The discreet charm of museum photography: the background
Casing supported by SphynxesPhoto (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique) / Christian Jean
The choice of background has considerable influence on the rendering of a photo. Be it paper, velvet, formica, PVC, or “arctic white” or royal purple in colour. In the case of a museum photo, it also serves as an interesting window through which we can observe the evolution of practices over time and for given operators. This will become clear at the end of the article.
In praise of discretion
If the reader has the impression that they are looking at the actual piece when browsing through a catalogue, that means the photographer has done a good job. This profession requires you to either be invisible, or at least emerge from that which is photographed. During my years as a photography student, I didn't associate the reproduction of the works of art that I would come across in the metro, with the discipline I was studying. I was in direct contact with the piece, and the poster presented some kind of imprint appearing as if by magic. I would completely remove the interpretation stage which today constitutes the essence of my current profession.
The photo of a piece of art is like the performance of a score
An analysis of the background (brightness, hue, gradient, in situ background or paper background...) serves as the most obvious indicator in terms of understanding the style of a still life photographer. To sum it all up, this work involves sublimating the works of art and the elements of a national heritage that you have been entrusted with. Assignments of this kind essentially leave little room for letting your imagination go wild. Except that in reality there are many tiny cracks through which you can espy the individual and their artisanal approach, or even the era and the trends of another time. All these signs reveal the personalities behind a practice that is not so standardised. Like in the performance of a score, although the museum photography requires, above all, respect and understanding of the original piece, it also demands the operator to add their own approach, in order to offer a vivid result.
The practices in effect nowadays
Currently, light-grey backgrounds are quite popular. The famous vertical gradient which adds a touch of life to still life is still relevant today. It has evolved, however, and is now wiser than its predecessor of the 2000s, which would go from snow white to absolute black in a matter of a picture! Plastic backgrounds with an already “drawn” gradient are also no longer popular. Today, the backgrounds we use are in paper; they come in the form of a roll, and the hues range from very light grey to very dark grey, to adapt to the hue of the piece being photographed. Some work on it with practically a single colour, others with more distinct gradients, some like to give it a cold hue (blue or cyan), others prefer “neutral” grey (that is without a prevailing colour...). Merely with these subtle nuances a style emerges, which allows you to recognise the photographer who worked on it, simply by observing how the background was “worked on”.
Old and exotic practices: an archaeology of photos of works of art
It’s while preparing a photo shoot and while gathering old shots of a piece to be photographed the following day that I realised that this discipline was subject to fashion, or at least to dominant practices. The photos in question, in spite of being well lit, would instantly appear dated. For example, backgrounds that are completely black, bright blue in colour or red carpet made me feel like I was in a different time. Closer to us, the luminous halo applied to the background to detach a piece was a huge trend in the early 2000s. These backgrounds are somewhat the carbon dating of museum images. Other signs also help dissect the work behind the reproduction of a piece: the softness of the light, how the shadows or reflections have been presented, the format of the image used... There is such a palette of hushed language that can be detected on post cards at museum shops, or on 4 by 3 posters...
The reproduction of a work of art has a clear goal: to offer the spectator an instant connection, without interference, with a piece that they cannot go and look at directly. In the absence of an ISO standard, which fortunately will never see the light of day, the exercise is subject to practices, inspiration of the moment, the mood of the day and therefore fashions. As the latter occur cyclically, expect to soon see works reproduced on a red carpet background.