It’s a crisp December morning at the Getty Villa, the Malibu branch of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Home to one of the world’s finest collections of antiquities, the Villa features architecture modeled after an ancient Roman country house, as well as gardens, fountains, an outdoor theater and a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.
It’s a Tuesday, a day the Villa is closed to the public, and the only sounds in the Outer Peristyle are the hushed voices of schoolchildren on a field trip, splashes from the fountains in the long reflecting pool, and the squawks of wild parrots from a nearby eucalyptus tree. “We had those same parrots back in Pasadena,” says Photography and Imaging alumna Tahnee Cracchiola, the Villa’s lead photographer, sitting on a concrete bench between two white Roman columns. “Supposedly they escaped during a fire decades ago. Now they fly all over Los Angeles.”
On that topic of fires, just a few weeks earlier, the Woolsey Fire had burned through nearly 97,000 acres, killing three people, destroying more than 1,600 structures and requiring the evacuation of some 295,000 people from the area. “The Villa was evacuated and its employees all went to work out of the Getty Center,” says Cracchiola, who had moved with her family to Camarillo from Agoura Hills just a week before the fire broke out and devastated Agoura Hills and other communities. “The air quality here at the Villa was horrible, but there was no fear of anything being lost to the fire.”
Preserving artwork for future generations is just one of the many responsibilities entrusted to Cracchiola’s team of photographers at the Villa. No, they’re not physically conserving the artwork—the Getty Museum’s conservation department handles those duties—but through their meticulous practice, they’re creating opportunities for both scholars and the general public to revel in work created by artists several millennia ago. And they’re not just shooting art from the Getty’s collection, but also works on loan from other institutions. “I’m so grateful for the people I work with every day,” says Cracchiola of the her co-workers in the museum’s Villa Imaging Studios. “They’re a team of incredibly talented photographers and imaging technicians.”
Using cameras with 100-megapixel sensors, Cracchiola’s team captures everything—in astonishing detail—from Etruscan coins, Greek vases and larger-than-life Roman sculptures of gods and goddesses to—in one particularly memorable assignment—a 2,000-year-old Romano-Egyptian mummy. “We had to get an air purifier in our studio because of the strong essence of the mummification chemicals,” Cracchiola says of the resin and perfumed oils used to preserve Herakleides, a young Roman citizen who seemed particular about who could visit him during his photo shoot. “When people approached Herakleides, the strobes would fire on their own!” exclaims Cracchiola. “You can interpret that as something spiritual or mystical if you want. It was crazy.”
Before working at the Getty, Cracchiola held a variety of positions—personal assistant to then-president of The Walt Disney Company Michael Ovitz; executive assistant and office manager at Disney Publishing Worldwide; production editor for the RAND Corporation’s Project AIR FORCE, where she published scholarly research books; and a writer and photojournalist for Magnet Magazines. She landed the latter gig by filling in at the last minute on a photo shoot of R&B group Destiny’s Child for Flemish publication Dag Allemaal. That was well before the group’s Beyoncé Knowles became known to the world as simply Beyoncé and ascended to pop deity status.
As the ocean breeze picks up and starts whipping her hair, Cracchiola begins thinking back to how much of her career she owes to alumnus, automotive photographer and former instructor Joe Carlson, whose lighting class she took during her fourth term at the College. “There’s no class for how to photograph in a museum,” says Cracchiola, who was hired by Carlson when she was still a student, 25 years ago, to work in his studios. “But I took so much away from the experience of watching Joe photograph a car, which contains every element of every material of what I shoot today. From the chrome to the leather to the glass, all of it is the same as shooting gems, silver, bronze and terracotta.”
Cracchiola also credits many others at ArtCenter with providing her with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel professionally, including Photography alumnus Paul Bielenberg (BFA 98), “who believed in me from the first assignment I put on his critique rail,” and Archie Wedemeyer, who ran the photo lab and would sometimes hide her equipment late at night to force her to go home. “The next morning he’d give my grain focuser back,” says Cracchiola. “I’d say, ‘Damn it, Archie, stop that!’ But he’d respond, ‘You need to sleep.’ He looked after me.”
Walking through the Villa’s campus, Cracchiola passes Jeffrey Spier, senior curator of antiquities at the Villa, who asks her how her current photo shoot with the Jupiters is going. He’s referring to a trio of bronze statues of the Roman god that Cracchiola is in the midst of photographing at the Center. Shooting sculptures is what brought Cracchiola to the Getty in the first place: In 2006, the museum hired her to photograph the conservation and installation of a collection of 28 sculptures gifted to the museum by Fran and Ray Stark.
Walking through the galleries at the Villa, Cracchiola is excited to share two innovations at the museum that her team has helped spearhead. Walking past a row of marble busts, she notes that the Villa recently retooled the way it displays its antiquities, switching from a thematic to a chronological arrangement. She stops in a small room that houses a wall-mounted display case featuring more than 40 small objects, including a cameo gem of a bust of warrior goddess Minerva set in a gold ring, an amethyst engraved with the head of the god Apollo, and a lead tablet containing a written curse.
Next to the display case is a touchscreen guests can use to zoom in on photographs of the individual works taken by Cracchiola’s team. Even if you were to shove your face up against the glass of the display—which the Getty’s security guards would no doubt frown upon—you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the same level of detail visible through this new interface. The scales of Minerva’s snake-edged armor, Apollo’s curly hair dangling over his laurel wreath, and the Latin script of the curse—it all pops and helps give a sense of the artist behind the artifact.
Next, she stops at the brand-new home of one of the Getty’s most beloved antiquities: a bronze statue of the son of Jupiter, the wine god Bacchus. In this gallery, behind a glass enclosure that museumgoers can encircle, stands the infant Bacchus, wearing a wreath of ivy leaves. His outstretched hand, according to the accompanying text, most likely held a drinking cup. “Curators kept saying to me that they thought the statues looked better in our photographs than in real life,” says Cracchiola. “And I would tell them, ‘No, you just need to light them properly.’”
She explains how Bacchus’ new space allows him to be seen with a mixture of natural light from behind and manipulated light from above, which reveals details that might otherwise be obscured. Cracchiola is excited to be leading the charge when it comes to forging collaborations between curators and photographers, something that a few other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are also beginning to explore.
“Curators are the authority on how these works may have appearred in antiquity, and it’s my job to bring that to life, to pull out the shape and form of the artist’s work using light and shadow,” says Cracchiola, who adds that photographers and curators working together as a team—in both the galleries and in the studios—is becoming increasingly important to the success of a museum’s brand. “We’re all dedicated to revealing the history and beauty of these ancient objects. We’re all on the same quest.”