Photographing (painting) the Dolls' House

Recently, when asked about my photographs which are featured in William L. Bird, Jr’s book, America’s Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford(more than 280 images of 23 rooms), I had to reply that it was more painting than photography.

The Dolls' House, on display in the museum, 3rd Floor West.

In 1839, upon viewing a daguerreotype, French painter Paul Delaroche declared, “From today, painting is dead.” (It must be noted that the quotation, attributed to Delaroche cannot be confirmed). Delaroche, however, seems to have been a champion of photography, saying on one occasion, “The admirable discovery of M. Daguerre has rendered an immense service to the arts.” Apocryphal or not, the sentiment that something “better” than painting had arrived was surely out there in the mind of some photographic pioneer, but painting survived and photography thrived.

The advent of digital photography has again revolutionized visual art. When I began my career as a photographic printer in 1974, I used dodging tools, burning-in, and split contrast printing to enhance negatives and produce prints in a dark room. Even though today much of this work is done on computers with digital imaging software rather than in the darkroom, the words of Ansel Adams still hold true: “The negative is the score, and the print is the performance.” Digital photography has expanded the painter’s palette and ability to perform almost beyond belief.

It was with this digital palette that I approached the Dolls’ House. In 2010, a new fiber optic lighting system was installed in the Dolls’ House in preparation for a reinstallation of the exhibit, and new photography was required to document the new lighting system. The new lighting system is made up of lamps located outside and below the bottom panel of the case. The fibers carrying the light are attached to tiny fixtures with barn doors that allow for the dramatic illumination of the features in each room including making the ceiling fixtures appear to be lit. Not wishing to reinvent the wheel, I decided to use the existing lighting system and only minimal extra lighting, and this was where digital photography played a key role.

In color film photography there are two important aspects to consider: the color of the light source and contrast. When using film you have to balance the film choice with the light source, using either tungsten film with incandescent lights or daylight film with flash. Other light sources may require the use of filters to obtain the correct color. Extreme contrast ranges of light to dark in a scene may call for the use of negative film rather than transparency film. Digital photography simplifies these issues by using a combination of files called RAW files and image processing software. Using “layers” in image processing software can resolve the problems of color and contrast.

Roomlight Room-dark Final-image
A light exposure (top left) and a dark exposure (top right) combined to create the final image (bottom).

I wanted to record the perspective of being in the room. To do this I used a studio stand (basically a large column with horizontal arm that lets the camera move both up and down and side to side) to set up a camera with a 16mm lens level and parallel to individual rooms. The studio stand made it easy to “track” across each story of the house, and move from floor to floor. As illustrated above, I photographed each room, taking several exposures from light to dark to provide detail from shadows to highlights. Color balance was finalized in the image processing software by locating a neutral grey panel and the rooms were all balanced to that. The bracketed exposures were combined in layers, and light or dark areas were “painted” in using a layer brush tool in the image processing software. Finally, any distortion from the 16mm lens was corrected in image processing. The image was sharpened and saved. In all, some 280 exposures were taken to photograph the twenty-three rooms. The final product, as seen in Larry Bird’s book, is as much a work of digital painting as it is digital photography.

Hugh Talman is a photographer with the National Museum of American History.