As part of our ongoing effort to share the operation of the National Portrait Gallery with our readers, here is a short Q and A with one of our staff members, Alex Cooper.
Q: What is your job and title here at NPG?
A: I am the National Portrait Gallery’s resident lighting designer. My job is to design exhibition and architectural lighting for the NPG’s exhibitions and for the permanent collection works on view to the public.
Q: Where did you go to college, and what did you study?
A: I have an MFA in lighting design from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Q: What project at NPG has given you your most significant challenge?
A: Must I choose just one? I’m tempted to say the “Hide/Seek” exhibition due to the number of works and wide range of artistic styles to support, but honestly the daguerrean jewelry show “Tokens of Affection” (below) was the biggest (little) show I have ever designed for a museum. It was technically challenging because we squeezed 60 objects into 6 small cases for the show, which in turn required us to install and focus more than 200 miniaturized lighting fixtures in very cramped quarters.
Aesthetically the challenge was to render each piece of jewelry as both an interesting sculptural form and a work of portraiture—two very different design approaches. Lighting traditional daguerreotypes is difficult enough. It’s like trying to light a mirror. Without the right architectural treatments, object lighting angle, etc., the image just goes away in white-flash.
Working with daguerreotype images embedded in jewelry, and the sheer number of them, doing it in a way that didn’t draw too much attention to the design conceits or technical artifice remaining within the recommended conservation light-level limits was, well, tough.
If I remember correctly, the object installation took two days, the lighting installation required a full week. It was a nice show though.
Q: What is your favorite work in the collection and why?
A: Easy: Lincoln’s life masks (below). They are connected to the subject (Lincoln) in such a direct/visceral way. It’s always interesting to experience an object that has shared the room with the subject. Also, they evoke such a clear visual narrative of the man’s life.
Listen to Alex Cooper's Face-to-Face talk on exhibition lighting (18:33).
Face-to-Face occurs most Thursday evenings at the National Portrait Gallery. The next Face-to-Face talk is Thursday, June 2, when Ellen Miles speaks about Hannah Skinner Church, Maria Church, and Elizabeth Bentley Church. The talk runs from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Visitors meet the presenter in the museum’s F Street lobby and then walk to the appropriate gallery.