Learning the Language of Art: An Internship at the NSLM

This week’s blog is written by National Sporting Library & Museum Intern Finley Stewart.

Finley Stewart was a summer 2018 Photography and Marketing Intern. She is a graduate of The Hill School and Mercersburg Academy and is a rising Sophomore at the College of William and Mary.

Please visit our website to learn more about NSLM’s internship opportunities.


I am lucky enough to have grown up in Middleburg, just a block away from the National Sporting Library & Museum. After spending eighteen years in this one-stoplight town, I felt pretty confident that I knew every stick and stone, but then I stumbled upon the NSLM website on a chilly Wednesday in January. I realized that I was completely ignorant to the most interesting attraction of Middleburg; the artistic specificity and depth presented in the National Sporting Library & Museum is unparalleled to anything I had seen before. I was delighted to learn that there was a summer internship program offered. I promptly applied and was accepted.

On my first day, I spent a full fifteen minutes looking at Shark with his Trainer Price by George Stubbs, a painting  that was on view at NSLM as part a the traveling exhibition organized by Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, A Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I had never spent so much time in front of one piece of art, and in my silence, I discovered the artist’s voice. Although it was a short interaction in a busy day, it made all the difference. During my six-week internship, I realized that a patient, learned respect for art – whether  a painting, sculpture, or photograph – is specific to the experience at the National Sporting Library & Museum. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to appreciate not only the Museum as it is presented to the public, but the ins and outs of the permanent collection and its documentation process.

Paintings on view in permanent collection gallery  – right: John Bucknell Russell (Scottish, 1820-1893), The Day’s Catch, 1864, 21 x 29 inches, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Timothy J. Greenan, 2011, photo by Finley Stewart

My internship was a hybrid between digital photography and marketing. When I was not actively photographing, I had a front row seat to the workings of the Museum, as my station was situated between the offices of Curator of Permanent Collections Nicole Stribling and George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art Claudia Pfeiffer. Through watching them navigate everything from the climate of the Museum to possible vendors, I realized all the moving parts that have to come together to present a united front. In other words, the introspective, didactic experience I had with the painting on my first day was anything but coincidental; it was carefully orchestrated by the staff of the NSLM.

Herbert Haseltine, (American, 1877-1962), Percherons: Messaline and Her Foal, 1957, bronze on marble base, 11 1/2 x 14 x 6 inches, Gift of Jacqueline Ohrstrom, 2011, photo by Finley Stewart

For the first project of my internship, Ms. Pfeiffer taught me the groundwork of photographing art. Until this point, my photo experience ranged from film to digital, yearbooks to art magazines, and I felt as though I knew everything there was to know. My perceived omniscience was interrupted when I stepped into the studio with Claudia.

I realized my work was entirely creatively based, and that there was a whole other realm of factual photographic documentation. The priority was to make the photograph as close to the actual piece of art at hand— an objective only achieved with meticulous light set-ups and positioning. The first collection I worked with was by Reuben Ward Binks. This collection varied in size and dimension, thus requiring constant adjustment of the lights and camera.

Reuben Ward Binks (English, 1880-1950), Black Labrador with Pheasant in Water, watercolor on paper heightened with gouache, 10 ½ x 13 ½ inches, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017, photo by Finley Stewart

After I completed photographing the forty-five watercolors, Ms. Pfeiffer taught me how to properly post-process them. Previously, I had only used Adobe Photoshop® CC to add imagination to my photographs, but Claudia taught me how to revert back to a realistic standard. As a result of the diligent set up and careful post-processing, my photographs held a sense of realism and authenticity that they never had before.

Michael Lyne (English, 1912-1989) Middleburg Hunt, Full Cry with Blue Ridge in the Distance, 1950, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, Gift of Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan, 2008, photo by Finley Stewart

For my next project, I was assigned a collection of sculptures. Photographing 3D objects proved to be an entirely new ball game. With more volume and a curving surface, there was more opportunity for unwanted shadow and distortion.

Edward Marshall Boehm (American, 1913-1969), Percheron Work Horse, “H.S. Finney from Maryland Draft Horse Breeders Association,” porcelain, 10 x 12 x 4 ½ inches, Gift of Marge Dance and family of the late Humphrey Finney, 1995, photo by Stewart Finley

Ms. Pfeiffer and I had to get creative to bounce light onto the sculpture to, ironically, produce the most realistic picture we could. During this session, I realized the essence of art photography: it is not the absence of creativity and imagination, but the application of innovative thinking behind the camera to produce a realistic photograph. The artistry is more elusive: the creativity is not obvious in the final product, but extremely present in its preparation and implementation.

This past month-and-a-half has been invaluable to my photography knowledge, creative experience, and art appreciation. I’m eternally grateful to Claudia Pfeiffer for taking the time to teach me how to photograph realistically, while slipping in creativity when needed. Looking forward, I primarily photograph outside, and with more light and color there is opportunity for creative voice. Now I will be careful keep Ms. Pfeiffer’s commitment to realism in mind, certain to prioritize the accuracy of the subject above all else. – Finley Stewart, July 2018

J. Clayton Bright (American, b. 1946), Red Fox (Vulpes Fulva), bronze, 14 x 31 x 6 inches, Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2013, photo by Finley Stewart

 

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3 Comments

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  1. Wow, I am completely blown away by this article. If this rendition, of this intern experience , does not make people run to this treasure that is the NSLM, I don’t know what will!

    How beautifully written, and a verbal picture well painted, of the artistry and talent that goes into putting works of art in a favorable light.

    A light, so that the rest of us can truly see , the magnificence of the piece.

    This brings me to a question I have. The NSLM , is not going to let this brilliant intern get away, are we?

    Bravo and well done. Please keep us posted on your next adventure. I’m sure it will be another worthy read!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Finley,

    I am SO impressed with your writing and your photography! They are both impressive! You were fortunate to work with Claudia at the NSLM – she has an incredible amount of knowledge about so much, including photography. I am happy she could share what she knows with you. The collection, the facility and the staff are excellent so congratulations on discovering what a fabulous resource this is to the community and beyond! I am happy you found it in your “backyard”!

    Sandy Danielson

    Liked by 1 person

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