The Photography Illusion

These photos show a 44.6 cm high stoneware vase, made c. 1895 by the pioneering studio ceramist Georges Hoentschel, at the Victoria & Albert Museum. (My husband says it’s ugly, but that’s beside the point.) How can two photos of the same item look so different?

France, Georges Hoentschel, 1855-1915. Bottle vase, c. 1895, stoneware 44.6 cm (photo © Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

France, Georges Hoentschel, 1855-1915. Bottle vase, c. 1895, stoneware 44.6 cm (SFCC photo)

First, true color is an abstraction. Color varies by the angle of the sun in the sky, weather conditions, air pollution, and reflected light from the surroundings. Look at something with a shadow across it: both colors are real. Add to that the vagaries of artificial lighting and of cameras themselves.

Second, it’s expensive to digitize a museum collection, not just for direct IT costs but also for skilled people who prepare and enter the data. Even truly great websites such as the V&A’s sometimes post scans of old film-camera photos, or they skip the editing that corrects exposure and color balance in digital photos. It’s better to document the collection as far as you can, and then upgrade the data as time and money permit.

In this case, the photo with neutral background from the V&A website is old, and not edited for color correction. The display case photo was taken in 2018 by an SFCC roving photographer, with the excellent color balance of the V&A’s current lighting. The photo has been edited as well, and it’s close to the colors you would see in the gallery. But the viewing distance is short, with the camera up against glass to avoid reflection. That distorts the proportions.

Bottom line: photography is a wonderful tool, when we train ourselves to allow for how different it can be from what it’s meant to show us.