Episode III – Mariners Still Sailing Together…Apart

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Rachel, the Museum's Information Specialist, searching the archives.
Rachel, the Museum’s Information Specialist, searching the archives.

Episode III – Digitization of the Print

In a museum not so far far away there’s not just one, but two Mariners’ crew whose work is so interconnected that even a pandemic can’t change that. Now, our Library Information Specialist and Cultural Heritage Photographer are discovering what “working closely” looks like at a distance.

A Reference in References

An unassuming white door is nestled in the center of a white wall you’d never even notice was there unless someone pointed it out to you. Through that door is what we call Gallery 1. Inside it, a large table fills the front of the room to lay out large items. It’s filled with books, photos, drawings, and the most high-tech shelves I’ve ever seen! Seriously, these are not your grandpa’s stagnant library shelves. With the push of a button, they slide together, closing one aisle and revealing the next aisle of records.   Read more

Mariners Still Sailing Together…Apart – Part 2

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Noelle preparing to package & ship our most popular models, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia/USS Merrimack. Ordered via our online gift shop. (All images in this blog: Amanda Shields/Mariners’ Museum & Park)

The Gifts That Keep Giving 

Back in April, at the height of Virginia’s stay-at-home orders and less than a month into the museum’s work-from-home status due to the pandemic, the only staff still physically working at the museum at the time were a skeleton crew of essential personnel. Noelle, our visitor services manager, was working from home when she noticed an order come through the online gift shop. Problem was, all of the packing and shipping had to be done while physically in the museum gift shop, but not only was the museum closed, even our park was closed. With everything going on in the world and the museum itself, I’m sure no one would have blamed Noelle for responding to the customer that the museum was closed and we just couldn’t fulfill the request at this time. After all, it was a small order from out of state, just toy models of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. Instead, she reached out to the buyer to find out more and discovered that it was a father buying the ships for his 6-year-old son’s birthday which was coming up that weekend. He explained how much his son loves the story of the Monitor and the Merrimack. Noelle told him we would make it happen; if the items were shipped by Monday they would reach the family in New York in plenty of time for the little boy’s birthday that weekend. She came in Monday, packaged the models, and even included a note wishing the little mariner a happy birthday. She then confirmed that the item was picked up, and upon receiving the tracking number passed it on to the family. This special kind of dedication and empathy isn’t found everywhere, but it’s here, even behind the scenes, at the Mariners’ Museum. 

In this exclusive behind the scenes series, I am introducing you to several members of our Mariners’ crew who are still manning the ship even though our beloved museum remains closed to the public. Allow me to introduce you to the resourceful and dedicated leader of our visitor services department.   Read more

Mariners Still Sailing Together…Apart

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Ages of Exploration Gallery. (All images in this blog: Amanda Shields / The Mariners’ Museum and Park.)

A Teaser Trailer

Have you been wondering what it’s been like at The Mariners’ Museum since our temporary closure due to the pandemic? Take a look at what I’m calling the “Teaser Trailer” in a series that brings you behind the scenes to observe the people and places of our beloved Museum in a completely different light..literally! This series will give you a whole new view of our galleries and our team members during the closure. The Mariners’ Museum may be closed to the public at the moment, but we have not abandoned the ship.

The Galleries

The exhibits, usually so full of light and laughter, now stand still, dark, and quiet. The emergency lights cast deep shadows, beckoning to be photographed. With everything so quiet and still, the sound of each creak and tap is heard throughout every gallery. If I didn’t laugh at myself getting spooked I probably would’ve high-tailed it out of there!    Read more

May flowers bring … Pilgrims???

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Model of Mayflower
Mariners’ Museum model of the merchant vessel Mayflower (1606-1624)

The rainy weather this last week of April caused me to make an idle remark to my husband about April showers bringing May flowers. With a sly look on his face, he asked me what May flowers bring.

Now I am the youngest child of 2 youngest children and have no children of my own. I had absolutely no clue he was talking about the groan-worthy second grade joke about Mayflowers bringing Pilgrims. I can see you now, gentle reader, wincing at the memory.

But beyond the famous Pilgrim-carrying ship of the early-17th century, there were lots of ships named Mayflower, some with storied pasts, and other just beautiful to behold.    Read more

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

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Our Future Lies Upon the Water by Arthur Fitger ca 1901

I was going to come up with some witty lyrics; I swear I was, but it was too tough!

I’m fortunate. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to remind yourself of all the things for which you are grateful. For one, I am thankful that I get to photograph a collection as broad and as deep as that of The Mariners’ Museum. I miss my studio terribly, and I cannot wait to get back to taking photos of some spectacular artifacts. In the meantime, I’ve been taking a look back through some of my favorite images. I love some of these photos because of the object itself. Others I love because they represent breakthroughs in my photographic process. Some I love just because I think they look cool! Here are my ten favorite artifact photos from the last four and a half years.

Note: If you would like more information on any of these artifacts, click the photo for a link to the catalog record.

Number 10:

Some artifacts are my favorite because they presented me with a challenge. Very few have been quite as challenging as the painting entitled Our Future Lies Upon the Water by German artist Arthur Fitger (1840-1909).

The first major issue was the size. The entire piece stands at about eleven feet tall. Because it is so big, it could not be transported to the studio and had to be photographed in the storage room. It also confronted me with a very dark but varnished frame with a lot of details and angles, as well as the painting itself, which is a flat surface.

How do you light for all of those things? The answer is to do multiple exposures with multiple lighting setups and merge them digitally. That composite then got cut out of the grid-wall background against which it was photographed and placed on a gradient.

The painting remains one of my favorite artifacts that I’ve photographed because it represents a lot of thought and hard work to get it all figured out. 

Number 9:

Edwin Tappan Adney was an American-Canadian artist, writer, and photographer. We are lucky enough to have a collection of his scale bark canoe models at The Mariners’ Museum.

This beech bark canoe is based on those used by the Yaghan people of Tierra Del Fuego, an archipelago divided between Chile and Argentina. Despite a cold and harsh climate, the Yaghan spent most of their time completely naked and kept warm with extensive use of fires which led Ferdinand Magellan to dub it Tierra Del Fuego, the land of fire. They even had firepits in their canoes!

This is one of my favorite photographs because of the story behind the item but also because it was the first time I got to shoot one of Adney’s gorgeous canoe models.

Number 8:

On the list of photographs I love because the item is just plain cool, you cannot beat the tattoed man.

The artifact is a scale plaster cast of a sculpture called “The Swimmer” by Swedish sculptor Johan Borjeson. Tattooing pioneer August “Cap” Coleman delicately designed the tattoos on the figure using black ink filled in with orange and blue wax pencils and crayons. The sculpture stands at just shy of two feet tall, which tells you how small and intricate the designs are. It served as a sample of work in Coleman’s Norfolk shop for years.

The most exciting thing about photographing this piece was that it worked like a portrait shoot. Portraits are my favorite genre of photography. I enjoyed being able to apply the same principles to bring life to the object.

Number 7:

There are not many things more exciting than an artifact with a secret. We happen to have a lot of those in the collection, and I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph quite a few. My favorite, however, is this unassuming trophy.

At a glance, you could easily dismiss this item as a trophy presented for some small, local race and nothing more. It isn’t intricately designed or particularly beautiful. That is precisely what the designers would like you to think, anyway.

Remove the bottom of the trophy, and its hidden secrets reveal themselves. It turns out this “trophy” is a prohibition-era citrus juicer and cocktail shaker. A similar piece from The Museum of the American Cocktail includes a label stating: “…when presented, it is a loving cup. Rearranging the components renders a workable cocktail shaker. This is an elegant example of how otherwise civic-minded citizens were transformed into outlaws by Prohibition.”

Number 6:

One of the most satisfying things you can do as a photographer is to take a simple object and make it beautiful. This red ship light fits the bill perfectly. Not much is known about this specific lantern. We can roughly date it to the 19th century, but that’s about all.

Colored lamps, in general, are essential navigational tools. Red lanterns, like this one, are attached to the port side of a boat, which would indicate to oncoming vessels that the ship is to their right.

The photograph is sort of the result of luck. I was adjusting a light when it shone through the red glass and lit up so beautifully. It took some experimentation and a little Photoshop, but I was able to get the red glow to show up bright and clear. The pops of color help to make this image more than just a basic lantern.

Number 5:

As you may have already noted, I’m usually pretty reserved with color when I’m photographing artifacts. There are a few reasons. Chiefly, I don’t want a colorful background to skew the colors of the item itself. Sometimes, however, an item calls out for a colorful background.

This model of a Kwantung Junk felt particularly suited to a background other than my normal greys and blacks. The warm wood tones and the tan sails are complimented by the red backdrop making for a harmonious color palette. This is one of my favorite images for its pleasing colors.

Number 4:

I love swords. There’s something so elegant and refined about a sword. It’s one of the reasons I love the fantasy genre of books, movies, and video games. This photo already gets high marks because of what it is. More importantly, however, this photo was a breakthrough in my process.

Until this image, I was photographing swords laying flat. Boring! They always looked so…bleh. I was struggling to find a way to photograph some of my favorite items in a way that made them have some serious punch. With this shoot, I finally found my answer: monofilament. Yeah, fishing line, if you can believe it, is the way to get these beautiful implements to look the way I imagine them. Strung up to a cross beam and resting on its point gives the sword so much more presence and personality. Couple that with the spotlighting, and it’s no wonder this is in my top five.

Number 3:

This one might just be really special to my fellow camera-geeks and me. The Eastman Kodak 35mm Submarine Periscope Still Camera, Mark I was a marvel for its time.

Until this camera’s release, imaging done through periscopes was performed by taking a camera and pressing its lens against the lens of the periscope. The images were, not surprisingly, pretty bad. Kodak created a solution at the urging of Rear-Admiral Lew Parks. The result was a camera system designed to integrate directly into a sub-periscope. Not only did this make for more precise images, but the internal mirrors and viewfinder allowed the operator to use the periscope even when the camera was attached.

I should also mention that it gave me no small amount of joy to photograph a breakthrough in camera design using my 80mp medium format digital back. The latest tech used to shoot what was, at the time, also the latest tech is practically poetry. To me, anyway.

Number 2:

In many ways, the polar opposite of number seven on this list, the Lipton Cup is anything but unassuming (also, it isn’t a cocktail shaker). This ornately decorated trophy was awarded following the 1906 yacht race from New York to Bermuda.

Thomas Fleming Day, the editor of The Rudder magazine, established the competition to prove that amateur sailors in vessels under 80-feet could safely sail on the open ocean. The trophy itself was provided by Sir Thomas Lipton, which is why we refer to it as the Lipton Cup.

The cup came to my studio after returning from extensive conservation work. It was in desperate need of a new glamour shot. This artifact presented its share of challenges such as a shiny, mirror-like silver, a black base, tiny, ornate details, and so many nooks for shadows. It took a lot of experimenting, but the result is an image that shows how far I’ve come as a photographer. Not to mention, it’s a stunning piece!

Number 1:

So we come at last to number one. My favorite photo of an artifact in the past four and a half years. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

I mentioned I love swords, right? It shouldn’t be any wonder that I would pick a sword photo as my favorite. More than that, though, this photo represents hard work. This photo represents years of study and practice that I’ve poured into my job to produce the best images that I can. This photo was a culmination of trials and errors that came before it. It took monofilament, multiple exposures, and some Photoshop compositing, but in the end, I have an image of which I am incredibly proud. It shows the grace of swords. It is dynamic. Plus, those shadows? Sexy.

I have enjoyed getting to photograph such an array of artifacts in the years I’ve been at the Museum. I love seeing myself progress and improve as a photographer. I’ve cherished those moments of falling down a rabbit hole because I took a photo of something cool, and now I MUST know all there is to know about it. I cannot wait to get back into my studio, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.