Chinese Porcelain Photography

Author: Kevin Lovelock
Senior Photographer
Photography & Imaging Department
British Museum

Currently I am working on a rather large project photographing all manner of objects for a catalogue written by a curator in the Asia Department, Jessica Harrison-Hall for the National Museum of China. This is also in conjunction with the recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between the British and Chinese governments earlier this month providing over £4M to UK Museums and Galleries. The objects range from bone china, ceramic, bronze, paintings,hanging and hand scrolls, jade and are all various shapes and sizes.

One particular piece has caused me no end of problems. The curator required a general shot and a detail showing a detail of the dragon motif. It was the dragon motif that was the problem.

As you (photographers) may be aware, most of the work we carry out is essentially a problem solving exercise whereby you are confronted by an object and you photograph it using your equipment to hand and your expertise over many years of shooting items of antiquity. Whilst trying to convey a creative style and also being sympathetic to the piece with a mind to the attention to detail of the man/woman who made it over 600 years ago. Obviously over many years of object photography, you get the feeling for how to shoot various objects. You know what works and what doesn’t. When you’re working to a tight deadline this experience becomes more profound and you almost work on autopilot. There are times, objects come into the studio that kind of set you back and if you’re like me, put that back into the safe and get on with the next piece, whilst it’s still in the back of your mind “How am I going to light that piece?”.

Franks 1a

So please look at the first shot of Franks 1a (above). This piece came to the British Museum in 1876 shortly after being exhibited in Bethnal Green Museum. In the exhibition catalogue it stated that it was a pair but only one came to the BM. It was bequeathed by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks. It is described on our object database as :

Porcelain bowl with incised and anhua decoration beneath a monochrome tianbai glaze. The sides of this delicately potted bowl flare out from a low foot ring. Six V-shaped indentations are made to the rim, suggesting the petals of a flower. Inside, beneath the yellow-tinged white glaze around the sides, is an anhua design of two prancing dragons chasing each other’s tails and separated by ruyi clouds. The five-clawed dragons are depicted in profile but with their heads twisted around to stare at the viewer rather than the dragon they pursue. Incised in the centre is a four-character Yongle reign mark written in seal-script characters. To achieve this thinness of body, the sides have been pared down before glazing. The porcelain is completely translucent and fingers can be seen through its walls when it is picked up.

It is Ming dynasty and was made between 1403 – 1424 in Jingdezhen, China.

The description seems to be quite straightforward, however what you don’t realise is that the dragon motifs are incredibly feint and they seem to be made with a white slip painted onto the same white/cream bowl. Even when viewed using transmitted light, to distinguish the motif from the background is incredibly subtle. Also when using direct transmitted light there is the problem of flare. I found that by careful positioning of the key light above and using a snoot produced the desired effect (See Franks 1b, below).

Franks 1b

You have to shoot on a dark background otherwise most detail is lost. It’s a similar problem when you’re shooting jade. I’ve found that wherever possible, not to light the object directly. The key light used to shoot this object does not fall onto the object but instead is a pool of light, actually lighting the mirror. The light is reflected into the object avoiding overspill of light otherwise this will cause flare (see Franks 1c, below).

Franks 1c

With careful attention to the depth of field owing to the shape of the object. See final shot (Franks 1d, below).

Franks 1d

Equipment List and Image Specifications

Elinchrom Micro 6000 AS power pack with a S 3000 N flash head.
Sinar P monorail camera with F5.6 180mm sinaron se lens.
Phase One P45 digital back fitted to a LightPhase FlexAdaptor for 5″x4″ camera.
Final shot was taken at f22 creating a 117.3 MB tiff file using Adobe 1998 RGB colour space.