Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Beryl Dean - Ecclesiastical Embroidery - Photography - Instinct

This is not Landscape photography (I haven't defected to the Textile degree either) but there is a point to this, and as it is the only photography I have completed recently I feel the need to share a day on location working way outside my comfort zone and just how rewarding that has felt. I was contacted about 2 weeks ago to photograph three Altar frontals in St Margaret's church in King's Lynn. The brief changed from time to time but the final requirement was for High Res digital images for an exhibition catalogue/book and maybe some large panels around the exhibition or on the building exterior, and maybe some postcards, so a wide range of end usages. A visit a week beforehand satisfied myself that the shoot was possible (always a pessimist until I am assured) and that there were 13 amp sockets close by, and enough space to use some short telephoto lenses etc. My engineering background always telling me "the devil is in the detail" and that is never wrong. Then I spent some time to find out more about what it was I was doing and why were these pieces so special. Beryl Dean MBE (1911 - 2001) was a embroiderer, designer for ballet, teacher and writer and an innovator in the field of 20th century ecclesiastical embroidery. Her work is at St Georges Chapel Windsor, Chelmsford Cathedral, Guildford Cathedral, St Martin's Dorking and St Gile's in Northbrook Illinois and her "Head of Christ" is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. With a modest amount of research and talking to her official archivist I realised that these pieces were special and needed my best attention. More online research confirmed my initial thoughts on technique and that there were a number of important criteria to satisfy by way of photography as the viewer of the images are likely to be specialists in this field. The images then should have no distortion, correct colour, have maximum detail and show the depth and texture within the work. Specialists are working in this area, especially one studio in the USA where the pieces are photographed from above in a massive studio with a museum quality controlled environment. The lighting needed to be even, but not flat. I needed an overcast day as on my first visit the sun was streaming through a high window onto the Altar and this, although attractive was not what I needed. The day of the shoot I was to meet the archivist and the Dean at 10:30 to gain access to the pieces, so as usual for me I was there at 08:30 (dull overcast which was good) to unload the 3 strobes, stands, boom, cables, laptop, 2 cameras, 2 tripods, 4 lenses, gaffa tape, batteries, charger, tools, softboxes, dishes, barndoors, you name it and it was in the Landrover. By 10:30 I was ready, camera set up, laptop setup on a nice big desk sort of thing where the Bishop sits (maybe not entirely the correct etiquette) and a few test shots made to prove the lighting. Once the first piece was out and in place it was obvious the lighting was wrong. The flash meter was showing even light and no ambient in the readings but it was uneven. We switched off some high level flood lighting which did make a difference, switched off the flash and went for ambient only, 1sec at f8 with the 85mm. The symmetry of the large high windows (no stained glass so no colour cast) were giving me a soft even light that was working for me and the archivist. By using the Nikon tethered to the laptop instant viewing of the large image is possible and essential to allow the specialist an opportunity to see the detail and lighting. Three items were photographed using ambient and strobes. One in particular has gold threads and these worked better using the strobes, allowing the lights within the family of angles (FoA) to produce some reflections from gold thread, which is a characteristic of Dean's work. The second part of the shoot was to shoot close up detail and even closer towards macro. I had checked the AF Fine tune on my 60mm and 105mm macro lenses, so had confidence in correct focus and these had the wow factor, showing every thread.  It was trial and error for some part when it came to the lighting. The shiny bits in the fabric were required to shine and they were only specular highlights anyway, so moving lights in and out of the FoA allowed some variety. Working as a team with the archivist was good. Her explanation of the work was interesting and her ideas changed as I showed her the Live View on the screen and some of the shots in PS with a little work to levels and sharpening. The peace and quiet of working in the church was destroyed (harsh word maybe) when the organist for the next days lunchtime recital started her practise. She choose to only do the difficult bits though, time and time again. By 14:30 we were finished, it was a difficult decision to stop but we were over our time. Equipment back in the car and totally exhausted, physically and mentally. How difficult is it to explain to anyone that taking some photographs inside a gorgeous church of three pieces of cloth had had that effect. During a late lunch we discussed the morning's work and how the images would be used and delivered to the editor and designer. All they needed from me were RAW files, so pretty much everything that was shot went on the DVD. I did a few cropped, retouched (I really didnt know how much to do here as there was damage in places) capture sharpened versions if they want to use them. Book publishers never want final sharpened files, due to variations in sharpening requirements at printing. So, apart from the  technical issues being described, is there a point to all of this being described here ?. Recently I have read a thread on a forum discussing the issues of taking on board a tutors remarks and making adjustments to your work prior to assessment. The second chance if you like, did you get it wrong first time round and do you need to make changes. Good advice for the degree process but on a day like I have just described you have few second chances, you have to produce work that is good, maybe some that is very good, without a second chance. So, what do you do ?. You research the subject, you research some techniques and you get an opinion, but in the end its your call. Yesterday the actor Sir Patrick Stewart was at the UEA in Norwich and during the graduation ceremony had the following advice for the students.  "Timidity is a killer" "My message is also about trusting your instincts. Often people second guess too much. When your instincts tell you somethings not right, trust them and act on your instincts".

I hope my instincts were right. Sending Raw files for others to post process is perhaps a little scary, but it was what was required and the results will be on display in October at the Knitting and Stitching show at Alexander Palace in October, Dublin and Harrogate in November.

No 1

Detail 1

The setup


  1. looks like you did a great job, also a brilliant write up :o)

  2. Thank you Jan for your kind comments. I (being the pessimist) am still waiting for a call saying they hate what I did.

  3. I too think this is excellent work. I particulary like how you have brought out the texture in the embroidery without making too much of it, so the colour and pattern come through also. As someone who has taken pictures of flat artworks (paintings) myself I really appreciate the challenges you faced and think you've resolevd them very well indeed.

  4. I appreciate you taking the time to post in 'Textiles'. Interesting work, and your close up gives an intriguing glimpse. Am only sorry not to be able to see the exhibition.Good luck with feedback.

  5. Thank you all once again for your comments. Since that shoot I have done a banner in Chelmsford Cathedral and a cope in St Pauls, all for the same book.

  6. Great article and excellent photos! Saw the exhibition and bought the book and postcards in Dublin as I'm writing an essay on this particular altar frontal for an art history course. Good luck with yours!