Isabelle “Belle” McDonald ’22 shares some of her experiences as the Alison Cheng Intern for Photography at the Johnson.

Working with the photography collection at the Johnson Museum afforded me access to artwork and knowledge of artists I had never experienced before. One of the first projects I was tasked with when I began my internship in Fall 2019 was cross-referencing the Johnson’s Larry Fink photographs with those included in his Social Graces portfolio. I was immediately struck by the intriguing subject matter and Fink’s genuine and unwavering depiction of his subjects. Something about his eye as an artist really spoke to me.

At right: Regine’s, New York City, May 1977, from the series Social Graces, 1977

Fortunately, that would not be the last time I would see of Fink’s works. Throughout my internship I worked on housing prints and digitizing the works in the collection. Handling the actual prints (wearing purple nitrile gloves) that had inspired me earlier that semester was certainly intimidating, but getting up close and personal with the work gave me a sense of the artist’s hand—or in this case, his lens. Coinciding with my own explorations in darkroom photography, I kept Fink’s work in the back of my mind throughout my semester as a fine arts and art history student. I even wrote my final research paper on the Social Graces portfolio for my on “Documentary Arts” (VISST 3001).

Something that many people overlook is the work done behind-the-scenes as curators and museum staff work to digitize the physical collection. One of the most significant functions of a museum is the democratization and accessibility of art and culture to the masses. With databases and online resources becoming more and more popular, equitable access to these materials is growing. Many, including myself, have taken for granted the ease of finding a high-resolution photograph of art on the internet.

At right: Sabatine-Miller graduation party, June 1977, from the series Social Graces, 1977

The Johnson Museum does its own digitization of its permanent collection, which is used by students and professors across the university. During the Spring 2020 semester, I assisted with photographing some of the photography that had yet to be digitized. The process was methodical and required meticulous attention to detail. Each individual print required its own unique lighting condition and camera settings in order to achieve the archival-quality images that we were seeking. The multistep, somewhat tedious process was certainly time-consuming but ultimately rewarding.

Artwork is meant to be seen, and digitization allows open access to art that remains preserved in storage. I am grateful to have been able to experience this part of museum work!