This recurring blog series will feature virtual gallery walks with staff members from The Corning Museum of Glass. Everyone at our Museum interacts with the collection in different ways depending on the job they do and the perspective they bring. Hear from fascinating people and learn about their favorite objects as they provide a virtual peek at some of the treasures in our collection—and make plans to come see them in person when we reopen! This next comes from Andy Fortune, collections photography department manager.
I first came to The Corning Museum of Glass as a photography assistant in 1996. I had photographed glass before, both personally and for another museum, but I was never satisfied with the results. I loved the way glass responded to light, but I struggled to capture it effectively. The Museum’s head of Photography at that time, Nick Williams, generously shared his knowledge and introduced me to a whole new world of approaches to tackle the challenges of lighting and photographing glass well, and I have been hooked ever since. My own way of paying that generosity forward has been a series of blogs on the subject to help others with the same interest in photographing glass.
Glass is possibly the most humbling material for a photographer to capture. To be successful, it is critical to capture the very properties that make glass difficult to photograph—reflectivity, refraction, transparency, and translucency. As a result, it is incredibly rewarding when one can successfully capture the unique interaction of glass with light. Of course, there are some types of objects that are simply more rewarding than others, and one example is the work of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka.
The Blaschkas would not have called themselves artists. They created glass models of marine invertebrates and botanical specimens for scientific study. However, there is no better term than artistry to describe the way they achieved the accuracy and intricate level of detail that made their models so successful. In the right light, the models, particularly the marine invertebrates, almost appear to be alive. The Blaschkas were able to achieve this incredible level of artistry and realism by exploiting many properties of glass.
After meticulously studying these creatures in the wild and in their own aquariums and creating detailed drawings—many of which are in The Rakow Library’s collection—the Blaschkas used their prodigious lampworking skills and understanding of glass to render the creatures as if they are caught in motion. Just as we sometimes think of glass in terms of “freezing” a fluid in motion, the Blaschkas “froze” a moment of invertebrate action to suggest movement. This effect is particularly successful with creatures like the sea worm and anemone pictured here. The Blaschkas shaped hundreds of tiny, exquisitely delicate, translucent tentacles to create the illusion of constant movement.
However, it is the unique way in which glass interacts with light that allows us to complete the lifelike effect photographically. Glass can reflect, transmit, refract, and capture light, often all at the same time, very much like the marine creatures themselves. In an invertebrate’s marine environment, however, light acts quite differently than in air. The light underwater is less obviously directional; it bounces and refracts and, very importantly, it is always moving. Since the objects are models of living creatures, I think their photographic lighting also needs to reflect how the actual creatures might look in their environment. For example, I deliberately created a dappled lighting effect to mimic underwater light in the image of the tubeworms below. In my opinion, this lighting enhances the sensation the Blaschkas so effectively created that these creatures are moving with the current.
For the images of the Blaschka marine invertebrate models, my goal was to suggest the effect of underwater light while still isolating the creatures from their surroundings, so every detail is rendered clearly. At the same time, the suggestion of underwater lighting should be just that—a suggestion—and the final result still reveals that these creatures are made of glass.
At this time when we cannot visit the Blaschka models in person, I invite you to spend some time with these models virtually. They will reward your attention with subtle detail and amazing craftsmanship, much as they reward the photographer for every carefully placed light, reflector card, or piece of diffusion as they come to life with light.
Click here to read the previous post in this series by the Museum’s curatorial team.