As photographers for the Special Collections in the University of Edinburgh Main Library, we’ve seen a fair amount of beautiful books and manuscripts, but the diversity of the collections, both here at the Library and from other locations around the University always surprises me. Many of these have been bought to us for photography over the years, and on occasion, we have had to decamp from the studio and go out to the collection. In 2012 we were asked to go to St Cecilia’s Hall to take photographs for a Calendar to promote the redevelopment project, then in its infancy. We had a fantastic week photographing harpsichords, guitars and lutes in the 18th Century Hall to place them within their context. The instruments provided us with many challenges: harpsichords are not the easiest to light to bring out the gold details and elaborate painting – particularly not in a room with mixed light sources and green walls. In one shot taken by my colleague, Malcolm Brown, we were asked to show the whole object as if looking from above. Thankfully, the curator allowed us to turn the instrument on its side, although we sometimes tell people who ask us how it was done that we had Malcolm suspended from the ceiling Mission Impossible style to take the photo. Further information about St Cecilia’s can be found at http://www.stcecilias.ed.ac.uk/about.html
Another highlight for us was the visit to the Anatomy museum to photograph the murderer William Burke’s Skeleton (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Hare_murders). On arrival at the museum we discovered that there was major building work going on outside and the drilling was causing vibrations through the floor. At the time we were working with a Hasselblad multishot which took 16 shots to build up a very high resolution image so the slightest movement would ruin the shot. We had to try to shoot in the lulls between drilling- the challenges of location photography!
We were also lucky enough to photograph the magnificent Renaissance Giambologna bronze Ecorche horse. Having decided that we wanted the photographs to be low key, dark images to bring out every muscle ripple and vein, we had to carefully light the cast so that it was distinct from the background. This required reflectors to be suspended from the ceiling to run a highlight up the neck and others to be held in place during the shots, a real team effort.
3 dimensional objects always require more thought to the lighting to bring out subtle textures and details as you can see in this image of a Gandharan Sculpture, whereas the challenge of metallic surfaces is to hide unwanted reflections.
It is always exciting to photograph these wonderful objects that have made their way into the University collections, and recently we have even seen some ‘Book Sculptures’ too.
Susan Pettigrew, Photographer