Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Capturing the Collection: The Bata Shoe Museum’s Imaging Project

By Suzanne Petersen McLean (Collections Manager), Nicole Dawkins (Collections Management Assistant- Artifact Handler) and Christine McLean (Collections Management Assistant- Photographer) 

Over the last two and a half months, photographer Christine McLean and I have been working our way through the Bata Shoe Museum’s incredible artefact storage rooms, as part of an ongoing collections management project to photo document the over 12,500 (and growing!) artefacts in the collection. This multi-year project, which began in 2008, is helmed by Suzanne Petersen McLean ( the Museum’s Collections Manager.

The colour, digital images we produce will replace out-of-date black and white analog (film) photographs, and will be linked to the artifact records in the museum’s collection database— allowing museum staff and researchers to see and identify the objects without having to visit artifact storage. In the future, these images might also be used in exhibition catalogues, research publications, on the museum website, or even things like calendars and greeting cards.

As photographer, Christine has been primarily responsible for lighting, operating the photographic equipment, and producing clear and professional shots. My role has been in carefully transporting, positioning, and preparing the artefacts for photography. This project is also very collaborative— we work together on composing each shot, and share the job of processing the images in Photoshop as well as preparing and managing the image metadata to be uploaded to the database. Christine and I have also had the opportunity to switch roles and try our hands at object handling and photography, respectively. (Christine was pretty excited to finally be able to touch the objects we are shooting!).

Sole shot of black silk lotus shoe with elaborately embroidered sole featuring fish, lotus flowers, roots, and seed pods. 

The main purpose of documentation photographs is, of course, to document: to record the important details and the unique or significant features of each artefact. With shoes, this usually includes capturing an overall shot of a single or pair of shoes, a profile shot, a sole shot, and often one or more close-up shots of details like embroidery, fine decorative elements, labels, and signs of wear.

Beyond just documenting, we are also trying to create compelling and aesthetically pleasing shots that are applicable for a variety of purposes. For the purpose of this project, we have had to find a balance between capturing each artefact as it is (unruly threads, lopsidedness, unsightly wear and all) and trying to capture them in their very best light.

Aside from a short period of scanning archival material, lithographs, and other flat material— while our camera was sent out for repairs— most of our time has been spent photographing clogs and Chinese lotus, or bound-foot, shoes. What a contrast between the large, dark and rugged (often worm-holed) wooden clogs and the bright, tiny and dainty, intricately hand-stitched lotus shoes!

Sole shot of early 20th century Dutch clog, covered in woodworm holes. 

When we were told we should start with the clog collection, I think we were both imagining working with identical hand-carved, clunky, unfinished wooden shoes.

Unfinished clogs. What we were imagining most of the clogs in the collection would look like...   

As we progressed, we came to appreciate “clogs” as a much broader and interesting category of footwear. We photographed clogs intricately carved with flora or portraits, massive leather bog boots, and clog roller skates!

Not your average clog: beautifully carved wooden mule. (BSM Image S84.0194)

Working through the clog collection, we came to learn the fine art of positioning shoes. Pairs of shoes look really awkward when posed “unnaturally”— in a stance that a one would never take when actually wearing the shoes. It really helps to think about the personality of the person who would have originally worn the shoes— the strong, wide stance that seemed appropriate for bog boots, for example, just wouldn’t work for posing Louboutin stilettos.

These tall leather bog boots have stiffened into this position – a ghostly trace of the man who once wore them.  

Photographing the lotus shoes, we also had to be aware of capturing the complex stories recounted through the hand-embroidered characters, motifs and visual puns that decorate these shoes from toe to heel, to sole.

This lotus shoe from Shanghai features a complex embroidered motif expressing a bride's desire for her husband's career success.

It wasn’t difficult to appreciate these shoes as beautiful objects, with their bright colours, the incredibly fine stitch work, and striking sculptural form. Working so closely with the objects, it became more interesting to notice and capture signs of wear and tear. A surprising number of lotus shoes have visible dirt and mud caked into the soles, evidence that they were actually worn, walked, and even laboured in.

Red silk wedding shoes with red soles showing caked dirt and signs of wear. 

The Imaging Project, funded in part by the Young Canada Works program, has enabled us both to gain hands-on collections training and experience, as well as a rare opportunity to work intimately with hundreds objects from the Bata Shoe Museum’s collection to (hopefully) capture the multi-faceted stories they tell.

All images copyright © 2014 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto (Photos: Christine McLean and Nicole Dawkins)

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