Photographing large paintings in the Stanner Room

Post date: 
Tuesday, 19 June 2018

On an evening in early March 2018 members of the AIATSIS Photographic Digitisation team started to clear furniture out from the Stanner Room, the large public reading room that houses the AIATSIS library. Half an hour later chairs and desks were piled up in the corners of the huge space leaving a clear line of site between our camera and four very large examples of contemporary Australian Aboriginal painting. One of the works exceeded five meters in length.

Preparing 'Notes to Basquait: Subject Matters' by Gordon Bennett, to be digitised 

Daniel Walding, Nathan Dukes and I had been tasked to photograph these four impressive paintings.

The first two paintings were a pair of works entitled “Toyota Dreaming” by a group of five Walpiri artists. These were both 2.55M x 1.31M in size. Then there was the extravagant “Notes to Basquait: Subject Matters” by Gordon Bennett at 1.7M x 4.36M. And finally the huge and intricate “Aherrenge Country” by a collaborative group of eight Alyawarr artists. This one was the largest at 1.26M x 5.44M.

Nathan Dukes and Colin MacDougall reviewing the photographs
Nathan Dukes and I reviewing the photographs

The size of these works meant that we could not bring them into a photographic studio. They needed to be photographed in situ and we had to go to them.

What technical issues does this introduce? Many. Aside from the logistical demands and resources required for the removal and safe handling of the works, there were technical questions that were to remain unanswered until the actual shoot.

Normally the process involves paintings being delivered by our Registration Team straight into the photographic studio where we digitally capture images of the works in a controlled and familiar environment (much like a scientific laboratory).

We introduce the light needed for the photography through multiple flash units on stands at roughly 45 degrees from the surface of the artwork and at equal distances. In between the lights and directly in front of the artwork is our camera, which captures extremely high resolution images up to 200 megapixels (your normal DSLR is around 24 megapixels). The Hasselblad H5D-200MS actually takes up to six shots in a sequence and then combines them to create a huge single digital file. The resultant files have exceptional colour fidelity and allow for an extremely detailed and accurate digital facsimile to be created of original artworks.

Senior Photographic Technician, Daniel Walding, reviewing the photographs
Senior Photographic Technician, Daniel Walding, reviewing the photographs

One concern was scale. Would we be able to evenly illuminate such large paintings? The flash heads needed to be at least 20 meters away from the paintings and the camera even further away. Would the flash heads have enough power? Would new and strange physical laws of optics come into play and ruin our photos? 

Another worry was that our multi-shot camera may not actually work properly in such an uncontrolled environment. The six shot process requires absolute continuity between each shot. Any variation of movement or light and the photo will be unusable. Would the light from the flash bounce around the white interior surfaces of the large space causing the camera’s multi-shot function to error?

Both of these concerns would have shut down the project if they arose. However, thankfully, they did not. We ended up using four flash heads in total to ensure we had enough light to fully illuminate the entire surface of the paintings evenly. After each capture we inspected the file on our laptop for focus, colour and exposure via our scientific target and the results were fantastic. In fact we really could not see any qualitative difference between these images and ones we would have shot in the studio.

Now that these four large important paintings in the AIATSIS collection have been digitised, we have extremely detailed, colour accurate digital reproductions preserved for the future. 

Notes to Basquiat: Subject Matters by Gordon Bennett
Notes to Basquiat: Subject Matters by Gordon Bennett 


Last reviewed: 18 Jul 2019