At the UConn Library Digital Production Lab, my student photographers and I are currently in the midst of digitizing approximately 12,000 pieces of Maurice Sendak's artwork on deposit at the Library's Archives and Special Collections. Among the objects that we've had the pleasure of photographing are a group of Sendak's hand-crafted book dummies. With these pieces, the illustrator worked through a number of preliminary art and design ideas that went towards the creation of his final well-known commercial publications.
Capturing such fragile, miniature books is challenging. Custom supports and careful handling are key elements to a successful shoot. Here's an example of how we staged one of the objects for overhead camera capture:
In this instance, the verso pages of Where The Wild Things Are are gently held back by a thin archival flex snake. The flex snake is a bit like a nylon tube sock with shot weights inside. In use, one can subtly vary its effect with gentle precision, which makes the tool well-suited for this particular application.
Flattening the recto page is a custom-cut 12”x12” piece of 4.5mm TruVue Optium Acrylic. This light-weight, museum-grade material is easy to handle, scratch-resistant and highly transparent. It is normally used in displaying framed artwork in galleries. Unlike most iron glass, it absorbs little light and imparts a minimal color cast to objects behind it.
Even so, when imaging pieces in the lab using acrylic we batch apply custom white balance values and slightly compensate normal exposure settings in post-processing. Guiding us in these adjustments are data sampled from measurable color targets which are photographed through the same acrylic as the artwork. This, in turn, helps us achieve high-level FADGI image quality metrics in an objective fashion that compare well to normal shots taken without the clear medium.
For the even smaller and more fragile The Birthday Party dummy we chose to support the front board and recto pages with an angled stack of conservation bag weights. Once again, the flex snake is used to apply resistance to the turned pages, so the verso side can be lightly flattened by acrylic and accurately photographed.
The overall speed of the entire capture workflow is mostly predicated on the individual handling needs of each particular dummy book. So, the effort is necessarily deliberate, slow and careful. In following FADGI 4 star imaging guidelines for spatial resolution of two dimensional art, we're shooting these pieces at 600ppi. What this reveals in the end are the books' finer material details as archival objects, while also casting new light on Sendak's own creative process.