A few years ago, I began to study photography because I wanted to better understand the presentation of any given image. With the arrival of Robert Liu’s book, Photography of Personal Adornment*, my education has been greatly facilitated. These days when our attention is always at risk of being diverted, the power of a strong photograph is of greater importance than ever.
Although this book is a more serious approach than many “how to photograph your stuff” manuals, Liu carefully guides the reader toward taking more professional and striking photographs. What Liu, master photographer, artist and co-editor of the esteemed magazine, Ornament, seeks to do in this densely packed, well-illustrated volume, is explain the intentionality and concepts that anchor the art of photographing objects. His focus is on the full range of personal adornment both past and present, but the information could be applied to shooting other items such as a ceramic teapot, a wooden bench or a basket.
After a brief introduction, opening chapters are about camera equipment, lighting and studio set-ups. Liu recognizes that technology evolves, so while at times he is specific, he also keeps the material general. Information less prone to changes in technology follows. Liu addresses the importance of a considered point of view, backgrounds and how to think about positioning objects for the photo shoot. He discusses the value of serial images, multi-object compilations and inset details as different means to educate a viewer in subtle ways. The arrangement within the photograph is crucial; Liu often refers to the ways in which the specifics of composition lead the eye through a photograph. (One might extrapolate from considering the careful composition of a single image to the placement of photos in a jury sequence.) Other chapters speak to lighting when outside a controlled studio set up such as that encountered in a gallery, museum or artist’s studio. Various aspects of using live models to feature jewelry and clothing comprise yet another chapter. Interspersed through the text, Liu will mention the need for digital augmentation via “Photoshop” or other similar programs, but he argues that it is better to get the best possible original photo rather than rely on a computer program to fix problems.
Happily, even with my fairly basic level of photographic knowledge, I was able to comprehend the information. Throughout the book, the text is enhanced via extensive explanations beneath the illustrative photos. There also is a useful glossary of terminology at the end. One downside of the visually packed design format is that text and illustrative images are often out of sync and require some flipping of pages back and forth.
As one reads, it becomes increasingly clear that Liu is interested in educating the reader about why it is important to think deliberately about the images being composed and taken, rather than in the specifics of which f-stop or an exact lighting format. Still, his 40 plus years of experience allows him to present a wide array of photographic approaches on how to record objects of adornment with a camera. He stresses the need for a basic understanding of the item being shot, either directly through the artist or some independent research. This kind of knowledge enables the photographer to identify underlying artistic aims and sometimes even cultural implications, thereby increasing the chances of a successful photograph. Intentionality, preparation and a willingness to experiment are Liu’s key elements for good results.
While Photography of Personal Adornment is about how to take better pictures, Liu’s photography is an art in itself. The images that grace the cover of Ornament are often stunningly beautiful photos, as well as superb portrayals of personal adornments. His sharing of a lifetime’s work is well informed and generous. This is a book that anyone- those who photograph their own work as well as those who have their own artwork or a collection of works photographed by another – ought to read. Their understanding of what they seek to communicate via a photographic image will be greatly enhanced.
*Robert K. Liu, Photography of Personal Adornment: Photographic Techniques for Jewelry/Artwear Craftspeople, Researchers, Scholars and Museum/Gallery Staff