Dixie’s Diabolical Decision, 2009
The answer to the question is, “No! I did not Photoshop that.”
People frequently confuse my photography with digital collage, which is itself a wonderful medium for art, it’s just not what I do to create the images you see in the gallery and on these web pages. So I thought it was about time I post a “How I Did It” blog entry to satisfy the curious and provide a little insight into the process I use to create a new image.
Case study…the new photo above, Dixie’s Diabolical Decision, which I created a couple of weeks back for a group show coming up at the end of May.
Let’s push aside all that mysterious “creative process” and “inspiration” jazz, and get right down to the business of shooting the photo. First, I need some source material, which — in our three dimensional world — usually involves a foreground and a background. For this photo I chose the cover of April Stevens’ album Teach Me Tiger for the background, and decided that April should be looking up at a floating grinning devil head (isn’t that obvious?), which would be the most prominent object in the foreground.
Original album cover
To the right is a picture of the original album released on Imperial Records in 1959 (my copy of the record isn’t nearly this clean, as you will see in a moment). I’d originally tried to work this album cover into one of the photos for my Plastic Prophets show, but the concept I developed at the time never quite felt right, so I abandoned the photo, but kept the cover in mind for the future. When I was presented the opportunity to contribute a photo to an upcoming group show, I again thought of April and her steady gaze into the void.
For the past year or so, I’ve staged each of my photos inside a lighting tent with big, bad, 500 watt photo floods blazing away on the outside, which fills the inside with nice even lighting. I spend a lot of time constructing the scene inside the tent — building a stage from records, setting up characters and nudging things around, until I get the composition that feels right for the photo I’m shooting.
Here’s what the stage inside the lighting tent looked like after I’d finished arranging the characters and was finally ready to start snapping photos.
Notice how the devil head is sort of suspended in space hanging above the records with a stick coming out the back of his neck? Well — duh! — how else am I going to make it appear as if the devil head is floating?
To get the devil head to stay in place I stuck putty to the inside of his nose, crammed a wooden coffee stirrer into the putty, and secured his neck to the stirrer with another glop of putty. We’ll deal with that mess in a little while. Putty and toothpicks are also used to suspend the kewpie head above April’s right ear, but that construction will be well outside the camera’s viewfinder.
Notice the reflection of the records onto the record cover? This is one of the hazards of using glossy album covers as backdrops for my photos. I spend a lot of time adjusting the lights, changing the camera angle, and placing black sheets of cardboard around the inside of the tent to minimize (but not eliminate, unfortunately) glare and reflections.
Okay, so that’s what the photo looks like from outside of the tent…but what does it look like through the viewfinder? Let’s snap the shutter and see!
There. That’s the picture. Not very exciting, is it?
The setting now shifts from the photo studio to my iMac, where the initial RAW image above will undergo all kinds of adjustments. This isn’t so different than the development process used for film photography — though I’m fine tuning pixels on a screen, rather than applying chemicals to a piece of paper.
The first adjustment is to straighten the image. After all, the wooden floor in my studio is 80 years old and my tripod cost 19 bucks, and remember how I said I choose the camera angle to minimize glare.
There. That looks straight. It wasn’t a big adjustment, but you can see how April’s body is on a horizontal plane.
Normally, I crop my photos to whatever dimensions best suit the characters and objects I’ve placed upon the stage, regardless of some fixed aspect ratio like 8 x 10” or 20 x 30”. This photo was a bit of an exception, since it was shot for a group show where all the pieces are to be 12 x 12″ squares. I chose to crop the image with the devil head floating down from the upper right corner, and with the kewpie head coming into the frame from the left. Here’s the change after cropping:
Now to adjust the image so that the elements of the photo I want to be most prominent will stand out and have a lively three dimensional quality. The image above is anything but lively. In fact, it’s kind of flat and muted. Criticizing my talents as a photographer even more…the kewpie is overexposed, April’s dress — which should be pink — is washed out, the devil head isn’t very scary, and the foreground figures lack impact. Most importantly, I want it to seem as if the figures are all coming out of a vast blackness, as if the entire picture has popped from the subconscious mind. To accomplish this, I have to reduce any glare, make the blacks that much blacker, and accentuate all of the light tones. Basically, I have to do a lot of knob twiddling. Exposure, brightness, black point, vibrancy, definition, and other geeky photo things.
Let’s see how the image looks after I’ve complete my tweaking.
Better! But not yet quite done…I still want April to look a little “hotter” (in the photographic technical sense, as opposed to what you were thinking…and, honestly, could April be any hotter?!?!). I want both devil figures to take on a truer red hue, whereas they are both a bit too orange. Likewise, I want to bring out the pink in April’s dress, and in the cheeks of the kewpie head. Finally, I want the pocket Buddhas to take on a neon quality against the black vinyl records.
The software I use to process photos allows me to individually adjust saturation, hue and luminosity for any color I choose. Post color adjustments, here’s what we get.
What’s left? Well, remember the stick and putty that suspends the devil head above the stage construction? Gotta get rid of that. I certainly don’t want the words “April Stevens” in the photo, and there’s an annoying reflection from the kewpie head right above April. There’s also this problem….
And this problem….
Basically, my copy of Teach Me Tiger wasn’t “mint” and was suffering from a lot of record wear. So, in addition to brushing out the text and carefully retouching the kewpie reflection, I repaired approximately 150 wear marks across the background, on April’s dress, her arms, shoulder and face.
And that was it! The final version….
If you look closely you’ll see that I left in just a little glare on the otherwise totally black background. There’s a red glare/reflection just below the devil head, which I chose to leave because it added a sense of “heat” to the floating head. There’s also a streak of glare just below the kewpie head, which again I chose to keep in the final photo, as it appears (to my eyes anyway) as the breath/voice of the kewpie speaking to April — who I renamed as Dixie once the photo was titled.
I ended up using a pearl finish for the final printed photo, which gave all of the characters a shimmering three dimensional quality — exactly what I was looking for!
Hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek at my process!
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