Artwatch UK

Shifting contours – and other faults with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photographs

20th January 2011

We have had a disappointing response from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Gareth Hawker’s recent comparison of its online photographs of paintings with those of the National Gallery (“The National Gallery, London: The World-Leader in museums’ online provision of photographic reproductions of paintings”).

A curator at the Met with whom we maintain a tense but productive thread of occasional discussions, suggests that it is unreasonable and naïve to expect consistent accuracy in published photographic records of paintings.
All photography, we are advised, should be considered an art not a science. Because light changes constantly and different photographers respond differently to these shifts, accurate or consistent photographic records of paintings in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection cannot be expected. This view, respectfully, we reject.

Although digital photography can be used in many ways to many ends, and provides infinite and easy means of manipulating images, it also now provides the capacity to track all alterations made to a given ‘master’ photographic file. This capacity, combined with the well-established technical procedures and simple optical/physical safeguards described so clearly in Gareth Hawker’s account, absolutely entrenches photography’s near-miraculous capacity to produce objective and verifiable records of how things appear at singular moments under particular controlled circumstances.

Given that the unprecedented testimonial capacities of this new technology are demonstrable, verifiable and replicable, it seems fair to ask why some museums fail fully to deploy it. With the Metropolitan Museum, its response to our post may reflect a wider institutional image-handling malaise.

In March 2006, we asked the Met restorer, Dorothy Mahon, who had last treated John Singer Sargent’s magnificent Madame X, what accounted for certain differences in the picture’s striking profile head that had emerged between all previous photographs and a new image seen in a plate (p.178) of the then current catalogue to the Rothschild-sponsored exhibition “Americans in Paris” (jointly organised by the National Gallery in London and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in association with the Metropolitan Museum).

Ms Mahon, who had not yet seen the exhibition catalogue, suggested that she “could only assume it is due to wide variations in publication printing quality that is regrettable but not unusual…” The discrepancies, however, were of an entirely different order. They were not the customary variations of hues or tones that have previously be-devilled all printed reproductions, but were of shapes and design within the artist’s own famously distinctive depiction of his physically arresting subject, Madame Pierre Gautreau.

To demonstrate these differences, we sent a greyscale scan (see right) showing the cover of the Met’s own Spring 2000 Bulletin superimposed over the plate illustration in the new catalogue. Greyscale was chosen so as to disregard any variations of colour in printing. I pointed to specific differences in the shape of the hair, to the fact that the bunch at the top of the head was now sharper than before, whereas the curve at the back of the head was blunter, less pointed (see illustrations, right). Of this effective redrawing of an artist’s work, on March 9, Ms Mahon replied:

…After reviewing the two images you sent I can see for myself the discrepancy which is the cause of your concern. I spoke with Barbara Weinberg, Curator of American Paintings and Peter Anthony, Chief Production Manager, Editorial. They explained to me the process by which the color reproduction of Madame X was prepared for the exhibition catalogue that was published by the National Gallery. Colour proofs that were sent by the Italian printer employed for this project by the National Gallery were sent to New York. Peter and Barbara made color correction notes on the proofs while standing in front of the painting in the gallery. The annotated proofs were sent off to London. How this image may have been altered during color correcting at the Italian printers I cannot say, but sometimes this process involves digitally masking off separate areas. Perhaps this could explain the contour shift in the hair…I can assure you that absolutely no conservation treatment has been done since 1996.

That explanation disturbed us on many levels. It suggested that technicians can introduce falsifications of images during the reproductive process – and that these may escape the “quality control” procedures of even the grandest museums. Moreover, the Met’s seeming attempted shift of responsibility to the National Gallery for the reproduction of one of its own star paintings precisely highlighted our concerns over the unclear and sometimes conflicted lines of authority that occur in the organisation of institutionally collaborative blockbuster exhibitions – as we have seen more recently to such disastrous effect at the National Gallery.

This all raised further straightforward questions of procedure: did staff at the Met retain copies of the annotated proofs they had returned to London? Did staff at the National Gallery retain copies of the corrected proofs before sending them off to the printer in Italy? Was any supervising member of either gallery’s staff present in Italy during production of the catalogue? Did anyone ever check the catalogue’s plates? Did means exist to establish the point at which the image of a great portrait painting had been corrupted? Have similar corruptions occurred in other catalogues? Why had no one at the Met noticed the changes?

Long after we had demonstrated to the Metropolitan Museum this particular photographic reconfiguring of a major “iconic” work in its collection, no attempt seems to have been made to warn members of the public who bought the expensive catalogue of the serious error within. That presumably (?) still uncorrected catalogue remains on sale. It is hard to believe that curators would permit technicians’ errors of similar magnitude in their own texts to go uncorrected. Why should errors of reproduction be treated less rigorously? Do images of artists’ works count for less than curators’ words?

Michael Daley

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Above, top: an illustration of John Singer Sargent’s portrait Madame X, published in 2006 in the “Americans in Paris” exhibition catalogue. Above, bottom: the same portrait as published on the cover of the Metropolitan Museum’s Spring 2000 “Bulletin”.
Above: John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, detail, as published on the cover of the Metropolitan Museum’s Spring 2000 “Bulletin”.
Above: John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, detail, as published in the 2006 “Americans in Paris” exhibition catalogue.
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