November 11, 2010  |  Artists, Behind the Scenes
From the Imaging Studio: Reflections on Brancusi’s Newborn

Constantin Brancusi. The Newborn. Version I, 1920 (close to the marble of 1915)

Take a look at this sleek, smooth sculpture by Constantin Brancusi—a shimmering ovoid form seemingly floating in space. Would it ever strike you as one of the most difficult objects in our collection to photograph? Well, it is! A recent encounter with our imaging studio revealed the bronze The Newborn to be an imp of trickery and confusion for the camera, and an interesting challenge for our imaging team.

When MoMA’s staff photographers are not in the galleries documenting exhibitions, they are busy in our Queens studio fulfilling image requests from various colleagues across the Museum. Our Imaging Services department is steadily building a comprehensive image archive of all works in the collection, while simultaneously managing more urgent photography requests, including those from outside the Museum. The Brancusi request came internally, from curator Jodi Hauptman, who is organizing two exhibitions of masterworks from MoMA’s collection to be presented at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The first show, Picasso to Warhol: Twelve Modern Masters, will be on view from October 15, 2011, to April 29, 2012, and will focus on the achievements of 12 great artists of the twentieth century, including Brancusi. Jodi is bringing The Newborn to Georgia for the show, and plans to reproduce it in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Our only existing image of the sculpture was a scan of a 15-year-old film transparency. Its analog quality would have been readily apparent in the catalog when juxtaposed with the other collection objects, which were shot using newer digital technology. Seasoned photographer Jonathan Muzikar was assigned to the job, a shoot date was set, the sculpture was transported to the studio, and that was that. Or so we thought….

We knew we wanted to shoot Newborn against a neutral background and from the same angle as the existing image, so we set it up in the studio as such. The most difficult aspect of the work, from a photographic perspective, is also its greatest attribute: that spectacular, shining surface. When shot in normal light, it reflected the entire studio, including Jonathan and his camera! To quell the reflections off the mirror-like surface, Jonathan essentially encased the sculpture in white. That succeeded in eliminating the reflections. (See image #1 in the triptych image below.) But the image didn’t show off the work’s lovely, supple curves. The allover evenness of the light source suppressed the shadows cast by the modulations in the surface of the egg-like form—the flattened facet and the gorgeous, nubby lip that emerges from it. Moreover, this flat, even light source emphasized every scratch, nick, and pock in the 90-year-old sculpture’s skin. Of course, we weren’t going to resort to airbrushing away these distinctive qualities of the surface—they are part of the work, after all—but we knew we could make the sculpture more closely resemble the way it appears “in the flesh” if we made some modifications.

In the second series of imaging attempts, Jonathan shot with various light sources that brought out stark shadows, bold highlights, and high contrasts. He took more than 100 captures of the work under different light conditions, then began the arduous task of composing a hybrid image out of exemplary components of several shots. The resulting image (#2 in the triptych below) contains more than 20 fragments, ranging in size from whole chunks (like the bulk of the left half of the egg-form) to tiny slices (like the razor-thin highlight along the flattened face’s upper left rim). The sculpture certainly looked fabulous—in a haute couture sort of way—but the sensual quality of the object’s unique, lush form was lost amid the extreme lights and darks, and the shadows proved to be visually confusing, especially when jutting across the already-modulated surface.

We wanted the best of both approaches: to reveal the exquisite visual and material properties of the bronze surface (while also resisting any exaggeration of its wear and tear), and to give the work a sense of dimensionality and dynamism (while also keeping its precise form legible). So Jonathan performed some “alchemy,” as he put it, in the editing studio, eventually arriving at just the right balance between the two. The final image (#3 in the triptych below), which contains components from approximately 10 different captures, creates a sense of equilibrium that is unattainable through straight photography, due to the laws of nature and light and the fixed perspective of the camera’s eye. In the end, we think Jonathan made the sculpture appear absolutely natural—just what you would see if you happened upon it in our galleries.

Three views of Constantin Brancusi's The Newborn, version I (images 1 and 2 are study photos only). Photos: Jonathan Muzikar

The experience left me thinking about the photography show that recently closed at the Museum, The Original Copy: Photography and Sculpture, 1839 to Today. Curator Roxana Marcoci devoted a section of the show to the photographs Brancusi took of his works in his studio. Though he was friendly with many renowned photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz and László Moholy-Nagy, Brancusi preferred to assemble his sculptures in various compositions in his own studio and shoot them himself. In this way, as Roxana writes, “Brancusi used photography as a diary of his sculptural permutations.” Though our goal was to offer an objective record of the work rather than a subjective artistic portrait, it came to light that the very act of recording a work of art cannot accommodate an absolutely impartial eye. Luckily, we have technology and great photographers who can achieve organic, neutral effects through a masterfully balanced craft of shooting and editing.