In April 2010, the Getty Conservation Institute and the Dia Art Foundation undertook a second campaign of aerial photography of Robert Smithson's iconic Spiral Jetty, using a low-cost helium-filled balloon. This campaign, combined with a previous one, has resulted in important baseline documentation of the artwork, as well as some stunning photographs. The campaign was part of the GCI's long-term investigation of novel and cost-effective methods of documenting outdoor sites.
Spiral Jetty, created in 1970, is a 1,500- foot-long and 15-foot-wide coil of local basalt rock and earth that extends into Utah's Great Salt Lake. In 1999 Dia acquired the work as a gift from the Robert Smithson Estate, and in a review of its conservation needs, the foundation decided that a documentation and condition monitoring system would benefit the work's long-term preservation. In March 2009, Francesca Esmay, Dia's conservator, and Tom Learner, head of the GCI's Modern and Contemporary Art Research, approached Rand Eppich and Aurora Tang in GCI Field Projects, seeking a simple, consistent, and cost-effective means of documenting the work for monitoring its condition. In May 2009, the GCI-Dia team undertook documentation of Spiral Jetty using aerial balloon photography and other techniques.
In April of this year, the Dia-GCI team returned to the site to test improvements and modifications to the balloon system—in particular, methods of keeping the camera horizontal—and to undertake training of Dia Art Foundation staff so that they could conduct the annual documentation of Spiral Jetty independently using the same system. The images captured in 2009 and 2010 were corrected for radial distortion and scaled from measurements taken on-site with survey equipment. These images will be compared to the ones captured in the future to inform conservators of any changes taking place at the site. Further modifications to the camera system that can rotate the camera to a vertical position are being tested in order to expand the range of documentation to include large contemporary murals.
The GCI is building on this experience to refine methods for low-cost documentation of sites, as part of the Institute's larger effort to develop practical and cost-effective techniques to assist the conservation profession.