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Monday, January 17, 2011

If a Picture's Worth a Thousand Words, How About a Picture of a Picture? When It Comes to Making Copies, Photographer Tom Powel Is the Real Thing

NEW YORK—Marilyn Minter takes pictures. Then she paints pictures of the pictures she has taken. When she's finished, she hires Tom Powel to take pictures of her pictures of her pictures.

His pictures go into books and catalogs to catch the eye of buyers willing to pay $100,000 or more for a painting by Ms. Minter. For his pictures of her pictures, Mr. Powel earns $2,000 a day.

"I don't know how Tom does it, but he's the best I've seen," Ms. Minter said in her SoHo loft one day. "If you took a sloppy picture of one of my pictures, it'd look like...a photograph."

Pictures Within Pictures

Taking a photograph that truly represents a work of art is a painstaking task. But in the world of million-dollar art, accuracy is key because surprises are never welcome. See how a pro does it.

She was leaning over a table, brush in hand, varnishing her latest creation: "Sludge," a painting of a Photoshopped photo of a glossy shoe overlaid with dribbles of translucent goop.

"Dog hair," said Ms. Minter, picking something off the surface. Then she straightened up and said, "I'm done."

Her painting glared in the track lights. Standing to one side, Mr. Powel said quietly, "Varnish. My nemesis."

His job now was to kill the glare and capture the gloss.

Mr. Powel, 54 years old, began doing this kind of work in 1985. Digital cameras and computer software have since become tools of manipulation, but Mr. Powel seeks absolute fidelity.

He resists the urge to make his pictures look better than the pictures he takes pictures of. He's a star in an occupation that stands out for self-effacement.


The occupation doesn't exactly have a name. "Copy photographer" works well enough, or maybe "archivist." Photojournalist Mustafah Abdulaziz, who came along for this newspaper to photograph Mr. Powel taking pictures of Ms. Minter's picture, said, "I didn't know this was a job."

While news photographers have lost business to Flickr's amateur crowd, photographers of pictures are in big demand.

Collectors today often don't get to stand in front of an artwork before they buy it, especially if they live in China. They see a picture of the artwork first—and it had better be a good one.

"A lot of our clients experience pictures only through the illustrations in our catalogs," says Conor Jordan, who runs the Impressionist auctions at Christie's in New York. For him, pictures of pictures are "of pivotal importance in the art market."

There barely was an art market, in fact, until engravings of paintings appeared 500 years ago.

Black-and-white photographs followed, then color transparencies—each technique inching toward a truer facsimile of the real thing.

Barry Newman/The Wall Street Journal

Barry Newman shot Mustafah Abdulaziz shooting Tom Powel shooting Ms. Minter's picture.

Now digital cameras have sent artists, galleries and museums back to their files to toss out old slides and re-shoot them in pixels. Digitization keeps armies of human photo copiers busy—yet it also leads the public to think making true copies is a snap.

Contemplative retreats like the Metropolitan Museum of Art are hangouts now for the Flickr crowd. Fanny Martin, a French tourist, was there recently, photographing a 2003 painting of the Cotton Club in Harlem.

She had been to Harlem herself. "I'm taking a picture of a picture of my memory," she said. Down in the museum shop, the postcard choice was sparse. "Why buy postcards of art when you can take a picture of it with your telephone?" said a clerk.

One postcard the museum sells is a Rembrandt self-portrait. In it, Rembrandt looks tan and his backdrop yellowish. But up in the gallery, he looks sallow and his backdrop greenish. The postcard is way off. Without holding it up to the original, you might never know.

Someone buying a million-dollar picture wouldn't appreciate a surprise like that. In the world of picture photography, there's one place where such surprises never happen: a gray, windowless Midtown Manhattan room containing the late Richard Avedon's old Saltzman enlarger, fitted with a $30,000 camera that makes 600-megabyte files.

Tom Powel

Ms. Minter's picture.

That's where Chris Nesbit works. At the Avedon Foundation, he photographs the photographer's own prints. A while ago, he was painstakingly photographing one of Norman Mailer. "This job is the height of self-restraint," Mr. Nesbit said.

But it pays: His photos of 65 Avedon photos went into the catalog for a Christie's auction in Paris last November. The photos (not the photos of the photos) sold for $7.5 million.

Ms. Minter's loft isn't a gray room: It has prints on walls, paint cans on shelves, pipes above, boards below. Mr. Powel works on location. For him, the task is to take a picture of one picture while blotting out the slightest glimmer of anything else.

"OK, let's do it," he told two helpers after Ms. Minter, who is 62, had hung her shoe painting on a white wall. Mr. Powel's crew set up lights while he took prints off walls and hid paint cans. He positioned a camera between the lights and connected it to a laptop.

Then the floor started to shake. "Everybody be still!" Mr. Powel said. It was the radiators coming on. When they calmed down, he moved from camera to laptop to lights, fiddling until the varnish quit glaring.

He laid a virtual grid over the painting's computer image and played with the tripod until the image squared up.

Mr. Powel turned to an assistant and said, "Patrick! Do the kneel!" Patrick Altema kneeled at Ms. Minter's feet and held up a color chart to help correct for the glow of the floorboards.

The crew rigged a metal frame and hung two black curtains in front of the camera to absorb stray reflections.

As he stood behind the camera, Mr. Powel parted the curtains a few inches, took off his glasses, and eyeballed the painting for what seemed like a long time. "This is what I wanted to see," he said. And then he pushed the plunger on the shutter cable.

The entire procedure took several hours. Fortunately, Mr. Abdulaziz was there to take pictures of Mr. Powel taking his picture of Ms. Minter's picture. In a story of a thousand words, his pictures will surely be worth it.

Write to Barry Newman at barry.newman@wsj.com

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