The Art of Photographing Pocket Watches

Auckland Museum Photographer Jen Carol encountered many challenges when tasked with photographing over 100 antique pocket watches

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

As part of the imaging team at Auckland Museum, I was given the rare opportunity to photograph over 100 antique pocket watches. The collection is significant, both in size and in historical value, and spans the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

watch, gold watch, goldAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

watch, gold watch, goldAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Before I could begin I had to learn the language of pocket watches or the technical jargon. This would allow me to identify what key elements needed to be photographed. I was pleasantly surprised to find the evocative and colourful use of everyday words. Pierced cock, beetles, and poker hands were some of my favourites.

watch watchAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

watch watchAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

watch watchAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

I also discovered that rubies were used as bearings in the mechanical bowels of the watch, exceptionally beautiful but rarely seen. The main carriage or outer casing was often pressed in gold or silver leaf, forming intricate motifs unique to each maker. In some of these pocket watches the level of detail on the internal mechanics is equal if not more intricate than the face of the watch. You can see this in the pocket watch photographed above. Three distinct layers, each as impressive as the other.

watch watchAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Equally intriguing were the personal inscriptions and the photos of loved ones tucked inside the cases—sentimental moments suspended in time. Photographically, all these elements created challenges. Worn hinges supporting layers of glass and doors; tiny screws and bolts holding everything together. I could not suspend, prop or force any part of them.

watch watchAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Archival photography is unique, and it’s objects like these where that fact becomes most obvious. The wear and tear, the dust, the scratches on these objects are all important, and form part of the object's story. There is no post-production, no touch-ups, no alterations. The photo is a digital surrogate of the real thing so it needs to stay true to the moment the object came into the museum’s care. This is where the photographic setup is so important: what comes out of the camera is final.

watch, pocket watch, pocket, From the collection of: Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira
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watch, pocket watch, pocket, From the collection of: Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira
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watch, pocket watch, pocket, From the collection of: Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira
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With so many reflective surfaces the first step was finding a lighting setup that would tame the reflections without killing them completely. With glass in particular, you need some reflection to show that it's there. It's a fine balance.

watch watchAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

watch watchAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

I chose to light these pocket watches with well-rounded diffused light, using thin rectangular soft boxes and angling them low so the light just skimmed the surface without creating harsh reflections. I polarised the lens, giving me control over the amount of reflection on the black perspex backdrop.

Collections photographers have two main objectives. The object comes first—primarily this involves ensuring its safety when it's in your care. Second is authenticity: producing an image that is as close to the real thing as possible.

These pocket watches show impeccable artistry and workmanship. They are the smartwatches of their time, and a snapshot of a bygone era. I am thankful for this rare opportunity to digitise in fine detail a collection that spans three centuries, and it was an honour to be able to bring this collection to a wider audience through online publication.

Credits: Story

Text and photographs by Jennifer Carol
All images © CC BY Auckland Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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