The coolest photography project I've ever shot: Patrick O'Meara's Bicentennial Book - Alex Kumar

The coolest photography project I've ever shot: Patrick O'Meara and Leah Peck's Bicentennial Book


Canterbury Tales first printed edition, ca. 1470s

Spoiler alert: many photos of cool historical artifacts to follow.

In January of this year, I started my job at Indiana University Studios as a part-time photographer. Since then, I've always hoped I would be able to take the role of lead photographer on a project, where I would be able to challenge myself to my creative limits in order to produce a visually beautiful final product.


Fast forward to July, where after mainly shooting scenics and events since January, I finally got the notice that I was assigned to take photos for a book that was being published along with Indiana University's bicentennial. I admittedly didn't know who the author, Dr. Patrick O'Meara, was in relation to the university as a whole, along with Leah Peck, the co-author of the book. However, as soon as I had the chance to meet them and start shooting, I knew that this project would be something to remember.


As you will see below, I included more photos of the Lilly Library Collections than all of the other collections; this is because the items that the Lilly owns are simply stunning.

A short prologue on gear and technique

In photographing the items in this project, I knew I would need to create a consistent look and feel for everything I shoot. With that in mind, I decided to shoot all objects on a white backdrop/background and solely use the 50mm focal length. I threw around the idea of different colored backdrops but settled on white because to me, it would be the most visually pleasing to look at once the images were printed onto white paper.


Since I knew I would be shooting some small objects/fine details on some of the artifacts, I knew I would need some macro-level photos. To get up close, I opted to use a set of extension tubes. I decided to use tubes instead of a macro lens for a few reasons: one, because it would keep the 50mm focal length, and two, because I don't actually own a Nikon macro lens. Since my extension tubes do not send aperture/focus data to the camera, I was forced to use my 50mm f/1.2 AI-S film lens. I used the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G for all non-macro shots.


Flash-wise, I am exclusively using strobes and speedlights from the Godox/Flashpoint lineup. Specifically, the AD600BM and a 36" deep parabolic softbox for the key light, and two V860IIN's for accent/background. 


I took almost 1,400 photos total for this project, but have selected my favorites for this post. With that in mind, let's get into the collections and photos!


The Archives of Traditional Music

Housed within the walls of Morrison Hall, the Archives of Traditional Music "cover a wide range of cultural and geographical areas, vocal and instrumental music, linguistic materials, folktales, interviews, and oral history, as well as videotapes, photographs, and manuscripts. With over 100,000 recordings that include more than 2,700 field collections, it is one of the largest university-based ethnographic sound archives in the United States." (source)


Highlights of the ATM for me were: items from Terrence Bech's Nepal ethnographic trip; vinyls from Latin America; Hoagie Carmichael's jukebox


Seeing all of the reel-to-reel tapes from Terrence Bech's journeys was so cool, because this man traveled around the Himalayas with a huge reel-to-reel recorder and portable recording studio in order to document the creation of music for tiny remote villages in that region. And, of course, a vintage jukebox was also cool!


Archives of African American Music and Culture

"The Archives of African American Music and Culture (AAAMC) is a repository of materials covering a range of African American musical idioms and cultural expressions from the post-World War II era. Our collections highlight popular, religious, and classical music, with genres ranging from blues and gospel to R&B and contemporary hip hop." (source)


Highlights of the AAAMC for me were: The Diana Ross 45-rpm vinyl with the lunchbox, and the Soul Train jacket


There were a lot of culturally relevant selections from this collection relating to African American musicians and it was really cool to see the IU connection with a few of them. Plus, the Soul Train jacket was awesome!


The Lilly Library Collections

Known throughout the world, the Lilly Library contains some of Indiana University's most prized (and priceless) historical items. "Consistently regarded as one of the nation's top libraries for books and manuscripts of the greatest importance, the Lilly Library was established in 1960 to house the extensive private library of the late Josiah K. Lilly Jr., one of the Lilly Endowment’s founders. The collection he donated to IU comprised more than 20,000 rare books and 17,000 manuscripts. It was the genesis of the Lilly Library, which now contains more than 450,000 rare books, 8.5 million manuscripts and 150,000 sheets of music." (source)


Highlights of the Lilly Library collections for me were: Literally every single item that was placed in front of my camera. These photos are the highlights of the project.


Wow, how can I even begin. I honestly was at a loss for words the entire day that I spent shooting these items. I nerded out SO much and asked a ton of questions about what I was seeing. The following items were some of the coolest historical items I've ever seen in person. It's also the first time I can say that I've smelled history; centuries-old books and manuscripts definitely smell centuries-old.


My extension tubes REALLY shined on this collection. I even stacked two tubes together at times to get even closer to the items. The plane of focus that I was working with, even at f/8 and f/11, had to have been fractions of millimeters.


Without further ado, here are my favorite photos of this entire project:

  • Canterbury Tales first printed edition, ca. 1470s

  • Rita Hayworth's personal makeup box, ca. 1943. More info: http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?brand=general&docId=InU-Li-VAA4804&chunk.id=d1e760&startDoc=1

  • Luxury Qur’an (juz’ 9 of 30), ca. 1571.

  • Luxury Qur’an (juz’ 9 of 30), ca. 1571.

  • Love letters from Orson Welles to Rita Hayworth, ca. 1943

  • Abraham Ortelius collection of maps/atlases, ca. 1570s

  • Abraham Ortelius collection of maps/atlases, ca. 1570s

  • Albrecht Durer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1498. Further reading: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/collections/items/show/78

  • Handwritten letter from Queen Elizabeth I, along with her royal seal, ca. 1500s

  • Handwritten letter from Queen Elizabeth I, along with her royal seal, ca. 1500s

  • Handwritten letter from Queen Isabella, ca. 1500s.

  • Ian Fleming's personal manuscript of From Russia With Love, ca. 1956

  • Ian Fleming's personal manuscript of From Russia With Love, ca. 1956

  • Ian Fleming's handwritten notes around the time he wrote From Russia With Love, ca. 1956

  • Captain James Cook's "swatch book" containing pieces of cloth from colonialism in the South Seas, ca. 1787. More info: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/an-atlas-in-cloth-captain-cooks-rarely-seen-fabric-book

  • Captain James Cook's "swatch book" containing pieces of cloth from colonialism in the South Seas, ca. 1787. More info: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/an-atlas-in-cloth-captain-cooks-rarely-seen-fabric-book

  • Captain James Cook's "swatch book" containing pieces of cloth from colonialism in the South Seas, ca. 1787. More info: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/an-atlas-in-cloth-captain-cooks-rarely-seen-fabric-book

  • The Boxer Codex, from the Treasures of the Lilly Collections, ca. 1590. More info: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/collections/items/show/93

  • The Boxer Codex, from the Treasures of the Lilly Collections, ca. 1590. More info: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/collections/items/show/93

  • The Boxer Codex, from the Treasures of the Lilly Collections, ca. 1590. More info: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/collections/items/show/93

  • The Boxer Codex, from the Treasures of the Lilly Collections, ca. 1590. More info: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/collections/items/show/93

  • The Boxer Codex, from the Treasures of the Lilly Collections, ca. 1590. More info: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/collections/items/show/93

  • James Joyce's Ulysses containing one-of-a-kind soft-ground sketches by Henry Matisse, ca. 1936. More info: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/joyce/later.html

  • The Boxer Codex, from the Treasures of the Lilly Collections, ca. 1590. More info: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/collections/items/show/93

  • James Joyce's Ulysses containing one-of-a-kind soft-ground sketches by Henry Matisse, ca. 1936. More info: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/joyce/later.html


The Shah of Iran's Persian Rug

It was admittedly hard to find a source on this item, but I found some information written at the beginning of an otherwise unrelated topic in an article by political reporter Bryan Howey: "Just months after he was vanquished in the 1940 election by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie became his emissary, traveling the world on his behalf in a show of American unity during World War II. At Tehran, he gave the Shah of Iran his first airplane ride. At a fete on his behalf, Willkie complimented the Shah on a beautiful Persian rug. The Shah had his men roll up the rug, putting it on Willkie's plane as a gift, where it ended up at Indiana University's Lilly Library and, eventually, Bryan House."


For this shoot I had to disable the 'product photography' mindset I'd been using thus far and enable the 'interior photography' mindset. I rearranged the sunroom at Bryan House and used my lights to evenly illuminate the scene. The rug itself is stunning.


IU Baseball's Trip to Japan in 1922

"In December 1921, IU’s baseball coach George Levis received a letter and proposition from Waseda University’s Iso Abé, Professor of Economics and Sociology. The accompanying agreement stated Waseda would pay $11,500 towards the IU team’s traveling expenses, as well as hotel and transportation costs associated with traveling to and from the hotel and ball field! In exchange, Abé proposed IU pay the Waseda baseball team $1,300 when they in turn visited in 1925, as well as the hotel costs for one night in Bloomington." (source)


As a baseball fan, this set of items was super cool to see! In 1922, IU Baseball was invited out to Japan to play against a team over there. Among the items I photographed were photos, journals, hotel stationery, and a really neat letterman's jacket from one of the players on the team during that time.

  • IU letterman's jacket and journal from IU Baseball's trip to Japan, ca. 1922


The Elizabeth Sage Collection

Ever since I moved to Bloomington and mingled with the IU crowd, I had heard so many awesome things about the Elizabeth Sage collection, about how many visually stunning pieces are held within it. I must say, everyone was right. These outfits and costumes were amazing!


"Overseen by the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, the Sage Fashion Collection serves as a resource for students, professionals, and the public. Its museum-quality collection spans more than 250 years and includes a hands-on study collection used in classrooms and fashion design studios." (source)

Highlights of the Sage Collection for me were: Everything.


This collection was a great opportunity to use my extension tubes on and get macro-level photos. The textures of the cloth and fibers are so cool when on the macro level.

  • Elizabeth Sage Collection: Glenn Close outfit from 102 Dalmations.

  • Elizabeth Sage Collection: Glenn Close outfit from 102 Dalmations.


An afterthought

This project was so cool to work on. It challenged my creativity to try and get super close and make the items look interesting. I had to collage different items together at times, and I had to also get creative with post-production at times (mostly the panorama tool). 


Leah and Dr. O'Meara have been so great to work with on the project, and I can't wait until the book comes out next year!

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