Photographing Glass: a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach
I was fortunate recently to be given the opportunity to photograph a very diverse range of studio glass that represents both local and international blown-glass artists, many of whom are still working today.
There is a tenacious flare about this collection, a charm and wit that showcases the true wizadry of these artists who turn the everyday into works of art.
Photographically, there were many challenges. These objects were made of layers of molten glass fabric, blown and hot-styled into a myriad of highly reflective and often colourful forms. They needed an equal measure of expertise when it came to lighting.
The broad range of artists and the many complex shapes and sizes meant there was no 'one size fits all' approach.
The importance of light
The position of light, whether it is from the sun or from a studio light source has the same impact. As it moves across a landscape or object, light shifts highlights and shadows, essentially transforming what we see.
A beautiful example of how transformative light can be is the effect it has on ice. Imagine the underbelly of an antarctic landscape where diaphanous layers of ice let light penetrate the darkness below weaving patterns of light and shadow that transform the underwater landscape.
For me this is not dissimillar to how light passes through layers of glass at different densities. Studio lighting gives you the control to do a similar thing, as shown in these photos. You can specify where you want the light to fall, to reveal everything or draw attention to just one part.
This Jekyll-and-Hyde approach illustrates the two ways I approached this collection, often at odds with each other. Archival photography requires a level of uniformity. As professional photographers, we're responsible for providing an accurate depiction (or "digital surrogate") of the physical object. This means the final image should have even exposure, true colour, and accurate perspective.
The problem with this method is it restricted how I could illustrate the unique and beautiful ways some pieces reacted to light under different conditions. Accurately measuring everything created limitations on how I could use light. Some of these pieces completely transformed under more targeted and often experimental lighting conditions, creating a unique perspective that one would not often see.
I’ve always had an innate curiosity to look beyond what is in front of me, to strip layers of conformity back in order to gain a deeper understanding of what I see.
An example is this glass paperweight, produced by the artist Tony Kuepfer in 1988. In this photo I've split two images of the object in half to show how adjustments to light and background can bring different elements of the glass to life.
The object is accurately exposed on the right and more targeted on the left.
By making slight adjustments to the background and position of light, I was able to highlight the many internal layers of contoured glass within the object.
This gave me the freedom to show something a little more fantastical about this particular piece that you would unlikely see under normal lighting conditions Similarly with this glass vase, by John Abbott.
The transformation from one lighting setup to another was incredible and a great example of how both are equally important in illustrating the beauty and workmanship that has gone into its production.
What this collection taught me was the importance of an open-minded approach. Get yourself set up in way that allows you to interchange, expand and experiment with your setup while being as efficient as possible.
Free up your time to discover all the nuances that make objects like these so unique. You can’t inspire others if you're not inspired yourself.
Learn more about the objects discussed in this article by browsing our Collections Online database.
Want to read more about glass works in our collection? Read "Studio glass in Aotearoa" by Grace Lai, and "Fluid glass" by Rigel Sorzano, essays in our online component to Crafting Aotearoa, a recent book-length survey of local makers, forms, and media.
Cite this article
Photographing Glass. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 7 April 2020. Updated: 11 March 2021.