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.

The Bathing Girl

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The Bathing Girl, Catalog #2000.0031.000002

Every so often, in a collection as large as that of The Mariners’ Museum, an item surprises you. You see something so strange or unique that you can’t help but fall down a research rabbit hole in a desperate attempt to figure out what exactly you are looking at. 

Thanks to Erika Cosme, Content and Interpretation Developer and Lauren Furey, Manager of Visitor Engagement, such an item came to my attention.

The original catalog record was pretty sparse and didn’t offer many clues. Only the barest information about the size, a transcription of the text, and a guess that perhaps Myrtle M’Grain was the artist. If that were the case, however, then why would the copyright belong to Burr McIntosh? Was that the owner of a print shop? A periodical? Did they collaborate? Is this work-for-hire used to illustrate a point?

Who is Burr McIntosh?

Burr was a bit of a jack of all trades. He was an actor of stage and screen, an author, a journalist, a photographer, a film studio owner, a pioneer of both film and radio, a professional level pool player, a publisher, and a lecturer. He was born William Burr McIntosh on August 21, 1862, in Wellsville, Ohio, to William A. McIntosh and Minerva née Bottenberg. His father was the president of the New York and Cleveland Gas Coal Company. Little is known of Burr’s early life until his college career, spanning Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and Princeton University in Princeton, NJ. He was a star athlete at the latter as the U.S. sprint champion and catcher on the varsity nine.

Early Career

Burr McIntosh began acting in 1885 with a role in Bartley Campbell’s “Paquita” at the 14th Street Theatre in New York. He very quickly became a star and spent half of each season in London. His most notable stage performance was that of Talbot “Taffy” Wynne in the hit play “Trilby” at the Garden Theater in New York. 

In the mid-late 1890s, Burr began his career as a photographer, working on assignment for Frank Leslie’s Weekly, an illustrated news and literary publication. He embedded in Cuba during the last major operation on the island of the Spanish-American War, the Siege of Santiago. Following his time in Cuba, McIntosh became famous as a lecturer, exhibiting his photos and discussing his time as a photojournalist. He stirred controversy during this time by publicly dismissing the courage of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The popularity of his photos of Cuba launched him further into his career as a photographer.

the Burr McIntosh Monthly

Late in 1902, Burr founded The Burr McIntosh Monthly, an illustrated periodical. Unlike Frank Leslie’s Weekly, however, the contents were less news and more lifestyle and celebrity-focused. Portraits ranged from actors to notable politicians to athletes and others. Burr also kept some of his photojournalism alive through documenting events. Burr’s artistry reflected the Art Nouveau movement of the era, and he became friends with the big names in the style. Alphonse Mucha (a Czech artist during the Art Nouveau period, best known for his highly stylized theatrical posters) collaborated on at least one cover for the magazine, and Tiffany & Co. ads made regular appearances in the periodical. The Burr McIntosh Monthly was bound in a way that subscribers could easily remove their favorite images for display. McIntosh also started selling framing and display options specifically designed for his pages, which were an unusual dimension.

“The Bathing Girl” print from our collection featured in The Burr McIntosh Monthly in 1903. It proved to be so popular that it became part of a more extensive series that included “The Yachting Girl,” “The Canoeing Girl,” and others. After its initial release, magazine subscribers could place an order for prints that came pre-matted and ready to hang. The copies cost just $0.25 apiece (about $7.50 by today’s standards) and were encased in Japanese wood veneer.

The Burr McIntosh Monthly continued production until 1910. Burr closed down his New York photo studio shortly after his financial backer, William Annis, was gunned down by a jealous husband but, that’s a story for another time. McIntosh then moved to California, where he established a film studio and artist colony and became a prominent actor in silent films. His career spanned 53 motion pictures. His most notable role being Squire Bartlett from D. W. Griffith’s “Way Down East.” 

Later Career

During WWI and later in the 1920s, McIntosh broadcast cheerful pep-talks to lift the spirits of the American public. He branded himself “The Cheerful Philosopher.” In August of 1923, he declared bankruptcy from “altruism.” Burr dedicated his remaining years to charitable works, especially collecting toys for needy families. He died of a heart attack in Hollywood on April 28, 1942, at the age of 79. His photographic collection is housed at the New York Historical Society.

Then, Who is Myrtle M’Grain? 

Myrtle proved slightly harder to track down, but it became quickly apparent that she is the titular “bathing girl” portrayed in the photograph. Myrtle McGrain (sometimes spelled M’Grain) was born on July 8, 1883, in Kentucky to Daniel G. McGrain and Delila E. Blume. 

Very little information is available on Myrtle’s life. She left Kentucky to pursue acting on Broadway, where she enjoyed moderate success appearing in shows such as “Babes in Toyland” and “The Cingalee.” McGrain also found work as a model, appearing in several issues of The Burr McIntosh Monthly, including The Bathing Girl photograph. She was prominently featured in Burr’s “Beautify Your Home” series featuring celebrities, beautiful women, prominent figures in society, and events. 

In 1915, Myrtle married World War I veteran, Lieutenant Colonel William J. Bacon. Bacon was a prominent attorney, judge, and state senator from Memphis, TN. Myrtle left the world of theater and became a well-known figure in Memphis society. Myrtle died on May 17, 1980, in Florida at the age of 96. She and William had no children.

A Collection of Stuff

Researching this item from our collection brought home a point for me once again. This strange little image, a piece of paper measuring 12×6 inches, could so quickly be passed over. It is easy to dismiss as good for a chuckle and little more. If you look deeper, though, beyond the easy to see, beyond the obvious (and the bright red lobsters), you find people. People who had lives and stories and friends and family.

That’s what this collection is all about. That’s what any museum should be about. As I like to say: this collection is just stuff, but it’s the stories — and the people — behind the “stuff” that make it important, impactful, and valuable. We have so much that we can still learn from what we’ve collected in 90 years of operation, and I think I speak for everyone at the Museum when I say we can’t wait to find more of these stories. Best of all, we can’t wait to share them with you!

New challenges in photomodeling

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Eagle Stern Carving, front

You know how some days/weeks just do not go the way you thought they were going to? New things pop up, projects that need immediate attention come to the forefront, and the plans you had change. Last week was that way for me, but in the absolute best way!

After a presentation that caught her eye at the recent American Institute of Conservation (AIC) Conference, Paige, the Museum’s Assistant Objects Conservator, approached me with a photo modeling project unlike anything I’ve previously attempted. She is working on a beautiful eagle stern board carving that will soon be going out on loan. To better photo-document the piece, Paige wanted to create an overview shot of the back of the board. Not so complicated, right?

Wrong. Hanging, propping, and laying the more than 8-foot-long piece face down were all less than ideal. But, at AIC, another presenter spoke about using photogrammetric modeling software to create orthomosaics. Photomosaics, in and of themselves, aren’t inherently complicated to compile as long as the photographer can get the right photos, but an orthomosaic orthorectifies the images to prevent distortions the subject’s shape during compilation.

The software the Museum uses for 3D modeling does othromosaics, of course, and I’ve used the feature to export perfect flat images from the 3D models we’ve created in the past, but never have I taken photos solely for the purpose of an orthomosaic.

But, that’s not all. How do you photo-model the back of an artifact when you can’t flip it over or prop it up? Paige concocted a brilliant, but complex solution – shoot the photos from below, through plexiglass! This caused major lighting and glare issues during capture, but with tweaking here and there, lots of black boards and painters tape, and patience I didn’t know I possessed; we were able to create the perfect photo set-up in about half a day.

If you’re thinking, “that’s not so long”; please remember, I am normally photographing and modeling our industrial, wet archaeological materials. Meaning, I get a brief window to take my modeling photos and I have to shoot the artifacts in whatever orientation I find them in. So, having the time and ability to fiddle with our photo set-up was refreshing, and still really frustrating.

Our results are absolutely stunning though! All the time spent in set-up, on the floor taking photos, and at the computer editing were totally worth it. I can’t wait for the opportunity to work with different materials and new challenges in the future. Thanks, Paige!

Wanna know more about this piece? Check out the Museum’s collections catalog, online: http://catalogs.marinersmuseum.org/object/CL3593.

A Portrait of the Figurehead as a Young Bear

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The first step is a single light from above.

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was
a bear coming down along the hallway and this bear
that was coming down along the hall met a nicens little photographer named Brock.

Sorry, James Joyce. You’re probably rolling in your grave at my weak attempts at imitation.

Not long ago the museum was host to the Naval Academy Alumni Association for an evening reception. During the event, museum staff pulled artifacts into the galleries from storage in much the same way we do for the Gallery Crawl each September. One such object was the figurehead of the steam auxiliary barkentine Bear.

The bear was last photographed in the late 80s or early 90s by our estimation. It seemed appropriate that she come by the studio for a new headshot. So how does one go about photographing a single object comprised of white, black and metallic gold all at the same time? One light at a time.

I began, as I almost always do, with a single light from overhead. I have a few reasons for this. First, it provides the backdrop with a subtle gradient tone. Second, we, as humans, are accustomed to seeing things lit from above. That’s where the sun is, after all. That’s also why lights are on the ceiling. It’s comforting to the eye, and it feels natural.

The bear was going to require more than just one overhead light since she was still mostly in shadow. My second step was to get the front of the bear lit as well. I did this by adding a large softbox to camera left. I added a grid to the softbox to make the light more directional and avoid ruining my backdrop toning.

I then wanted to decrease, but not eliminate, the shadows on the right side of the figurehead. Some shadows are useful to show dimension and add depth. I reduced the shadowing by adding an oversize reflector to camera right which would reflect light from the softbox at camera left. I also added two white bounce cards at an angle on the floor to reflect the overhead light into the base.

Only a few more steps to go!

The next issue I spotted was that the bear didn’t have much separation from the backdrop. This problem is easy to solve by adding what is known as a “rim light.” Rim light is a light positioned behind and slightly higher than the subject to provide a subtle glow that follows along the outer edge.

The final piece to this lighting puzzle was to give the base a little more light than the reflectors were providing. I left the reflectors in place because I liked the way they made the gold detailing look. I merely added a low light pointed directly at the front of the base to make the deep black slightly lighter and provide additional separation from the backdrop.

The end product is a figurehead that is light enough to see details but with enough shadowing left to provide dimensionality and depth. The goal with photographing collection materials is to show how it currently looks but to present it in a way that makes it pleasing.

Pieces like the bear are particularly challenging because of their variety of materials and finishes in addition to its size, standing at about five-feet tall. By adding lights or reflectors one at a time and taking a new photo with each step I can track the changes in how the object is presenting and make small adjustments until I’m happy with the result.