Culture Victoria

Photographing Fashion

By Narelle Wilson, Photographer National Gallery of Victoria Posted Under Digitising and Conserving Fashion at the NGV

Photographing a fashion collection is unlike photographing flat artworks such as paintings or prints. 

Photography studio, National Gallery of Victoria 
Photography studio, National Gallery of Victoria 

The three-dimensional aspect requires a different approach that encompasses numerous angles and mannequin positions as well as complex lighting techniques.   The photographic treatment is informed by the garment’s condition, history, fabric and construction techniques. 

As such, this kind of photography is a team effort between myself, the textiles conservator and the curator.  

Firstly the dressed mannequin is wheeled from the conservation lab into the photography studio on a trolley and positioned onto the background paper.  The colour of the background is chosen to best complement the work.  A clean white background suits most works but light coloured garments such as wedding dresses need something darker to stop them looking washed out and lacking in detail.  

 

Wedding dress 1885
 Unknown, Australia Wedding dress 1885 Gift of Mr. J.G. Sprigg, 1971

Then the conservator adjusts the garment until it is sitting just right.  This might involve a bit of steaming, extra padding and sometimes some careful pinning.  I pre-visualise how to best light the work and roughly set up the lights to take a quick preview shot.  It’s amazing what shows up in the image on the computer screen that we didn’t initially notice from just looking at the work; the mannequin position might not look so natural or perhaps a crease stands out more than it should.  We make minor adjustments - the angle is changed slightly, the fabric is made to sit differently or the mannequin’s arm positions are tweaked a little.   I shoot a couple more shots until we’re happy with how it’s looking. 

  

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Unknown, Australia  Dress c.1845-1850. Gift of Miss Ruth Watchorn, 1967.  

The curator and I then spend some time deciding on the best angles of the work as well as discussing details that will work both as an overall image as well as highlight important aspects of the work.  This could be to show specific construction techniques, intricate trimmings or embellishments, or elements that are unique to the garment and the maker.  Choosing details is a balance between showing enough to suggest the whole work and at the same time focussing in on the particular aspects we are trying to depict.  

 Wedding dress 1885undefined

Once we’ve got our images planned out, I am left alone to complete the photography.  I start by working more precisely on the lighting.  Some works look perfect with just two lights on them - a softbox from above and a harder sidelight to bring out texture.  Others require more lights to specifically highlight different areas and textures.  Reflectors help fill in shadows to make sure they’re not too harsh.  The shadows on the background are important too.  Lots of lights can produce lots of shadows but a single shadow on the background looks more natural.  This can take a while to achieve. 

The mannequin is then rotated in order to photograph the different sides and each time the conservator or curator readjusts the outfit so that it’s sitting correctly.  I also need to readjust the lights to account for the fabric being at a slightly different angle to the camera.  Typically I would shoot a front, back and side and at least one three quarter angle.  I then bring the camera closer to shoot a couple of details.  These are usually about shape and texture so I adjust the lights a little to best highlight this.  

Once I’m happy with my images I export them from the camera capture software into Photoshop, ready to retouch dust and scratches on the background, the mannequin stand and possibly reflectors that made it into the shot.  Once all this is done the images are uploaded onto our image database and their ‘life’ out in the world begins. 

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