Photography with borders: an interview with Sailko
by The Frame Blog
Francesco Bini’s real name may not be as familiar around the world as it ought to be, but anyone who has found and used his splendid high-resolution photos on Wikimedia Commons should recognize his nom de camera: he is Sailko, responsible for all the best images of otherwise unobtainable paintings, sculptures, ancient art and decorated interiors. And, what is more, he has stopped cropping the frames out of his images, as 90% of other photographers do – he includes both the frame itself and often part of the wall where it hangs or stands, giving a far better impression of the whole work of art in relation to its setting, and of its volume and scale. He is, because of this, an invaluable benefactor to the small but increasingly important section of art history which deals with the vast chronological and international pattern-book of changing frame styles.
The Frame Blog: How did you begin your rather extraordinary career as a photographer? – was it a hobby that expanded, or did you study it at college or in a studio? Did you have a life and work before photography found you, and what exactly do you do now?
Sailko: First of all, I am not a professional photographer. I have always worked as an hotel receptionist in Florence, Italy, and back in the early 2000s I heard of a new online project called ‘Wikipedia’. In those years there were a lot of subjects needing people to write about them, and – although I had a degree in Economics – I always enjoyed art and history topics, and I found out how I could expand my knowledge in those fields by composing some short articles for this online encyclopaedia.
I kind of liked it, and I still do write articles from time to time; however, I soon realized that there was a consistent lack of free images to illustrate the articles. So, as a sideline, I started to take and post photos of relevant architecture in my own area, and later I started to include some pieces of art, too. My photography journey really started from zero, using old mobile phones and cheap pocket cameras, with no training in photography at all. But since I was quite prolific, some other users of Wikipedia projects started to encourage me and to give me some tips to improve the quality of the shots. My first mentor was Giovanni Dall’Orto, a well-known writer based in Milan, who was the first in Italy to shoot museum works of art extensively for licence-free projects. I learnt that a good image of an artwork comes with a detailed description of what it portrays (so I started to collect museum captions too), and also that it is more useful for the community to have a complete set of items in a display, rather than multiple images of the same two/three/single objects, picked randomly from amongst the more showy pieces.
My second main upgrade was when a friend of mine from New York City, who graduated in a Columbia University Art course, lent me his camera and gave me some basic instructions about photography. I also had a basic knowledge of computer editing, so combining these elements I could reach an acceptable level of quality. That was in 2008/2009 and I had already uploaded more than 10,000 images online.
FB: Did you study painting or art history yourself? – or were you particularly drawn from the beginning to photographing works of art? It’s such an important field for art historians, who need all the images that they can find in order to be able to examine the work of an artist, a school of painting or a collection, and historically it’s been expensive and difficult to extract the available photos from museums and other institutions. Everyone has his or her own hoard of images, but it’s never enough; however, your own work for Wikimedia Commons adds up to more than thirty-six thousand photos of paintings and sculpture, and you seem particularly sympathetic to the way in which those paintings are displayed.
S: After some years of writing articles in Wikipedia and shooting photographs, I realized I needed a further upgrade of knowledge, so I matriculated again at Florence University in art history, spending four years there. Even if I did not finalize my diploma, that gave me the basic co-ordinates to get oriented within art historical research, pointing me to look for some relevant examples of art which were rather under-represented online.
Another fundamental step in my career was when Wikimedia Switzerland offered me a contribution to buy a semi-professional camera, and suggested that I take some basic lessons in digital photography, which I did in 2014-15. Finally, around 2016 a friend of mine, a student at the Florence Academy of Fine Art, taught me the basics of professional photographical editing: from then on you finally see straightened lines in my images, and a professional-looking quality. This history of my improvements shows why some of my images have such different levels of quality… but I have always tried my best to provide useful images.
Then there is a fun fact, revealing some of the pop-culture roots of my love for the arts. When I was a kid the music video of Michael and Janet Jackson’s ‘Scream’ was popular. If you have ever seen it, at a certain point the singers entertain themselves watching art works merging one into another, from a Pollock canvas to a Magritte, from a statue of the Buddha to a classical goddess. That always fascinated me and it inspired how I file my art images in my hard disk by theme, and sometimes have them randomly reproduced in series. I later realized that this is also the way some of the most glorious art historians organized their photo libraries. At this moment I have more than 200,000 images in my archive, organized into 1.150 folder. It is a private pleasure for me to collect all these images – I couldn’t upload them all, due sometimes to copyright issues, but in the future as some rights decay I will upload more, and maybe later on I would like to donate my archive to a public institution.
FB: You’ve also travelled very widely – all over Europe, in Australia, the US and Latin America, north Africa and Asia. Do you do this on your own initiative, or are you commissioned to travel and take photos of art and other subjects? Is your huge collection of international images work – for Wikimedia Commons or elsewhere – or is it a labour of love…?
S: When I started my real-life job I had really very few days of holiday in a year, so when I could I always took the chance to travel abroad and explore far countries. I always liked to visit museums, and when I used to find artists abroad who were originally from my area I had a positive feeling, like when you suddenly meet a friend away from home, where you would not expect to see them. But as you travel, you can also make some ‘new friends’. What I mean is that I started to get passionately interested in works of art produced by other cultures and periods further from my original fields of study – for instance, the art of Asia and Africa, Pre-Columbian art, and folk art. I’ve never been commissioned to travel a certain place; it is always the result of my own will, wanting to improve the online material available for research and knowledge, which pushes me on (that, and the pleasure of seeing my own private ‘collection’ growing).
FB: Your collection of characteristic photos, one for each place you’ve visited, includes a lot of architectural images – exteriors, interiors, and details of arcades, vaults and capitals, which merge into sculptures, stuccos and frescos; these are incredibly helpful for people who study how art is framed, hung, and inset into buildings. They are always beautifully lit, very clear, and revealing of the manner in which the artists would have expected their work to be seen and appreciated – and the fact that the paintings (or other works) are often one part of a complex whole.
Are these interiors perhaps one of the reasons that you became interested in the frames which marry paintings to the place where they hang? – whether they are made of carved giltwood, stucco, mosaic, or painted on the wall?
S: When I crop an image I always feel that I must very careful of what I exclude, since both the position of a painting on a wall or the colour of the surroundings hold precious pieces of information. Luckily, with digital images you can easily make copies with different compositional crops.
The reason why I started to include the frames around paintings is almost accidental. In the early days of the internet there used to be many good-quality and licence-free photos of paintings available, as according to the rules of Wikimedia Commons two-dimensional objects made in previous centuries have no copyright problems, and a picture of any of these, considered as a ‘mechanical replica’, can be freely uploaded. My early images – in quality terms – could not compete with those professional files, and they would have been deleted as useless duplicates, rejected because of blurring or reflections. So they could only survive with an additional advantage – and this was the frame. Later on I realized I was almost the only one to shoot and upload that kind of image, so even my oldest photos – maybe without the best quality overall – are still a precious source of information you can hardly find elsewhere.
FB: Your photos also cover a huge swathe of time, making them particularly useful for anyone studying the evolution of styles in architecture, painting, and – of course – frames. This pair of photos shows paintings made two thousand years apart, but which share themes of sin and (in the Pompeiian fresco) of punishment; and (whilst they are completely different in technique and style, and each is very much of its own time) they are also alike in retaining their original classical or classicizing frames, integral and painted, or carved giltwood.
Could this be another of the reasons that you photograph the frame along with the painting? – because you have looked at so many framed works of art, from different periods and countries, that you have become very aware of the way in which a frame of the same time reflects and supports the style of the painting it holds?
S: In my humble activity, I have been inspired by some of the greatest art historians, like Wilhelm von Bode, Bernard Berenson and Federico Zeri, who dominated many eras in art history, from antique classics to contemporary art: something which no longer happens, as university courses tend to direct you to a very specific, specialized period and area, especially here in Italy. Since I don’t suffer from this kind of academic pressure, I can explore more freely the extensive landscapes of all types of art.
This way you can notice themes and styles, and how they resurface through space and time, making similarities in these diverse places very interesting and stimulating. For instance, have you ever noticed how the polychromy of the Mediterranean ancient world survived more completely in Islamic and Indian architecture than in Western Neoclassicism?
Also, in the field of frames, I am glad that you selected the Symbolist painting by Stuck, as in that era more than ever the frame was part of the work of art itself, not just an embellishment. I find it very sad when original frames are lost or deliberately destroyed (think of all the Gothic and Renaissance polyptychs), but luckily in recent years a new consciousness about the importance of frames is flowering, and your blog accurately reflects this.
François Clouet (c. 1510-72), The apothecary Pierre Quthe (1519-post-1588), 1562, o/panel, 91 x 70 cm., detail by Sailko showing a small edge of the frame, Musée du Louvre
Clouet, The apothecary Pierre Quthe, 1562; montage with the museum image
FB: On the other hand, amongst the long lists of your Wikimedia images there is sometimes a painting or a detail from a painting where the frame is absent, causing the researcher to wonder whether these are photos from a time before your decision to start photographing the whole work of art and its setting. Was that idea a sudden revelation, or did it come to you gradually? Do you remember when you began to take this sort of photo, and why? The portrait of Pierre Quthe, for example, has an antique – possibly even the original – frame, which appears on the Louvre’s website, and seems particularly photogenic, but you have concentrated on the detail of his face.
S: At the very beginning I only shot artworks that I could use to illustrate a Wikipedia article I wrote or I was about to write. So a picture of a painting without the frame was more easily used, and I regularly cropped the frames out. But soon I realized the image looked better with its frame on display, so since about 2008 I have always included it. This was a good choice in another way, because now, if I have to edit and straighten one of my old photos of a painting, that extra space around it is precious for getting a good result. This can then be a fall-back solution, as – because I always take pictures with a hand-held camera (tripods and stands are almost always prohibited) – sometimes I miss the shot, and have one too blurred to upload (now I almost always take more than one, when in doubt of the result, to have a backup, but back in the day it was more common to miss it sometimes).
Clouet, The apothecary Pierre Quthe, 1562
By the way, as regards the Pierre Quthe portrait I do have a framed version uploaded as well, above, but the fact you could not immediately find it reminds me how Wikimedia Commons’s displaying tools are not always easy to use and understand for all the readers.
All their images are filed into categories, like storage boxes, which appear at the very end of any image page when you search for them on a PC. Inexplicably, these categories do not show up when you browse on a mobile phone, which is nowadays the most common method of making a web search. I would say that 50% of the messages I receive from people around the world ask me questions about information displayed in the categories of the image (such as the location, which I normally don’t include in the filename due to the limits on its length). This is a bit sad, and I recently tried to have it fixed by Wikimedia’s technical staff. When in doubt I suggest you look for the Commons categories on a laptop too.
FB: Other examples of your photos, like this group showing Boucher’s Music lesson in its Transitional frame (rather later than the painting), include the whole work and its setting, and then progressively closer details. This is a particularly striking group – as though the approach to the painting by a viewer in the gallery is being mimicked in a series of high-resolution still shots, allowing the online viewer to see the framed work on the wall, and then move nearer and nearer. The Musée Cognacq-Jay does have three photos of this work on its website, including one in the frame, but in other examples are you perhaps trying to supply images which you think should be made available by the institutions themselves?
S: I do like to ‘slice’ the paintings, in order to cover the full image and the most relevant details, which could possibly stand alone as good compositions themselves, beside the main composition. This comes from an exercise I used to do when I was an art history student: to keep the work of art firmly in my memory, I would open a picture of it in a tablet, and, by enlarging it and scrolling up and down, I tried to determine the most satisfying detail. It really helps you actually to ‘see’ and memorize an artwork, and somehow have a glimpse into the mind of the artist, who included so many small details within it.
I know that details are also a useful supplement for those who study art, so I am glad to provide them – ‘for the progress of knowledge’, I like to think *smiles*.
Tabernacle of the sacrament, Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence
FB: Many of your photos, especially in your own country, have been taken in churches – another huge advantage for art historians, since the churches are often obscure and off the beaten tourist track. Do you have to get special permission to get the shots you want, of altarpieces and other works which may be badly lit or set high on a wall, and are you allowed to use anything like a ladder or a chair to reach them? Those of us who are less than tall do admire an ability to photograph something which can seem absurdly out of reach when seen through a viewfinder.
S: Sometimes I ask for a special permission to see venues which are closed for much of the time, or to access some parts reserved to the owners or the church, or for other uses. Most of the time I shoot with a hand-held camera, with flash only if allowed, and only a couple of times have I been able to take advantage of a ladder or other tools. Most of the time I fix the photos in post-editing, on the PC. A helpful tool I recently discovered is the flashlight on a phone, which can provide a good source of light from your pocket, for instance to enable you to find smaller details, like artists’ signatures.
FB: Do you ever go back and re-photograph works, perhaps because they’ve been restored or moved to be more visible? – or even because you can include the frame, which might have been left out before?
S: I often go back to places I have already visited, as in my photographic history I have gradually improved my experience and my skills, and I am always trying to make ‘the perfect image’. In my own city, Florence, in particular, I’ve returned two, three or even four times to the same place in order to take new shots. To give you an example, in the church of Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi (a Renaissance church which is often left out of tourists’ routes, as the majority of its most famous paintings were taken to the Louvre during the Napoleonic era) there is a masterpiece by a lesser-known but fascinating and eccentric artist, Carlo Portelli. It is a panel, 4.5 metres tall and full of figures depicting The beheading of St Romulus of Fiesole, placed in a dark chapel near the entrance. I think that the French did not take it as it is too large to pass through the door! I went there several times, and only in my last trip I realized where the signature of the artist is (on the belt of a woman) and how beautiful is the original carved frame from the mid-16th century.
Restorations, new lighting systems or temporary exhibitions are also good reasons for another visit, of course.
FB: For me, one of your photos that I was really happy to find was this one, above, of the Assumption of the Virgin, painted by Il Volterrano when he was only twenty. I wanted it for an article on the painter to show his early work, and also because his father was a sculptor and woodcarver, and may have made this frame for his son’s altarpiece – thus possibly launching him into a career which included a great many designs for moveable frames, as well as wall and ceiling frescos with integral painted borders. The picture was commissioned for the cathedral of Volterra, moved to the Oratory of Sant’Antonio Abate, and is now in the Diocesan Museum; however, you found it, and took a really good photo of it (please forgive the fact that I have tweaked it in Photoshop – sometimes I need to straighten images because the pictures were evidently hung impossibly high, above even your reach).
Do you have any framed paintings like this that you’re particularly pleased to have photographed? – either because they’re in rather obscure places, or difficult to access, or because you personally just like the combination of picture and frame, and enjoy looking at good images of them?
Sala delle Cornici, Museo Bardini, Florence
S: Rather than one single framed painting, some of my best memories are of some amazing frame collections which started my interest in these objects: the Renaissance rooms of the Victoria & Albert Museum, or the Frames Room (Sala delle Cornici) in the Museo Bardini, Florence – those had a great impact on me.
Vittorio Crosten (fl. 1663-1704), detail of a frame carved with peaches and apricots, c.1700
I also love the frames made by Vittorio Crosten displayed in the still life museum, the Museo della Natura Morta at the Medici Villa in Poggio a Caiano (near Florence): Crosten was one of the best woodcarvers of his time in Italy, and those frames were commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to ‘extend’ the still life paintings of products cultivated in the Medici estates. It’s a joy to observe all those carved fruits and flowers merging into rich gilded volutes.
With grateful thanks to Sailko (Francesco Bini) for his time and for such a fascinating interview; for all the images used here; and for a body of work which is of inestimable help for art historians everywhere.
Included below is his online message about the pandemic drastically reducing his income and hence his travel budget and his ability to visit museums, in case you are able to help him in return:
- Coronavirus emergency forced my main working place to close, so if you ever enjoyed my photographs I will appreciate if you support me with a small Paypal donation. I will use the funds to keep shooting and publishing new images in Wikimedia Commons. Thank you.
- L’emergenza coronavirus ha fatto chiudere il posto dove lavoravo. Se le mie foto ti sono state in qualche modo utili ti sarei molto grato se volessi aiutarmi con una piccola donazione su Paypal. Tutti i fondi che riceverò in questo modo saranno utilizzati per continuare a fotografare e caricare su Commons. Grazie.
Fra Galgario (1655-1743), Portrait of a gentleman in a Venetian Rococo panel frame, Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, Milan
Find Sailko’s ‘Places’ here
Find Sailko’s ‘Photographs of paintings’ here (arranged in pages of 200 thumbnails per page, for a current total of 36,000+ images):
The category of paintings shot by me is incomplete (I never have time to update it), but you can also link to a more complete category of my licence-free images here. You can navigate with the artists’ names by using the alphabetic tool at the top.
Pendant with a crucifix in gold on glass, with an inscribed ‘frame’, c.1290-1310, Museo Civico, Gubbio