Every once in a while I stumble upon photos that stick to my mind for a very long time. One of these was in Pascal’s “A tale of two OTI” back in 2015. In particular Philippe’s first image of all the skeletons lined up, looking in one direction. I was fascinated by the colors, the light, the play with depth of field, repeating patterns, and the overall spooky setup of dozens of skeletons, dead animals, built-up true-to-life. Truly remarkable!
Than, one and a half year later, my son wanted to go to the Berlin Museum of Natural Science (Naturkundemuseum). And I thought that is a great opportunity to replicate one of these images. Now, “Good artists copy — great artists steal” is nothing I fully subscribe but it’s part of a natural learning process. And I’m learning — always.
So, off to the museum. And they have this stunning hall of dinosaurs right in the beginning. OK, get in close, use shallow depth of field to blur the distracting background, compose, click …
Well, now this is not exactly what Philippe and Pascal achieved in Paris. Why is it? A quick analysis of my situation:
So now that my situation was clear, I had to adapt. What is my environment? Dark, available light, and spot lights, individual exhibits, and lot of visitors. I either had to mix both or look for empty corners and focus on details. And I have to be very fast before my son gets bored and force-drags me out of the building. I simply won’t make Pulitzer images today — but that’s OK, tomorrow is another day 😉 How would I approach the scene without Pascal’s and Philippe’s images in my mind? Release … Move on!
Yes, now we’re talking! A little tightly cropped (I was already backing up against the next exhibit and just had a 50mm equivalent lens) and, yes, the surface reflections … and blurry … But, hey, no Pulitzer today! It’s totally atmospheric to me. Move on, I lost my boy.
Now, a “specialty” of the Berlin Natural Science Museum (I’m not really sure but still …) is his Wet Collection. These are exhibits conversed in alcohol. And the exhibition is set up like an archive with room-high racks, dark lighting and then you have all these creepy, bleached-out creatures inside glass tanks.
But my son pulled me off the room and museum … The end.
Half a year later, we went there again. I now knew what to expect, stuck to the 50 mm FOV but this time with manual focus as it gave me more control, and I’ll take it slow. I explained the world to my boy, pre-visualized the scene, and when he was distracted, I raised the camera and quickly took the shot. Exhibition already changed and I released myself from the obvious exhibits last time and could focus on other things. (Often it’s totally OK to first photograph the obvious, just to release your mind.)
Earlier this year, I have been to the Berlin Asian Art Museum (Museum für Asiatische Kunst) — alone, yeah! Because this museum is moving to the new Berlin Palace in the city center (yes, we build a brand-new palace because … why not!), they had the last Japanese Tea Ceremony happen on this day.
The Asian Art Museum is located inside the Ethnological Museum and you can easily switch exhibitions. And because I’ve never been there before — and I was alone —, I strolled through the African exhibition too (and some others). What I found particular interesting were statues in all sizes, materials, occasions, times, and from all over Africa. The exhibition was quite empty, almost mystical illuminated, and these statues, dolls, and puppets mostly had a menacing effect on me. So I created a nightmarish “portrait” series, called Creatures of Horror … huuuuh.
So, there you have it. How I came from blindly copying to creating my own perspective, and having a lot of fun on the way.
But there’s this philosophical question for the end: Is photographing at museums (or any exhibitions) an act of own creativity or just documentary or just plain stealing? Copyright says it’s stealing. My take is that when you photograph one or more exhibits in the context of exhibition it’s documentary. But when you crop-in and pull it extremely out of the existing context, it can become a own statement, an own piece of art.
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