More pixels, more knowledge: Insights into photographic object documentation

by | May 19, 2020 | A look in the depot

In the column a look behind the scenes we’d like to grant insights into our scientific work and our daily tasks in the museum’s depot. Today is all about the photography of theatre puppets: photographic object documentation.

One photo, many fields of application

The photographic documentation of the objects in the museum is one of the essential tasks of the museum team, as well as a requirement for further research and work on the puppets. During the collection’s digital-photographic inventory in 2010/11 all the puppets had been photographed already, however only in a lying position. That is why we decided to take new photographs.

These photographs are not only needed for the collection’s data bank and research reasons, but also serve to document the current state of the objects. In addition, we use the photos also as graphical material for exhibition catalogues. The object photographs are thus used in a number of ways and consequently need to be of high quality.

Some of the theatre puppets really challenge the museum’s team and require lots of time and concentration.

Please hold still for a moment!

The marionettes, for example, require a lot of patience on the part of the museum’s staff. Holding still is not in their nature. The usually twisted strings are hard to detangle and prone to movement even after a long time of being left to hang. They make photographing the marionettes become a real puzzle. It often takes some time until a sharp image has been successfully received. 

It’s worth the while, however. Only when being suspended during a photograph the objects can show their best side. Here, it’s important to remember the control bar. We fixed a linkage at the photo station specifically for the marionettes and other three-dimensional objects we cannot put on the table or otherwise fix there. It makes the work much more manageable. However, for marionettes of a specific size, several workers are always needed. Here, teamwork is required.

Objects with special effects

Much time is also needed for the photographing of the so called trick puppets or metamorphoses. Those are the theatre puppets that are able to transform on stage. One of these marionettes is that of the Schichtl brothers; it’s a letter and a hot air ballon at the same time. For object documentation it is essential to record both functions.

For this undertaking the team asked a professional photograph for help. Sönke Ehlert, who already had a lot of experience in the sector of museum object photography, was nonetheless impressed by the model for this uncommon work assignment.

More pixel, more knowledge 

Of course, lighting plays an important role, too. Especially with difficult material surfaces, as for example with this top figure from Nigeria.

The first photographic attempts were underexposed and consequently lacking the original color. Only the professional shots were able to reflect the object’s appearance. A lot depends on a photo’s quality, primarily if the photographs serve as the basis of this scientific exchange. In cases like these, it is especially valuable and gainful if the object’s smaller details are recognisable.

More drama, please!

The puppets from the Museum of theatre puppets’ collection have long since passed their active life in the theatre. Once, however, they had been stars on stage. This is another aspect the museum’s team seeks to consider, especially for photographs that are destined to become part of a museum catalogue.

The performative dimensions of these puppets cannot be caught on camera or documented, but theatric effects such as the interplay of light and shadow or a black background can create a hint of theatre atmosphere. This way, we can create a small impression of how the respective puppet looked and felt like on stage. As with this example of the hot air ballon.

Together with professional help the museum’s team is constantly developing the operational procedures needed for the photographic object documentation. As soon as the new camera equipment has arrived, the next shooting can begin.

For the next group of objects we thought of the big stick figure heads from Mali. This, too, will be a challenging task, because without the guide stick it will be difficult to keep the figure heads upright.

Nonetheless, we accept the challenge and will think of something clever: “Challenge accepted!“

Would you like to find out more about similar topics to photographic object documentation?

You can find all entries regarding our work in the depot. Collection inventory of 2010/11.

Mehr einblicke in die Arbeit im Depot

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