the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “sepia

CONJURING GHOSTS

Mystery Mountain, 2016. Brand-new technology produces old-time feel.

I know all the songs that the cowboys know
‘Bout the big corral where the doggies go
‘Cause I learned them all on the radio
Yippie yi yo kai yay

                                            “I’m An Old Cowhand”, music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS THAT WE ARE NEVER REALLY FINISHED with photography’s past, using today’s technology to summon forth the look and spirit of what we see as the early innocence of the art. Photographers are always trying to wrench free of yesteryear, and yet, in our images, we love to romance the echoes of the shooters that we were, as well as the world that what there to shoot.

We like to conjure ghosts.

We’ve reached a place where, through one process or another, it’s easy to evoke almost any phase of photography we desire, a strange nostalgia that has artificially extended the use of film by a good many years into the digital era. We like the feel, the habits, even the defects of film as a storage medium. We build brand-new pinhole box cameras: we revive and repair old tool dies so we can manufacture factory-fresh editions of defective old gizmos. We write computer code that allows our smartphones to imitate the grain and texture of archaic celluloid emulsions.

Of course, there has to be subject matter to feed all this retro-tech, and, in the American west, the medium matches the message as we drench memories of the frontier in our own brew of reflective processes. Sepia tone, soft focus, high contrast, long exposures, all of them are used to summon the bygone glories of cactus and canyon. The settling of the west will always create a kind of poignant ache for photographers. The surveyors,  the settlers, even the Hollywood myth-makers all stole a march on us. We bring our cameras to try to spook up a smidgen of the Big Pictures that we missed.

It’s a kind of harmless fakery that we paint upon mesa and mountain, a re-interpretation of a truth none of us really knows for sure. It’s dressing up to play cowboys and indians, with the camera’s eye to help make the best, most authentic forgeries we can muster. Living in the west in the 21st century, I find that conjuring ghosts, like indulging in any other kind of fantasy photography, is like building a doll house. I control the furniture, the wall paper, the layout of the rooms. We all arrived to late to ask the Riders of the Purple Sage to smile for the birdie. But there are still smiles of a sort, even an occasional tear, to be drawn in the dust.


DON’T MESS WITH MR. IN-BETWEEN

The light on this railroad depot was not as harsh or contrasty as seen here: I merely liked it better that way.

The light on this railroad depot was not as harsh or contrasty as seen here: I merely liked it better that way.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY ALWAYS SEEMS TO BE ABOUT TWO THINGS THAT ARE POLAR OPPOSITES. On one hand, we have labored mightily for nearly two hundred years to make our little boxes reproduce as full a representation of the range of tone in nature as possible, to ape the eye to a clinical certainty. On the other hand, we love to distort that reality for specific purposes…..call it abstraction, minimalism, or your own favorite buzz word. We extol the natural look and revere the unnatural in nearly the same breath.

Originally, there wasn’t much in the way of attenuation between light and dark in photographs. Black was blackblackblack and white was whitewhitewhite (yes, I read a lot of e.e. cummings as a child). Better films eventually led to a greater variance in shades and nuances, and pioneering work by Uncle Ansel and other Big Saints produced exhaustive studies on precisely how many shades of grey could be delivered in a carefully crafted photograph. But even as we can now easily produce images with great variances in light and dark, some pictures are still served better by going back to clean, simple boundaries for values.

Hard, high-contrast blacks and whites are killers of texture but they are great modelers of dimension. A cube with stark differences between its light and dark sides takes on the more tangible feel of a solid object occupying space, and that extra degree of dimensionality helps in the success of certain compositions.

The above image was originally far more nuanced than the altered version you see here, but, as a very basic arrangement of shapes in space, I like the picture better without too much midrange value. It helps the faux nostalgia feel of the subject matter as well, even though it might be altogether wrong for a million other subjects. The unscientific answer is, you know it when you see it.

One thing is for sure. Even when we look for the ring of truth in our images, turn out that there’s more than one ring tone. Decide what you need for a specific image. Maximized selection of tools is the most single important part of making a picture.

 

 


A LITTLE R/R

Tempe Crossing, 2014.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I CAME ACROSS SOME MENTAL BAGGAGE THE OTHER DAY DURING A SHOOT BENEATH AN OLD TRESTLE. The following song by the late Harry Nilsson churned back into my forebrain from a land far away. It wasn’t one of his bigger hits, but it has always struck a chord with me, at least the part of me that likes to make pictures:

When we got married back in 1944

We’d board that Silverliner below Baltimore

Trip to Virginia on a sunny honeymoon

Nobody cares about the railroads anymore

We’d tip the porter for a place of our own

Then send a postcard to your mom and dad back home

Mmm, it did something to you when you’d hear that “All aboard”
Nobody cares about the railroads anymore

Tumbleweed Connection

Woo-ee, woo-oo-oo-ee, woo-ee

Woo-ee, woo-oo-oo-ee, woo-ee

We had a daughter and you oughtta see her now

She has a boyfriend who looks just like my gal Sal

And when they’re married they won’t need us anymore

They’ll board an aeroplane and fly away from Baltimore

Woo-ee, woo-oo-oo-ee, woo-ee

Nobody cares about the railroads anymore

(lyrics copyright Warner-Chappell Music)

The ghosts are out there. So are the pictures.

All aboard.

 


THE BLUE AND THE GREY

Same shot, converted in-camera to monochrome. Now it's too bland.

A decent winter scene, a bit too charming in its full color original, converted in-camera to straight monochrome. Now, however, it’s too bland.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE GREAT BENEFITS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, other than its ease and affordability, is the speed at which it allows you to make comparative value judgements on images in the field. Even as digital darkrooms make it ever easier to change or modify your vision after the fact, today’s cameras also allow you to choose between several versions of a photograph while its subject is right at hand. This is an amazing mental and artistic economy, and it’s another reason why this is the absolute best time in history to be making pictures.

Many of us who made the transition from film have a lifelong habit of “bracketing”, taking multiples of the same image over a range of exposure rates to ensure that we are “covered” with at least one keeper in the batch. Others have already adopted the equivalent habit of taking several different frames with a sampling of varying white balances. I also find it helpful to use today’s in-camera filters to instantly convert color shots to three other monochrome “takes”….straight black and white, sepia and cyanotype. It’s a way to see if certain low-color subject matter will actually benefit from being reworked as duotone, and knowing that fact extra fast.

Another in-camera conversion, this time to cyanotype. This says winter to me.

Another in-camera conversion, this time to cyanotype. This one says “winter” to me. 1/320 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Color or its selective elimination is one of the easiest tools to wield in photography. In the case of the series shown in this post, I decided that the winter scene was a little too warm and cheery in full color, a little flat in straight B&W, but properly evocative of winter’s severity in cyan. The choice was quick, and I still had the color master shot that I could choose to massage later on.

Shooting fast, that is, at the speed of your mood or whim, is a remarkable luxury, and exploiting it to the max is easy with even the most elementary camera. And anything that converts more “maybe” shots to “yes” is my idea of a good time.

I’ll have a Blue Christmas, thank you.