Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Art of Appreciating Art - Part I: Sculptures & Installations

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
1/640th sec at F2.8, ISO 100

I've always been inspired by walking around art galleries and other cultural precincts. Even as a child I preferred visiting the art gallery to a day at the beach. However art is not just in galleries, it's all around us. Public sculptures, murals, signs, architecture, music, the design of everyday products and even computer games are just a few examples of where art can be found outside of a gallery. Where permitted, photography allows for an excellent means of capturing the art that is most inspirational to us. As a creative medium, photography allows us to record our own personal interpretation of art. We are able to choose how we want to remember that art. The above photograph shows Ashleigh Cotterill’s temporary installation “Death by Fluro”, which was an exhibit in the Swell 2013 Sculpture Festival. I’ve chosen to use a moderate telephoto lens at an aperture of F2.8, ensuring that the chair is all in focus but leaving the beach and sea blurred. I’ve also chosen to accentuate the art by means of selective colouring.

I’ve decided to split the topic of photographing art over several blogs. I want to focus this first article on sculptures and installations. This covers sculptures in both galleries as well as those found in public spaces. It’s important to note that in either environment I always make every effort to record details of the title and artist of the work so that I can credit them should I post any of my photos on a website, such as this blog. This is important because if the artist has permitted photography of their art, it is only fair that they should be credited accordingly.

Perhaps one of the first things to consider when shooting sculptures, or anything for that matter, is what lens to reach for. Many photographers carry only one or two zoom lenses, offering them good versatility without any excessive weight penalty. I fall into the opposite camp, tending instead to shoot mainly with selection of four or five prime lenses – a kit which is not generally lightweight. However I prefer primes for several reasons. Firstly they typically offer a much larger aperture than their zoom counterparts and this is useful if you are trying to separate a sculpture from its environment. For example, instead of carrying a 24-70mm F2.8L Mk II lens (which I don’t own), I would take my 24mm F1.4L Mk II lens and my 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens. Whilst this is heavier and more inconvenient, I do have 2+ more stops of light to play with. Of course I am not able to zoom in or out with these lenses but I can simply walk closer or further away, assuming it is practical to do so.

Like all objects, sculptures will take on very different looks depending on the focal length used. Below are two of my favourite sculptures, photographed at the two extremes of focal length. The the first two photograph feature Baile Oakes’s sculpture “Gestation”. His sculpture, which was created for Brisbane's 1988 world expo, inspired me as a child. It has recently been moved into the Queen St Mall where a whole new generation of children can appreciate it. Hopefully it will have as much impact on them as it did on me. The sculpture consists of many metal rings, each nested inside the other and joined by welds. In these photos I’ve used a 400mm supertelephoto lens to compress the perspective and because of this the rings appear quite flattened with only the light giving an indication of depth. The rain adds some texture to the photo. I am happy with this result but it certainly wasn’t my first choice of lens. When I started shooting this sculpture I was convinced that an ultrawide angle lens would produce the most impact. I tried many different angles, even climbing inside the sculpture, but in the end I was just not seeing the sculpture how I did in my mind. When I tried the 400mm lens, the beauty of the sculpture was at last revealed, for me at least.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 400mm F5.6L lens
1/400th sec at F10, ISO 1600

On the other end of the focal length spectrum, the next photo shows Clement Meadmore’s sculpture “Dervish” taken with a 14mm ultrawide lens. I was literally standing within the sculpture when I took this photo. I really like the way the 14mm field of view draws in so much of the environment, almost like the world is bending around me. I used the curvaceous nature of the sculpture to my advantage in this photo, making the viewer feel like the sculpture is about to swallow them whole. Adding to this, the people walking past in the distance accentuate the unrealistic sense of scale. For me at least, this is how I want to remember this wonderfully creative sculpture.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L lens
1/60th sec at F8, ISO 1600

I mentioned before that I find prime lenses useful because of their large apertures. One of my favourite lenses for capturing sculptures is the Canon 24mm F1.4L Mk II lens. Below are two examples of sculptures photographed with this lens. In both cases, I’ve used a large aperture of F1.8 to help separate the sculpture from the background, thus providing a more three dimensional feel to the photo. The first photo is of a metal sculpture titled “Offshoot”, also by artist Clement Meadmore. In addition to using a large aperture, I’ve aimed for a high-key exposure to bring out the texture and marks on the metal surface and to avoid heavy shadows in the garden bed.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 24mm F1.4L Mk II lens
1/80th sec at F1.8, ISO 100

The second photo is of a wonderful bit of public art located on Melbourne’s South Bank, near the Crown Casino. It’s titled “Baci Red Lips Couch” by Rob DiVirgilio and it’s unapologetically red. Given it's form, it's no doubt inspired by Salvador Dali's 1937 furniture piece "May West Lips Sofa". Whilst the red certainly helps to draw focus to the lips, the large F1.8 aperture has provided a pleasing amount of blur behind the seat, whilst retaining sufficient detail on the majority of the seat. I don't think this shot would have been as successful with a slower zoom lens.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 24mm F1.4L Mk II lens
1/400th sec at F1.8, ISO 100

Another large aperture prime lens which produces stunning images is the Canon 85mm F1.2L Mk II. At just over one kilogram, it’s no lightweight lens but I think that the weight penalty is worth it for the images it produces. Below is a photograph of a rather unusual temporary art installation, consisting of cardboard heads installed in the sand at a beach. The installation, entitled “The Sirens”, was developed by “The Winged Collective - Falcini & Gottgens”. I used the Canon 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens at an aperture of F1.8 here to capture one of the heads. Although it’s the same aperture as the previous two photographs, the depth of field is much less. That’s because the depth of field depends not just on the aperture but also on the focal length and the focal distance as well. In the photo below the focal length is 85mm, compared to 24mm with the previous two. I’m also closer to the subject and these two factors combine to give a much thinner depth of field. To empathise the element of the beach that is present in this art installation, I used a very low position to take the photo. Any lower and I would have been cleaning grains of sand out of my $2,500 lens.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
1/1,250th sec at F1.8, ISO 100

Photography of art provides a wonderful opportunity to explore the connection of a particular work to its environment. For indoor works of art, such as those in galleries, that may mean capturing details about the installation itself. This is one of my favourite ways to photograph and remember art because it’s moving beyond the art itself and capturing a more complete record of my personal experience when seeing the work. It becomes more about how I remembered the art, rather than just a record of the work. Below are three examples of photographs which explore a work of art in the context of its environment. The first was taken at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), located in Brisbane. The installation was a short film entitled "This is Barbara Cleveland" by Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore, Kelly Doley & Diana Smith. I was really taken by the impact of the giant smile and so I wanted to include the room and the seating in order to capture that sense of scale in the photograph.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 24mm F1.4L Mk II lens
1/50th sec at F1.8, ISO 1600

The second photograph was taken at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), which I have been visiting since I was a small child. I have always admired the architecture of the building and wanted to capture that in a way which brought me back to being a child in the gallery. I found that a wide angle 24mm field of view, together with a very shallow depth of field rendered the scene in a warm and dreamy way and this provided the look I was after.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 24mm F1.4L Mk II lens
1/40th sec at F1.4, ISO 400

The last of the three photographs discussed here was taken at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney’s Circular Quay. Upon entering the museum, I was really mesmerised by the arrangement of orange triangles on the wall, set against the texture and shape of the polished concrete steps. I used a moderate wide angle perspective, capturing the wall together with a portion of the concrete steps. I chose to use a Canon 17-40mm F4L lens for this scene because I originally anticipated that an ultrawide 17mm perspective would provide the most striking shot. However I found this not to be the case, opting instead for a more moderately wide 36mm field of view.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 17-40mm F4L lens, at 36mm
1/60th sec at F8, ISO 800

Outdoor art installations can arguably provide an even greater opportunity to explore a connection to the world that they are in. This is particularly true for urban sculptures and the like. Below are five examples of outdoor sculptures photographed in the context of their home. The first photograph is of the sculpture “Pride” by artist Grant Lehmann, which is located in Brisbane's CBD. I’ve use a low point of view with respect to the sculpture to give a sense of empowerment to the figure and I’ve chosen a moderate telephoto focal length of 85mm to bring the buildings in a little closer.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
1/125th sec at F8, ISO 800

The second example is of a temporary installation which was located on Currumbin Beach on the Gold Coast. It was a part of the annual Swell Sculpture Festival which is held there. The sculpture is entitled “Embrace” and was developed by artist Liu Yonggang. As with the previous photograph, I’ve used a moderate telephoto focal length of 85mm which has helped to bring the background in a little closer.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
1/400th sec at F8, ISO 100

The third example was taken outside the QAG. It’s a suspended wire installation for which I cannot find any information on the artist. If anyone is aware of who the artist is then please feel free to comment that information on this blog so that I can include it. In the photograph I’ve used an ultrawide 24mm lens to emphasize the sky. I’ve chosen to expose for the sky and render the wires as a silhouette.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 24mm F1.4L Mk II lens
1/800th sec at F8, ISO 400

The fourth example features the outdoor sculpture “The World Turns” by artist Michael Parekowhai. I can remember that there was a reasonable amount of controversy surrounding the commissioning of this sculpture due to its cost. Personally, I enjoy this sculpture and I can see that many others do too. I think it was a good purchase for the gallery. I’ve used an 85mm moderate telephoto lens to capture this sculpture, choosing to frame only a select portion of it. I’ve also chosen to use a portrait orientation to emphasise the strange nature of it. An aperture of F2.8 allowed most of the sculpture to be in focus whilst rendering the mangroves in the distance out of focus.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
1/160th sec at F2.8, ISO 200

The fifth and final example is of another street sculpture located in the Brisbane CBD. This stainless steel statue is titled "The Guardian" and was created by artist Cezary Stulgis. I’ve again used an 85mm moderate telephoto lens to capture this sculpture, opting for a large aperture of F1.8. Because I’ve taken the photograph from across the road, the depth of field was sufficient at this this distance to keep most of the sculpture in focus and the background only slightly out of focus. There have been many days when I would walk past this sculpture on my way to or from work. It has always put me in the mind of a lonely stranger waiting for a bus that never came. I’ve tried to reflect that mood in the photograph.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
1/2,500th sec at F1.8, ISO 100

Including people in the scene is another way to add interest to a photograph of art. It provides a third party perspective and can dramatically alter the dynamics of the scene. Below are three examples, all of which feature my helpful son Ben. The first photograph shows Ben standing in front of the installation "People Walking" by Julian Opie, taken at the GoMA. This installation, which is a favourite for both of us, features animated people walking across a matrix of LED lights that form a large screen. By getting in close there is no discernable characters in the art itself but the LED lights are easily recognised and cast blue and red rim lighting onto Ben.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 17-40mm F4L lens, at 27mm (cropped)
1/125th sec at F5.6, ISO 3200

The second photograph shows Ben looking up towards Spencer Finch's "The Light at Lascaux" (Cave Entrance), installed at the GoMA. The art installation here consists of many fluorescent bulbs with different colours. The very bright nature of the artwork meant that the scene had a high dynamic range, making exposure in this photograph difficult to get right. After some experimentation, I chose to let the highlights blowout just enough to retain the beautiful colours in the diffuse reflection on the wall. This exposure also ensured that Ben was adequately lit by ambient light in the room. The scene is made even more interested because the lights in the artwork exposed the scratched texture in the polished wood floorboards.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 24mm F1.4L Mk II lens
1/125th sec at F4, ISO 400

The last of the three examples involves motion. The art installation shown here is entitled "Gummo IV 2012" and was created by artist Lara Favaretto. The work consists of several car wash brushes driven by electrical motors. In this photograph I’ve used a relatively slow shutter speed of 1/13th of a second to capture motion in both Ben and the art.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 17-40mm F4L lens, at 17mm
1/13th sec at F5.6, ISO 6400

The final topic I’d like to discuss in this blog is minimalism. In any field of photography, embracing the principal of minimalism can bring strong attention to the subject matter at hand. Photographs of art work can also benefit from minimal compositions and careful planning can result in elegant compositions. I have included three examples of reasonably minimal compositions below. The first photograph has captured one of the sculptures in Peter D Cole's "Man and Matter" Series, which was originally commissioned for Brisbane’s World Expo ’88. Here I’ve used a 35mm lens and an aperture of F8 to bring all parts of the sculpture into clear focus. The minimal composition was possible thanks to an upwards point of view, which eliminated the ground, combined with the overcast sky which was grey and devoid of any detail. At my chosen exposure and contrast settings, the sky was simply rendered as a white backdrop to the sculpture.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens
1/60th sec at F8, ISO 200

The second photograph features Martin Creed’s “Work no. 189”, which consists of many metronomes lined up along a polished wood floor. I’ve used a minimal aperture of F11, in order to capture the metronomes and the floor in perfect focus and to avoid any vignetting at the corners of the frame. The camera was positioned on the floor, which stabilised it during the 2.5 second exposure. The resulting photograph has very little detail at the top and bottom with attention immediately being drawn to the art and its reflection.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
2.5 sec at F11, ISO 100

The last example is of some street art at South Bank in Brisbane. Most people don’t notice this little gem because it’s suspended a few meters above them. However it’s well lit at night and a treat for anyone who thinks to look up. The statue, which is of a man riding a unicycle, was originally commissioned for Brisbane’s World Expo ’88. Photographing this particular work was quite difficult. I tried a couple of long exposures with my camera mounted onto a sturdy tripod however the photos all came out blurry. I realised after a few shots that the statue was actually subtlety bobbing up and down on its attachment wires. I had to find a way to capture the detail as best as I could in an exposure which wouldn’t register blur. In the end, not wanting to go above ISO 1600 on this occasion, I settled for 1/6th sec at F2.8.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
1/6th sec at F2.8, ISO 1600

Well that’s a wrap for post three. Thanks for reading and be sure to keep an eye on this blog if you like this particular topic. Photographing art is something that I really enjoy and I’ll be writing about this topic again very soon.