Carrying the Past

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A photographic tribute to bags

Our constant companions, bags reflect the needs and wants of the generation they serve. Singular in purpose, universal in use, bags are a wonderful tribute to human creativity, ingenuity and practicality. Photographing Auckland Museum's collection of bags for Carried Away: Bags Unpacked gave Auckland Museum Collections Photographer Jennifer Carol insight into just how diverse the ubiquitous bag can be.
Constellation, 1998, by Emily Siddell.  Purchased with funds provided by the Charles Edgar Disney Trust, Auckland Museum Collection: 1998.45.2

Our constant companions, bags reflect the needs and wants of the generation they serve. Singular in purpose, universal in use, bags are a wonderful tribute to human creativity, ingenuity and practicality. Photographing Auckland Museum’s collection of bags for Carried Away: Bags Unpacked gave Auckland Museum Collections Photographer Jennifer Carol insight into just how diverse the ubiquitous bag can be. 

Carried Away: Bags Unpacked showcases more than 150 individual bags from Auckland Museum’s collection, many on display for the first time. 

The job of a museum photographer is to produce a visual narrative that is both wondrous and authentic. Recognition that each object has a story and historical significance that goes beyond the physical. Discarded raffle tickets, worn notes and rouge pink blush are just some of things found tucked inside these bags. Broken threads, worn hinges, missing beads and weathered cracks, snippets of a life once lead.

Like all things, bags have evolved over time. This collection gives the viewer a broad insight into this history. Society’s current use of heavily manufactured plastics and other faux fabrics are starkly different to the natural materials and hand stitching of the 18thcentury. Similarly, the woven material from the Māori and Pacific collections show a mastery of craft that has been passed down over time, raw materials expertly used to produce something not only practical but beautiful to look at.

Coin purse (front and back), 1870. Auckland Museum Collection: T1143.1

Image (banner): Crossbody bag, 1980s, by Bruno Magli. Auckland Museum Collection: 2005.36.41

Object vérité 

The role of a Collections Photographer is to create a visual surrogate of the real thing. Images are handled in the same way museum objects are handled, with immense care and attention to detail. Museum conservators have put clear protocols in place which dictate how objects can be handled, which helps to reduce stress which could compromise the longevity of an object. 

Handbag and purse, 1990s, by Louis Ferrier. Auckland Museum Collection: 2016.7.19

The same applies to creating an image. We use as few processes as possible to ensure the integrity of the digital file is maintained. We don’t do post production or adjustments once the photograph has been taken. We do this because the more changes that are made to a file, the more likely it could be compromised or become unreadable by software in the future. While there are differing opinions on whether this is best practice, we aim to ensure our image files are as robust as possible.

Shoulder bag (detail), 1970s. Auckland Museum Collection: 2003.4.22
Ese (man’s ceremonial bag) (detail). Auckland Museum Collection: 2002.28.15

Before any object is photographed there are many things to consider, and these bags were no different. 

Firstly, it’s important to have an overview of the entire collection which the object is a part of to ensure its context is understood. It is not always possible to have the entire group of objects laid out prior to starting photographic work, due to the sheer size of many of the Museum’s collections, so the Collection Managers help fill the gaps through explanation.

Once you have a good understanding, the following needs to be determined for each bag:

Physical space: How much space is required to photograph the object? Is it big or small? There are often five other photographers working in one room so space can be hard to come by. 

Manoeuvrability and fragility: Is the bag easy to move? Does it have loose parts, broken threads or fragile fabric which mean you have to be extremely cautious with movement so as not to damage it further? 

Type of material and colour: Is it shiny or metallic? Or is it transparent or very light in colour?

With this information the studio setup is planned. Variables such as what kind of light will be used, what surface the bag will be photographed on, what type of lense will be required, and what, if any, additional aids will be required to support and protect the bag during photography.

At the most basic level you want the image to be evenly exposed and to ensure it is colour accurate. You also want to highlight the textures such as whether it is gloss, matte or whether it has cracks or tears – everything that tells the story of the bag. Once this has been set up, a series of test shots are taken for approval. 

As this collection of bags is particularly diverse, I established a lighting setup that was modular in design. There were three setups: catering for upright handbags; purses that need to be laid flat and; a change to black that served the more reflective materials really well.

Below are examples of three differernt lighting setups for three different bags.

Purse (detail), 1800–25. Auckland Museum Collection: 8734

Fantastic Bags

This collection is fascinating from a design perspective as well as from a historical one. Rich fabrics and woven thread have been crafted into elaborate motifs. Red leather snakeskin, blue silk, chain-mail linked purses and porcupine quills threaded into flower patterns are just some of the materials that I handled. An albatross foot fashioned into a purse by a sailor, a gift for his sweetheart. Silver and gold glass beads, cream linens and brocaded silk, couched metallic thread, peach silk and purple velvet. Bags with silver linings. An elaborate selection of wonderfully diverse objects. 

A purse made from carved bone is a favourite. It features an image of a ship’s anchor entwined in a cross with a heart at the crossroads. The bag’s frame is rusty and the inner lining faded red with small fabric divides. In preparing it to be photographed, a green folded note was found inside, tucked away, almost missed. When it was unfolded it revealed a little more of the bag’s history: a 50 cent note dated March 1863, fractional currency or shinplasters, introduced by the United States Federal Government following the outbreak of the civil war.  

Equally as fascinating is the Chatelaine bag. Visually, it doesn’t appear to be a bag but practically it held a great deal. It is often described as an ornate belt with a hook or clasp from which a number of chains are hung. At the end of each chain is a tool or personal item that is useful or holds value to the person wearing it, such as a key, pair of scissors, a notepad or perfume. In French the word Chatelaine means ‘mistress of the castle’ which was most widely used in the Victorian era when a women’s job was primarily to run a household. The ability to carry these items with you at all times was very practical. Chatelaines were also a status symbol – better quality metal and adornments of precious stones showed the wealth of those who could afford them.  

Chatelaine (detail), 1900s. Bequest by Miss ME Lavers, Auckland Museum Collection: M571

As well as an insight into the history of bags and their designs, this collection showcases the work by very talented New Zealand artists. Through fine craftmanship and innovative design, they have created platforms for self-expression. Bags of fine copper wire crocheted into patterns. A kete design using 36 inch film woven into strips. Rose tinted molten glass delicately fashioned into the shape of a bag.

We are home, 2008, by David E Thomas. Auckland Museum Collection: 2017.55.1

It fascinates me that an object that serves such a basic purpose says so much about the time in which it exists. Maybe that’s not surprising given we carry it with us almost every day. Its value is held in both the functional as well as in the objects it carries inside. Photographing this collection has extended what I do as a photographer beyond the technical. It has cemented my view that to truly optimise your approach to photographing anything you need to find its uniqueness and explore ways to bring that out in a visual way.  

Blog written by Auckland Museum Collections Photographer Jennifer Carol

This article was originally posted on the Auckland Museum’s blog and can be found at the link below.
https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/discover/stories/blog/2019/carrying-the-past

Thank you to Jennifer Carol and the Auckland Museum for allowing us to share this post.

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