Although many readers at and visitors to the Folger Shakespeare Library might not know her name, most know her work. Julie Ainsworth, Head of Photography and Digital Imaging, is responsible for the wonderful images of Folger items that are found in print, that make up the Folger’s Digital Image Collection, and that grace the Library’s website. Her award-winning work has appeared in numerous publications, including in the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe, Washingtonian, Progressive Architecture, Landscape Architect, Horizon Magazine, Dial, Ovation, Dossier, Print, Town and Country, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington City Paper; her photographs have also appeared on the covers of The Washington Times Magazine, Inside Arts, The Wilson Library Bulletin, and other publications. A portfolio of Julie’s work can be found on her website, www.julieainsworth.com.
How did you come to this line of work and to the Folger specifically?
I studied philosophy and studio art at Lake Forest College. Photography became a passion after I read Edward Weston’s Daybooks and started working in the darkroom. I’ve been studying ever since. After graduation I lived and worked for a year at Ragdale, an artist’s colony just starting up in Lake Forest, Illinois. I built a darkroom there and worked in a studio nearby. When I returned to Washington DC in 1980 I worked at the now defunct Adams Studio at Dupont Circle and then Congressional Photo on Capitol Hill, custom printing in color and black and white. Then I saw a classified ad in the Washington Post for a job at the Folger. Horace Groves saw my portfolio and hired me, then retired after over 40 years of service six months later. O.B. Hardison promoted me to head the department in 1982.
There will always be something magical about photography. When I started at the Folger most photographs of the collection were taken with large format cameras and 8×10 black and white sheet film; we transitioned to all-digital in 2005. I’ve always been interested in mixed media and alternative photographic processes, and was a bit of a darkroom junkie. Going digital was a natural evolution for me. Working at the Folger has offered opportunities to take a wide variety of pictures, not only of the collection but portraits, architectural photographs, and events. I’ve always been a bit of a stickler for archival quality, and that has served me well in the library/museum environment.
How do archival considerations come into the work that you do?
Although digital images are primarily an access medium, we hope they may help preserve the collection by reducing further handling of originals. Now we need to make sure we preserve the images. We’ve planned ahead in collaboration with colleagues to create protocols for filenaming, image storage, and backup to ensure that we’re consistent and well-documented, and that our imaging work is long lived. Our standard image sizes, 120MB each for Master files and 80MB each for first derivative images, are on the larger end of standard file sizes in tif format. Digital images remain a young medium and standards have taken a while to develop, even as technology changes. We’ve now created a whole new collection which needs additional management and curation. (See this workflow chart and our documentation for image capturing to get a sense of how these considerations fit into what we do.)
What’s the biggest challenge of working with the materials in the Folger collections?
Remaining as true as possible to the original material, careful handling, tracking everything, and meeting deadlines. In digital photography this entails accurate color matching and meticulous finishing work. We drop out most backgrounds and fill with white to isolate the artifact. Every image is inspected at 100% enlargement. At the end we have publication quality images ready for Insight, the web, print publication. Having a robust and well designed database to manage the volume of requests coming through and keep track of image metadata is essential.
Do you have a favorite item from the collections that you’ve photographed, or a favorite photograph you’ve taken of a collection item?
I confess a fondness for oddities. I enjoyed taking a simple studio photograph of a “Falstaff brussels sprouts” container for the cover of the first Folger Magazine. I provided the fresh sprouts.
The most challenging photographs I’ve taken here have been of the building. Photographing the theatre interior using a view camera and color transparency film and lighting the space evenly took three days (see below). I went up on a shaky cherry picker with a tripod and view camera to photograph the stained glass window straight on in the Reading Room. There is a just a brief period of time in the summer when the bas-reliefs are lit by the rising and setting sun. The dimly lit exhibition hall with multiple light sources was a beast.
The Folger, like a growing number of libraries, now allows readers to take their own photographs of collections materials. What tips do you have for readers for getting good pictures and keeping track of them?
- Hold the camera as parallel to the object as possible.
- Reduce distortion by not using a wide angle lens.
- White cardboard reflectors can add light to dark corners when using available light.
- Check your focus by zooming in on details in image preview.
- If possible, use manual settings on the camera to control the exposure (ISO setting on high).
- Remove distracting objects from the background.
- Figure out a file-naming system with unique identifiers and stick to it. Keep a database or spreadsheet to identify images.
What sort of photography do you do for your own pleasure?
I love wide open landscapes and portraits. I’m increasing interested in abstraction. I’ve worked with photo silkscreen, black and white infrared photography, toned silver prints tinted with oils, and now primarily digital images. Most of my vacations have been photography destinations, most recently Iceland. Iceland is the land of lava, black sand beaches, trolls, frost giants, waterfalls, rainbows, geysers, and the Northern Lights. What most people would consider bad weather makes fantastic photography.