BUT CAN IT FLY? An October close-up, with David Heald and Luciano Pensabene

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All images by Ruxandra Blaga

In October 1926, during a celebrated trial in the art world, Brâncuși v. The United States, one of the sixteen sculptures from Constantin Brâncuși’s 1923-1940 Birds in Space series, was refused exemption from custom duties as an art work. After a curious debate in court, it finally gained its legal recognition as art, redefining 20th century attitudes towards modern art.

At the trial, Judges Young and Waite questioned the witness Edward Steichen, who had bought Brâncuși’s piece, newly shipped from Paris, and expected to take possession of it after its arrival to New York. Back then, the sculpture’s title was the catalyst for an infamous exchange of lines (source: Giry):

Waite: What do you call this?
Steichen: I use the same term the sculptor did, oiseau, a bird.
Waite: If you would see it on the street you never would think of
calling it a bird, would you?
[
Steichen: Silence]
Young: If you saw it in the forest you would not take a shot at it?
Steichen: No, your honour. (Giry)

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During a more recent October, eighty years later, away from any association with court rooms or “forests”, one work from Brâncuși’s Bird in Space series, the 1934-40 golden brass piece, acquired by Peggy in the 40s, now finds its home in Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni, in the heart of Venice, beautifully glazed by the reflections of the light swaying upward from the Grand Canal, and into what used to be Peggy Guggenheim’s living room.

Along with several iconic works in Peggy Guggenheim’s collection, Brâncuși’s Bird in Space (1934-40) and earlier 1912 brass piece, Măiastra, have now been gloriously rephotographed, after some thirty years. The artist responsible for re-imagining the works into the 21st century is photographer David Heald, who has been the “lens” between the collection’s pieces and the large audience since the early 1980s.

I had the pleasure of assisting Mr. Heald in his work process for the past three weeks of the photoshoot, where the space of the museum was attired to suit the most beautiful light situations, while the works were photographed, this time, in digital format. In between long work hours, coffee with a side half portion of biscotti and some challenging highly reflective surfaces, David shared a glimpse of his thoughts over his time in Venice, his work as official photographer at Guggenheim New York, his work process and up and coming projects.

Q: How does it feel to shoot the collection after 30 years?

Shooting the sculpture in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection again after almost 30 years has been a wonderful experience and an unusual privilege.  This time it was more up to me what the views that I shot would be, even though some are obvious.  With sculpture there is always some additional aspect to discover for a photographer.  I was particularly moved and interested in creating new views of the Giacometti “Piazza” and of the Duchamp-Villon “Horse”.  Both are masterpieces in my opinion.

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Q: Tell me a bit about your work at the Guggenheim New York.

A: In New York we are a department of 4 people including myself.  One photographer dedicated to photographing the art in the collections and for exhibitions and conservation, an archivist and Photoshop specialist who does much of the editing and image management, a Digital Asset Manager who manages our DAM system (database of digital images) and myself.  My concentration tends to be on photographing the exhibitions in the museum when they are installed and the architectural views of the FLW building.

Q: What is it about the Frank Lloyd Wright building that captivates you? Do you think you will ever cease to be surprised by it, or does it get more fascinating as time goes by?

A: The Frank Lloyd Wright building has been called the most valuable work of art in the Guggenheim collection which is remarkable given that there are numerous masterpiece paintings and sculptures in the collections, both in Venice and NY.  I’ve been photographing this building for 35 years and I still find new views that surprise me.  That is a remarkable phenomenon in my opinion.  I’ve come to think of it as kind of lens in itself. A concentrated small window into the infinite aspect of space and light.

Q: Tell me about the last three weeks you have spent in Venice. How has it been waking up with the Grand Canal view the last couple of weeks? 

A: Venice is like a daydream.  I know that Paris is known as the “city of light” but in my opinion Venice really holds that title!  It is an absolutely endless treasure, particularly for a photographer.  This time I was astonished by the architecture biennale, particularly at the Arsenale.  An amazing venue!

Q: The contrast between Venice and New York surely must be significant, how does that affect your work process? 

A: In Venice I work in a more concentrated way because of the limited time I am here.  That’s the main difference between shooting in these two cities.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about how it was shooting the Brâncuși? What do you think makes it such a fascinating work?

A: Brâncuși, like Giacometti or Frank Lloyd Wright or any number of other modern masters, is endless!  It’s so interesting to see and experience the nuances in having a masterpiece like “Bird in Space” in front of the camera.  Turn the sculpture just 2 inches and the view and feeling changes.  The photographer’s work is to see it and then translate that to a two-dimensional image. It’s a serious challenge.

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Q: If you would be offered one month to develop a personal project, where would you go and what would intrigue you to do?

A: That’s a difficult question.  One month seems too short though.  I would really love to go to India and photograph some of the ancient sacred sites that I visited as a teenager with my family.  

Q: Aside from your work at the museum, you are also interested in portraiture. What makes a good portrait, what do you find fascinating about it?

A: The obvious and remarkable thing about making portraits is that there is another human being in front of you and there’s a demand to be active in a more direct but subtle way with your subject.  Expressions are always changing and it’s extraordinary when you can be present to this while working with another person. 

Q: How do you feel about post production in photography? How much is too much? Is there a line to be drawn before a shot becomes a lie? Is there a good way to tell lies? What would one look like?

A: Post-production is essential in creating a final image.  The primary focus should be trying to be alert to what serves your subject well.  That goes for portraits and works of art.  I tend to appreciate simpler lighting, but not always.  Sometimes the subject matter calls for a different approach.  The question is always about being open to what the subject is offering.

Q: You will soon be leaving Venice, what projects are you looking forward to when you return to New York?

A: Back in New York I will be working on shooting the installation of a new and striking exhibition of contemporary Chinese art.  Then extensive work in editing and post-production on all the shots from Venice!

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If post-production in photography translates into long hours spent in careful retouching, for Luciano Pensabene detail and precision are imbedded into his daily work. A few meters away from the spotlight, from all the shiny lights and reflective panels, silently works Luciano, the man who had been, for the past eight months restoring Picasso’s 1928 L’Atelier, acquired by Peggy in 1942.

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After suffering unfortunate restorations at the end of the 1960s, Luciano is seeking to revive its snow white varnish through a meticulous, non-invasive process of cleaning. However, L’Atelier is not the only studio which qualifies as an art piece, but also Luciano’s workspace, one of the most intimate conservation studios which envelops as the room with a view in Peggy’s chic collection.

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