by Dawn Cusick
Viewing photography as a valued part
of the creative process
(From our Sep/Oct '01 issue)
|Dixie Brown, Genus; felted
wool; 12 by 18 by 8 inches. Photo: Gugger Petter.
The fiber world offers a wonderfully diverse
selection of information and discussion on the creative
process in general and on fiber techniques and materials
in specific. Sadly, though, the final part of the creative
process-photography-is often viewed as an afterthought
and not given the time or attention it deserves. The
reality is that far more people are likely to see a
photographed image of your work than will ever see it
in person. Even at its absolute best, there is still
an incredible gap between "the real thing" and a one-dimensional
photographed image on film. And when your images are
subjected to the printing process or to viewing on a
light box that hasn't been color corrected, the gap
As a full-time fiber artist, Gugger Petter [see the
FIBERARTS Sept/Oct '00 cover story] brings an interesting
perspective to fiber photography. Nine years ago, Gugger
used the income from a small grant to invest in photography
equipment. "I wasn't getting the sense of surface that
I wanted in my photography. You really should be able
to see the richness of the surface from the full shot,
and not have to rely on detail shots." browngrotta arts
gallery owner Tom Grotta agrees: "What makes textiles
superior is the experience of the three dimensionality,
so we need to learn photography techniques that will
convey that experience. The details in a fiber piece,
for example, are completely lost when it's photographed
flat-the sculptural elements disappear. If you lose
that three-dimensional sense of fiber, you lose what's
special about textiles."
Evan Bracken, a fine art and crafts book photographer,
is frustrated with the current art climate. "I feel
badly for fiber artists and crafters. When they send
photography for consideration in a juried show or a
publication, they're basically entering a photography
contest. Without exemplary photography, they probably
won't even be considered." Bobby Hanson, a former museum
photographer, gives photography workshops to artists,
and enjoys showing them the subtle differences between
a good photograph and an even better one. During his
workshops, Hanson uses side-by-side projectors to illustrate
his points. "The differences can be subtle. When people
see the first photograph, they think it's fine, but
when I put a better photograph of the same image right
next to the first one and explain the differences, they
begin to understand. If you can improve your film by
just 5% and you're one of 100 artists competing for
the same slot, that's five people you're in front of,
which can be the difference between getting in or not."
|Regula Allenspach Weill, Turn of the Century
Kimono and detail, 1998; raffia cloth lined with
handmade paper; trimmed with turn-of-the century
newsprint, bamboo and lily foliage, and berries.
Photo: Gugger Petter.
Working with a Professional Photographer
Of course you want a photographer who is technically
competent, but beyond that, what should you look for
when looking for someone to photograph your work? Grotta
suggests that, "Ideally, you need to cultivate someone
who has an affinity for your work. Someone who understands
the work may be able to communicate it better than a
technically perfect photographer." Petter agrees: "You
can have a beautiful shot, a technically perfect shot,
but many times the spirit and soul of a piece is lost
during photography." Petter prefers to begin each shoot
by asking the artist what he/she thinks is most important
in the piece. "I take the shots they want, then I do
what I think also, which gives them several options."
"Some artists want me to take a photograph of an idea,
which usually doesn't work very well," says Hanson.
"There's no substitute for really looking at your piece
and making sure that what needs to show is showing."
When working with a new photographer, especially if
they aren't accustomed to doing art and craft photography,
Hanson recommends bringing a professional publication
as a printed example of the way you want your work to
look. "Professional photographers without backgrounds
in art and craft photography tend to tart things up
a bit. One artist I know paid $600 for slides she needed
for a show. The photographer thought he was doing a
great job by placing the artist's quilt on a rocking
chair next to a fireplace. He was trying to tell a story
that didn't need telling. If you're photographing art
work, the work needs to show."
|Michael James, Hive, 1998. Hand-painted
and commercial cotton; machine pieced and quilted.
Photo: David Caras.
Tips from the Pros
- Take lots of brackets (additional shots
of the same set-up taken with different exposures).
"In pieces that have browns and blacks next to each
other, for instance," explains Hanson, "just half
a lens stop can be the difference between the colors
blurring together or appearing distinct. Once you've
gone to all the expense of setting up the shot, it
only costs a few more cents to push the button an
- In general, it's a good idea to photograph
your piece the same way it would be displayed in a
gallery or in a museum. If it's designed to hang on
a wall, then shoot it on a wall. If it's a floor piece,
then shoot it from overhead.
- Experiment with films if you are unhappy
with the color results. "Films have different emulsions,
so they record color differently," explains Bracken.
"Some dyes are not responsive to some films and will
record the color as a neutral gray or otherwise different."
- Always take detail shots. If your piece
uses a novel or particularly well-executed technique,
choose a section that showcases that for a detail.
Otherwise, just choose one or two of your favorite
areas. Details are expensive to shoot as afterthoughts,
but easy (and inexpensive) to do during the first
- Before you take the first photograph,
check carefully for anything that will distract from
the piece. "There's no detail too little that you
shouldn't pay attention to," reminds Hanson. "Do whatever
you have to do to be sure that the piece looks right
and hangs straight."
- For fiber pieces that require models,
remember that the model is there to give shape to
the garment and to showcase its artistry. Models should
be as anonymous as possible: no big hair, big smiles,
or bad stereotypes.
- Avoid confusing or busy backgrounds. Also,
be sure the background color is not too close in color
to the edge areas of your piece.
- If there's a good chance that your work
will be reproduced in black and white, shoot it that
way in the first place. Although color images can
be transferred to black and white, the results are
often less than desirable. Request a flat or matte
(not glossy) finish.
- Generally, the larger the film, the bigger
the photography bill. With the advances in today's
printing technology, 4- by 5-inch transparencies,
which used to be the high-end standard, may not be
necessary. If you need film for a local juried show,
well-done slides should be fine. If you know (or hope!)
the image will be considered for a possible cover
or other large print size, definitely invest in a
larger film format (2-1/4, 2-1/2, or bigger). Detail
shots, which will probably never be enlarged more
than 400%, can be shot with slide film.
- Work hard to make sure the texture in
your piece translates to film. This may require special
lighting techniques, but it can be done if your photographer
knows it's a priority.
Investing in quality photography can be a distracting
(and expensive) part of being a fiber artist, but it's
worth the effort when you consider the potential of
Doing your own fiber photography can be very rewarding
... and very frustrating. "Artists have an idea of how
they would like their work photographed, but the camera
has a totally different eye," says Gugger Petter, a
textile artist and photographer. Following are tips
and techniques to help you discover your camera's "eye"
and develop technical expertise.
- Plan to invest considerable time (and
film and processing expenses) into getting good results.
Choose several pieces (as varied in color, size, and
texture as possible) and do test shots with them,
writing down all of the details: which f-stops you
used, what shutter speeds, the distance from your
work to the lights, etc. Take lots of brackets to
help you compare your notes with the final film. Repeat
the process as many times as necessary to fine-tune
the details, and keep your notes for future reference.
- Use a camera tripod to prevent unwanted
movement. A stable camera allows you to focus your
attention on straight edges, lighting, etc.
- If your works tend to be about the same
size, consider painting sheets of plywood white to
make hanging simple.
- Purchase (or rent) inexpensive light stands
and lights. Choose lights that are balanced for daylight
and make sure your film is compatible with your particular
type of lights.
- To maintain the textural quality of your
work, use low-angle side lighting.
- Shoot straight on (unless you have an
interesting background that warrants a side-view shot),
taking extra care to make sure the edges are square
through the lens.
- Evaluate your finished film with a critical
eye using a loupe or magnifying glass with a light
source behind the film. In addition to the technical
problems mentioned in the captions below, also look
carefully at the lightest and darkest areas of your
images for highlight detail. These areas should not
be solid blocks of white or black.
- A note on digital images: Although digital
cameras and scanners are great for images that will
be viewed on a computer screen, they are rarely acceptable
for magazine or catalog publications. Be sure you
understand the resolution and size requirements of
your intended audience before committing to a digital
Common Technical Problems
Photos: Evan Bracken
|The uneven lighting in
this photo causes a portion of the image to be too
|Overexposed (shown) and
underexposed images result from too much or too
|Using a light source whose color balance
is incompatible with the film can throw a color
tint over your work. Ask a professional in a photography
shop to recommend the correct film.
|Competing backgrounds can distract
from your piece. Although some backgrounds can be
removed during the production process, doing so
adds time and money.
Dawn Cusick is an art director at Fiberarts Magazine
and an editor at Lark Books.