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Sept/Oct 2001


Photographing Fiber
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 increases further.

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 extra time."

  • 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 shoot.

  • 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 quality results.

Do-It-Yourself Photography

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 format.

Common Technical Problems
Photos: Evan Bracken

The uneven lighting in this photo causes a portion of the image to be too dark.

Overexposed (shown) and underexposed images result from too much or too little light.

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.

This article first appeared in:

Sept/Oct 2001


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