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The Tate, London

It is clear that the Tate has a wide range of photographic needs. Therefore when the department decided in 2007 to convert the remaining analogue capture to digital, it was vital that a robust, comprehensive and high quality system would be compulsory. Therefore they began their investigation with Hasselblad to realise this project.


David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Photograph - Marcella Leith, Tate Photography.

Danta Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix. Photograph - Sam Drake, Tate Photography.

Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth. Photograph - Marcus Leith, Tate Photography.

The Tate holds the national collection of British art from 1500 and of international modern art. There is a family of four Tate galleries which display selections from the Tate Collection plus a busy programme of special exhibitions; Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London, Tate Liverpool, in the north-west, and Tate St Ives, in Cornwall, in the south-west.  The entire Tate Collection comprises of approximately 90,000 works of art including paintings, sculpture, photography, prints, watercolours and multimedia installations.

Tate Britain is the world centre for the understanding and enjoyment of British art and works actively to promote interest in British art internationally. The displays at Tate Britain call on the greatest collection of British art in the world to present an unrivaled picture of the development of art in Britain from the time of the Tudor monarchs in the sixteenth century, to the present day.

Tate Modern was opened in 2000 and shows international modern and contemporary art and had nearly 5 million visitors in 2008. Tate in total attracts 8 million visitors a year to its galleries and 20 million visits to www.tate.org.uk.

In 2007 Tate Photography embarked on a plan to convert from a film based operation to a fully digital department.  The story of their work and success with Hasselblad digital equipment follows.

The Tate Photographic department is made up of twelve staff with eleven photographers, mostly based at Tate Britain.  David Clarke is the Head of Photography and teamed with Marcus Leith (Deputy Head) and Marcella Leith (Photographer and Acquisition Manager).  Between them they oversee more than 15,000 new captures per year and 40,000 outputs per year!

The key objective is to photograph the Tate collection.  This is approximately 90,000 pieces of which 95% have been photographed so far.  However, much of this was started with black and white negatives which need to be updated.  Therefore the process continues to document this important and historical body of work.  The department was started in 1960, but the earliest dated negative is from 1948.

Incoming works of art are often photographed on location as the catalogue for forthcoming exhibitions must be produced before the opening day.  Therefore the photographers can find themselves traveling the country, working in many kinds of challenging environments.  Not only this, but photographic needs of the individual sites including Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St. Ives must also be looked after by the London based team.  Finally when installations are finished at any of the galleries, often the photographers are called on again to capture the artwork in situ, normally with very limited time before the first visitors of the day arrive.

Conservation work is an important part of the TateÕs portfolio of skills.  It has become very important to document the process of restoring historical pieces of Art.  Not only for public interest but more importantly for educating similar departments around the world on the underlying process and improving techniques.

A great asset of the Tate is Tate Images, a separate commercial online enterprise, allowing professional image buyers to access the Tate collection online.  All profit is covenanted to Tate each year and plays a vital role in contributing to the upkeep of departments such as Tate photography.

Therefore the Artworks must be captured to the highest standard possible, retaining the aesthetic elements of the original with strict guidelines on quality.

It is clear that the Tate has a wide range of photographic needs.  Therefore when the department decided in 2007 to convert the remaining analogue capture to digital, it was vital that a robust, comprehensive and high quality system would be compulsory.  Therefore they began their investigation with Hasselblad to realise this project.

The Equipment

The Tate’s needs were as follows..

  • A versatile system suited to many different jobs
  • Be as capable on location as in the studio
  • Be able to replace medium format and 5 x 4 film solutions
  • Be of the upmost quality
  • Produce consistent and reliable results
  • Provide assets for Tate Images

Therefore the choice of camera system had to cover many areas and perform admirably in each.

It was decided three Hasselblad systems would be purchased - All 39 Mega Pixels, one with Multi Shot capabilities for the ultimate quality in fine art reproduction.  They were also the first customer to invest in the HTS Tilt and Shift Solution.

Photographing the Collection

The Tate collection is photographed for many reasons..

  • To create a digital archive of the collection
  • For use on www.tate.org.uk/ and sister websites
  • Publications by the Tate and third parties
  • Advertising and Promotional material
  • Press Releases
  • A financial asset in Tate Images (Digital Image Library)

Generally, the fine art works are copied using the Hasselblad H2 & CFMS digital back.  This is a 39 Mega Pixel system that as well as capturing images in a single shot (conventional method) can also capture Red, Green and Blue colour channels separately for increased quality and colour accuracy.  This is a technology unique to Hasselblad.

No digital camera is complete without accompanying raw processing software and this is where Phocus from Hasselblad plays a vital part.

The photographers at Tate chose to use a tool in Phocus called Reproduction Mode.  When Reproduction mode is not activated colours are calculated in such a way that the best overall representation in everyday photography is displayed.  Considerable effort is made into achieving correct skin tones, no matter the tone or colour of skin.

However, as art reproduction at the Tate is carried out in controlled lighting situations it is preferable for the reproduction of colours to be completely linear.  Activating Reproduction Mode gives the most mathematically accurate way of copying like for like.  Default contrast is lower, allowing the photographers to control exactly the amount of contrast the subject needs.  No decisions are removed from them in the process, nor automated.  Therefore the level of accuracy is increased, reducing the amount of time needed in post production.  A vital consideration with such a large catalogue of work to document.

Conservation and Restoration

A large part of the Tate’s work concerns the conservation and restoration of damaged artworks.  Either through natural deterioration or other types of damage.

Primarily, as the process of restoration is documented, it provides an invaluable tool into the education and research of restoration techniques. "Good Enough" quality is simply not acceptable here and the Hasselblad systems provide the resolution and detail needed for individuals to see in minute detail the process of restoration.

An early and unusual use of the Hasselblad in this way was  to create 3D models of some extremely delicate and rare plastic sculptures.  They were in need of restoration but due to their fragile nature they could not be handled or examined closely.  Normally a conventional 3D scanner could be used to create a 3D computer generated model, but as the surface was both transparent and reflective an accurate or detailed enough scan could not be achieved.

Therefore with the help of University College London a system was developed to use single shots from a Hasselblad camera from several angles to create a perfect, highly detailed 3D model.

This way the restoration team could examine the sculpture in lifelike quality, deciding on the restoration process.

From that point, any object which required restoration was demanded to be photographed on the Hasselblad.

Installations at Tate

The Tate is constantly changing the installations that are present over the site.  Every installation must be photographed and catalogued.  Often this is very challenging for the photographers as they are restricted on how much time they have (normally one to two hours of daylight before visitors arrive) and also space restrictions in the gallery itself.

"Shibboleth" on page two of this case study, shows artist Doris Salcedo’s work of a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the main "Turbine Hall" in Tate Modern. Marcus Leith wanted to present the chasm in one photograph from an aerial perspective . Therefore they mounted their H3D on top of a scaffold pole and controlled it using Phocus from a nearby scissor lift! This way they were able to adjust exposure and focus, remotely capture several images and assemble them in PhotoShop to make a final panoramic image.

Using the HTS

The Tate were the first customer in the UK to take delivery of the new Hasselbald HTS tilt and shift solution.  Normally this accessory is used for architectural work or still life work.  The Tate have been very creative in the use of their HTS to increase their production and make images which would have been extremely difficult at first.

The work Palmsonntag from Ansel Kiefer needed to be photographed in Situ and this presented a problem. These large works of artwork had a very reflective surface and the camera, if placed centrally to the image, meant it was reflected back in the final capture. Therefore, using the HTS, the camera could be placed off centre just enough, with the lens shifted back into the correct spot to capture an image of the artwork with no reflections.

They have also used the HTS many times in gallery installations to achieve perfect perspective or maximum depth of field.

In Conclusion

While the Tate has invested heavily in Hasselblad systems, the financial savings compared to heavy use of film and processing are clear.  With the additional asset generation for Tate Images, Tate Photography is an essential and valuable service.  It makes a significant contribution to income generated by Tate Enterprises which had a record turnover of £15.1 million last year.

The Hasselblad system was chosen for its ability to approach all situations with the upmost quality and without compromise.

Reproduction Mode, Multi Shot capabilities and the HTS solution make Hasselblad solutions unique and the only choice for galleries, museums and institutions around the world.


David Grover, July 2009