With the added polarizing film on our lights and the polarizing filter on our camera lens we are able to completely zero out all reflections coming off the painting and spilling into our camera. If you would like a complete breakdown of how polarization works read this.

Here is an example of New York politician and judge Gabriel George Ludlow, shot with and without the polarizing filter so you can see how really effective this method is. The artist of this beautiful portrait, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), was an influential painter in colonial America and is well-known for his portraits of prominent figures.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Gabriel George Ludlow. ca. 1770. Museum of the City of New York. 72.31.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Gabriel George Ludlow. ca. 1770. Museum of the City of New York. 72.31.

We are very excited to make these paintings accessible to researchers and curators to view and study without having to make a trip to our storage facility. The portrait collection consists of prominent New Yorkers by many well-known artists from the early 1700’s through the 1980’s. Some of the real gems of our collection include portraits of DeLancey Iselin Kane and Eleanora Iselin Kane by the artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). The portrait of DeLancey Iselin Kane is considered his most famous portrait and has been published extensively. The painting is in its original frame, designed specifically for the portrait by Stanford White.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). DeLancey Iselin Kane. 1887. Museum of the City of New York. 40.417

Other paintings of note are the James Abercrombie Burden Family by Eastman Johnson; Cornelius and Sarah Bogart Ray by John Wollaston; and A Spanish Boy by Alice Neel.  Many of these paintings underwent restoration and cleaning prior to their digitization. Our painting collection ranges from the typical turn-of-the-century portraits as seen above to this dark and moody portrait of John Barrymore in the character of Hamlet painted by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) ca. 1923.

James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). John Barrymore as Hamlet. ca. 1923. Museum of the City of New York. 46.414.1.

We set up a temporary studio for three days in a temporarily empty gallery on our newly renovated third floor.  Here is a shot of our setup in action. Please check in with our collections portal in the near future to view this amazing collection in your own home.

One response to “Photographing Our Painting Collection

  1. Great blog.
    Very informative for the historian and photographer.

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