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Posts Tagged ‘Loteria’

March already? Far too much time has passed between posts, but I’ve been hard at work on a new photograph and video to share.

Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha — Pedro Garcia, 1958

Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha — Pedro Garcia, 1958

Way back in 2012 I made an attempt at creating a photo built around a super cool album cover that featured a slinky masked dancer cavorting about beneath a cascade of streamers and balloons (seen to the right). After staging and shooting the photo, the images lingered in my computer, and as I prepped for my 2013 summer show at the Pannikin in La Jolla, I simply abandoned what I’d shot. Oh, sure, I could show you the unfinished work here and now, but the OCD in me would probably try to make a diamond from a pigs ear and I’d spend weeks and weeks trying to at least make the failed composition look presentable. Instead, let’s jump right to the brand new photo — which I like!

Madame Paparazzi's wicked danse of seductive transformation

Madame Paparazzi’s wicked danse of seductive transformation

I actually took over 30 shots of this staging, then constructed the final image from the 7 best images, layering portions of each photo one atop the next to achieve deep focus throughout the final piece.

I tend to be easily distracted while working on my creative pursuits, so rather than snap the photos, sort through the candidate images, and plow through with all the necessary image adjustments, I ended up creating a video for the photo before I actually completed the photo (and, yes, that is possible in the world of Wind-up Dreams & Vinyl Nightmares). The frames for the animation were taken while I was deconstructing the stage set, and then reassembled into a free flowing pan’n’scan video using a whole bunch of software: Aperture, GraphicConverter, iDraw, and a new (to me) slideshow package called FotoMagico that allowed me to create deeper zooms than I’d used in previous animations. Nice piece of software worth checking out!

In an ideal world making one of these videos would be really simple: I’d come up with an idea, I’d choose some music, I’d shoot all the frames, and — voila! — there I’d have a finished video! Remember, though, that I begin with the finished photo, and, therefore, the last frame in the animation. The trick, then, is to conceive of the story in reverse, and begin taking things away from the scene in an order that will make some logical narrative sense once everything is reordered to run from start to finish. Oh, and without a sense of the audio that will be used.

This is… tricky.

Ah! But luckily, not impossible, and even when mistakes are made (for instance, removing objects out of order or completely reconsidering the storyboard during post production) software makes nearly anything possible.

Let’s take a look!

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It’s been quite a while since I last wrote a post on how I go about photographing and creating some of the images you’ll find on my web site, and with the release of a brand new limited edition print imminent I thought I’d chime in on some of the behind the scene shenanigans that went into the creation of that image — She who creates Good Fortune.

Preliminary Stuff

The concept behind this photo would be the coming into being of an entity that was responsible for bringing Fate to the world through the creation of tarot cards. I envisioned an artist standing at an easel painting cards one at a time, with a stack of blank cards on one side and finished cards on the other. Surrounding the figures would be elements representing other celestial and mystical realms, while in the background an even higher mystical figure would look on.

Brush CloseupPlaying the role of “artist” at the center of the new composition would be a figure I frequently refer to as “Marilyn”, solely because she is blonde and has a billowy dress. She was produced by the Marx Toy Company in a set of scantily clad figures known as “Louis’s Beauties”. Her pose, with one hand stretching forward and the other curved inward, would be perfect — so long as I could place a tiny paintbrush in her hand and set a “canvas” before her on an easel. And that’s what you see to the right. I fashioned an easel from wooden coffee stirrers (propped up by undetected Legos), while the paintbrush was made from the end of a toothpick and a skinny strip of aluminum foil wrapped around the snipped ends of an actual paintbrush.

The Photo Shoot

Over the past couple of years my process has become increasingly complex, with elaborate stage sets, and images that are sandwiched together from multiple focus layers (see a past post on the subject of creating focus stacks). Seriously, some of my photos take a month or more to produce. So, in preparing work for my 2013 summer show I decided to go “back to basics” for a set of simple landscape image: one record cover, one stack of 45’s, a primary figure, and maybe a couple of additional figures in the background. Deep focus? Forget it; I wanted the focus to only be on a single character emerging from the center of a record, and the rest of the image could be blurry — like real professional photography!

For these photos I put away my DSLR and my nice L-series lens, and instead chose to use my “walking around” camera — a compact little Canon SD-1000 Elf with a built-in digital macro setting that would be perfect for getting up close and personal with the characters I wanted to highlight. I shot brides and grooms, belly dancers, religious icons, and all sorts of figures — all from a few inches away with a very shallow depth of field (focal length 5.8mm, aperture f/2.8). I was able to take each of these photos fairly quickly, spending not much more than a day or so shooting and adjusting the finished image, while retaining the conceptual and symbolic elements of my more elaborate images.

Staging for She who creates Good Fortune

Staging for She who creates Good Fortune

Above, you see the final staging for She who creates Good Fortune. Very simple. An album cover in the background, a stack of records in the foreground (actually balanced atop alphabet blocks in addition to the book you see), and a handful of objects used to tell the story. The whole scene, from back to front, is about 8 inches deep, with the dancer emerging from the stack of records about 4½ inches from the back. In front of everything is a crude tripod I built out of Legos to compose my shot and hold the camera steady.

IMG_0319As you can see in the photo on the left, the camera sits only a few inches from the action. Given the tight focal length and relatively large aperture, the depth of field is going to be very shallow — exactly what I was seeking to accomplish with this series of macro landscapes. Except…

For this particular photo that wasn’t what I wanted. Focusing on the artist in the center of the record brought her nicely into focus, but left the card she was painting — and even the paintbrush! — out of focus. Likewise, the card being laid down and the mouse were fuzzy, and I felt those elements of the image were just as important (symbolically) as the artist at the center.

So, it was back to my deep focus trick to mask out and combine the in-focus elements from multiple photos to construct a single image. Luckily, for this photo, I’d only have to worry about two images: one that held the foreground in focus and one that held the background in focus (or, actually, just the two farthest tarot cards — the album cover and Loteria blocks could remain out of focus). Easy, right?

Nope.

Take a look at the two photos below: one focused at the center of the artist’s back, the other focused on the tarot card she is painting. Apart from the shifting of focus from the area around the artist to the area just beyond the artist, notice anything slightly peculiar?

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My deep focus trick relies on overlaying portions of one photo on top of another — provided all the photos are taken from exactly the same vantage point, something my professional tripod does quite well. A tripod made of Legos… not so much. So what you see above is a slight shift in vantage point as I moved the camera to alter the focus. And that means this when the two photos are laid one atop the other:

Foreground and background overlay

Foreground and background overlay — click to view larger image

Well now, THAT doesn’t look very good, does it?

What should have been an easy task of masking out the in-focus elements of the foreground and layering them over the background in one convenient step became a lot more challenging. If you look carefully at the image above you’ll see that the “difference ” (for lack of a better word) between the two images is not merely a simple (x,y) shift of a few pixels. The perspective has actually changed from one image to the next, though not a lot. Want some proof? Take a look at an actual size closeup of the overlay on the left side of the record label:

Photo overlay — left side detail

Photo overlay — left side detail

Note the position of each character in the word “Productions” from one image to the other. The base of the “P” is off by a little, with the better focused image a little higher and shifted a bit to the right. By the time you get to the “n” and the “s”, what had been a little change is noticeably larger. And if you scan all the way over to the right side of the record label…

Photo overlay — right side detail

Photo overlay — right side detail

Yikes! the difference is now very, very noticeable! So much for my plan to simply place pieces of the foreground over the background.

The solution?

Forcing square pegs into round holes

Yep, that’s pretty much what I had to do. Upon closely examining the foreground image I identified nine areas that could be carefully masked out and placed on top of the background, as you can see in the animation below (you can read about how to create brushed masked layers using Apple’s Aperture software here):

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Note that most of the masked layers have been carefully shaped to completely encircle a given region (say, text on the label) with the perimeter of the “puzzle piece” falling on an area of uniform color and texture, such as the brownish-orange of the record label. By creating the layers in this way, and feathering the edges, it became much easier to blend the top layer into the image beneath. In some cases (such as with the Wheel Of Fortune region, below), this wasn’t possible, and the puzzle piece had to cut through a “solid” object. Even in these cases, however, you’ll notice that the edge remains — as much as possible — within uniform regions of the masked layer (as below, across the field of blue on the tarot card).

Wheel of Fortune layer (detail)

Wheel of Fortune layer (detail)

Once all of the layers had been masked and output as transparent TIFFs, assembling the final image became an exercise of dropping puzzle pieces over the background and scooting them around until each was aligned (as closely as possible) with the background. The animation below illustrates how this was done for the text on the right side of the label, first moving it horizontally and vertically, then rotating the image ever so slightly to compensate for the change in perspective from one photo to the next (eyeballing the alignment, of course).

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Note:
I also had to slightly resize the layered image to match the height and width of the text in the underlying background. Because these photos were macro shots, the slightest difference in distance (and angle) of the lens to the objects from one photo to the next resulted in similar differences in what was captured by the camera. So, where the width of the phrase “IN THE SKY” might be w in the background photo, it might be w’ in the foreground photo requiring that the dimensions of layered “puzzle piece” be changed to match what it would be correcting. Optics! Cool! (Or not so cool…)

All told I created nine separate foreground layers to assemble the final image and achieve the look I had been seeking. To finish off the piece, I selectively erased some of the background yellow on the tarot card being “painted” to create the illusion of the artist adding the finishing touches on a new card of Good Fortune. Likewise, the surface of the card on the right was erased to give the appearance of a stack of blank cards waiting to be brought to life.

Yes, it was a lot more effort than I’d been anticipating, but I was more than happy with the results, and She who creates Good Fortune was one of the best received images in my summer solo show.

She who creates Good Fortune

She who creates Good Fortune

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We’re going to take a short break from my Comic-Con wrap-up for a quick little instructional post on how to make your own alphabet blocks. They’re just like regular alphabet blocks except they don’t necessarily have the alphabet on the face—but we’re still going to call them “alphabet blocks.” Basically, we’re going to be creating photo alphabet blocks, placing alphabet block-sized images on the face of each small wooden cube. Like a lot of my how-to posts I’m going to ramble for a bit about the motivation for creating custom alphabet blocks, so if you’re in a hurry, scroll down to the section titled “New and improved Mexican Loteria blocks.” Otherwise, read on and enjoy!

A little background

Arlene measures the value of her soul while listening to the insidious sounds of Musica de los Muertos — 2007

I’ve been using traditional children’s alphabet blocks in my photography for several years, dating back to around 2007, when I discovered that blocks would allow me to build more elaborate stages for my photos. Until that time, most of my work lived on a single horizontal plane atop the stacks of records that formed the physical base of each scene. Using blocks I could create tiers and steps, and better integrate the objects in the foreground with the vintage album covers in the back.

The blocks also allowed me to interject words and numbers into my compositions in a manner that stayed true to my vintage sensibilities. Like many of the toy figures that roam about my surreal constructions, alphabet blocks are objects that connect to past memories, and set the narrative in a familiar—yet unsettled—time period.

Money blocks!

The drawback of traditional alphabet blocks is that each set contains only 38 different characters (A-Z, 1-9, +, -, =). Sure, that’s plenty for creating words, numbers and equations, but I soon found the blocks somewhat limiting. My work relies quite heavily on symbolism and iconography to represent ideas in a much more interpretive way than the literal communication of letters and words. While working on my 2009 solo show Plastic Prophets of Vinyl Redemption I “invented” money blocks, which are nothing more than regular alphabet blocks wrapped with a piece of old-style U.S. currency like a little birthday present. A good example of money block use is seen below, with the blocks adding both compositional structure and narrative symbolism.

Mindy dreams of pearls and the envy of all the girls at Kappa Nu — 2008

My next foray into alphabet block customization came in 2010 as I was preparing new work for Seven Signs of the Kewpie Apocalypse. For this show I had it in my head that several pieces would benefit from alphabet blocks that looked like Mexican Loteria cards. Surely, such blocks must exist, or so I thought, for several reasons:

  • Loteria images are everywhere! You can find them on greeting cards, matchbooks, cigarette cases, shopping bags, wallets, pendants, mouse pads, and beaded curtains.
  • There’s no possible way that I’m the first person in all the world to have thought that Loteria images should be on alphabet blocks.
  • They simply should exist because the idea of stackable Loteria blocks is just too cool!

Nope. I searched and searched, along the way finding alphabet blocks for languages across the globe from China to Egypt, but nothing that even remotely resembled what I was envisioning for my new photos. So I made my own.

A little history for those unfamiliar with Loteria cards
Loteria is a bingo-like game played by matching colorful images selected from a deck of cards with identical images on a player’s game board. It’s a simple but entertaining game, largely because of the wonderful pictures of people and things such as the sun, the moon, the devil, and the human heart. The images that most people associate with Loteria were created by Don Clemente Jacques in 1887, which continue to be produced to this day.

Mexican Loteria blocks — the early years

My first attempt at creating Loteria blocks was mildly successful, but not particularly satisfying. Having a nice deck of Loteria cards I simply scanned the card faces as high quality TIFF files, arranged the images into a document as one might envision the faces of a cube unfolded to lay flat, printed, then wrapped the paper around a normal alphabet block as I’d done previously to create money blocks.

Yeah, I guess they look okay, but the images are only so sharp, the colors are rather dull, and the folded end flaps were too thick and bulky, so you couldn’t really stack the blocks without first setting them beneath heavy books for a few hours to coax the paper flaps to lay flat. You also see only one image on each block, as I never could quite get the dimensions right to center images on every side of the block (and forget about the top or bottom flaps). Still, I used them for the photos in the exhibit with reasonable success.

Seven Signs of the Kewpie Apocalypse — 2010

Which brings us to the present day.

New and improved Mexican Loteria blocks!

Always looking to improve the look of my photos, I recently set out to create my own custom Loteria blocks that would improve upon the quick’n’dirty paper-fold blocks I’d previously produced. To this end, the blocks needed to be:

  1. Colorful!
  2. Sharp!
  3. Printed on all 6 sides!
  4. Easily stackable!

Rather than wrap traditional blocks with paper, I decided that a better solution would be to either apply or transfer existing Loteria images directly onto blank wooden blocks. I’d attempted photo transfers onto wood in the past, but had been less than happy with the results. DIY photo transfers are great if you’re willing to sacrifice a little bit of clarity and accept some distress to the image as you peel away layers of the transfer material. I’m not one to generally sacrifice or accept  quality—unless that’s exactly what I want, and in this case, it was not. So, for this project, I’d be applying existing Loteria images directly onto the face of blank wooden blocks using decoupage.

Step one — Preparing the images

Finding Loteria images that would fit onto the face of an alphabet-size block was not as difficult as I’d imagined. Pasatiempos Gallo makes a set of mini Loteria games that are intended to be tucked as prizes inside a piñata. The whole game—cards and boards—is printed on a single sheet of perforated light cardboard that is folded up to fit inside a playing card-size plastic wrap. Perfect! Though the cards were too large to fit on the side of an alphabet block, the images on the game boards were juuuuust right! Using a pair of scissors, I cut out each image, trimming to just outside the black line that borders each colorful illustration, effectively creating a deck of super mini Loteria cards

Trimming images from the mini Loteria game boards

Note on the printing process!
The Loteria images used for this project were professionally printed, likely using an offset printing process. If you consider using this same process for your own photos or images you will want to make sure that the images are similarly printed using either a laser printer or professional printing equipment other than ink jet. The process of applying the image to another surface involves the use of goopy liquids that  may cause standard inks (even when dry) to blur or smear. Be forewarned!

Traditional Loteria sets include 54 different images. Unfortunately, the mini game includes only 36, choosing to leave out 18 “less essential” images such as La Botella, El Arpa, and La Maceta (the bottle, harp, and pot, respectively). At first, this caused me no special grief… until I realized that La Calavera (The Skull) and El Musico (The Musician) were not included in the set. Oh, sadness.

Step two  — Preparing the blocks

Alphabet blocks come in all sizes, depending on the manufacturer. The alphabet blocks you see in my photos are produced by Melissa & Doug. They are really great blocks measuring 1 and 3/16ths of an inch on each side. There are a number of manufacturers of plain, unpainted blocks around the country, but the precise dimensions used by Melissa & Doug eluded me. For this project I chose 1 and 1/4 inch blocks from Barclay Wood Toys and Blocks located in Hebron, Indiana. Their blocks are made of kiln dried hardwoods (maple, birch, ash, etc) and at a cost of 16 cents per block I bought 16 for about $12 (including postage). Since there were 36 different Loteria images and I wanted to place a different illustration on each side of my blocks, I’d need to make six blocks (leaving ten for mistakes, er, future custom blocks.

I wanted my new and improved blocks to somewhat resemble the blocks I’d made using the paper wrapping method, so I made the decision to place the Loteria images on clean, white backgrounds—kind of replicating the white backgrounds of traditional alphabet blocks (though without the colored edge borders). A different approach would have been to stain the blocks to give them an old world feel, and while I think that would have looked spectacular, the white backgrounds would provide greater image contrast when incorporated into my work.

First coat applied to the unfinished wooden blocks

I applied two coats of white enamel spray paint to the blocks, placing each atop a quarter to prevent the painted blocks from sticking to the newspaper drop cloths.

Step three — Organizing the images

Didn’t we already prepare the images? Yes! But now we are organizing the images. Remember, my intention was to use these custom blocks in my photos, and how calamitous would it be to be in the midst of composing a scene and discover that El Diablito (The Devil) was on the same block as El Alacran (The Scorpion)? Horrors!

I divided my mini images into six groups—one per block—making sure that there would be a good distribution of  illustration themes and colors from one block to the next. So, for example, a single block might have one side depicting a person, another with a celestial body, another with something that grows, etc. I also used this time to plan the orientation of each image on each block. There really aren’t any hard and fast rules here, but have you ever looked at a drawing or painting of a pair of dice and had the feeling that something is wrong? That usually happens when the artist mixes up the number of dots that should appear on each face—i.e. one is next to six, three is next to four, two is next to five—combinations that won’t be found on a real die.

‘A’ is for apple…

The same holds true with alphabet blocks where, generally, the painted letter on the front of a block will be right-side up, with the letter on the opposite face will be upside down. Likewise, the outlined letters, numbers and illustrations on the unpainted sides (those that wrap all the way around the block between the painted sides) are flipped 90° from the main letters on the painted faces. (Go ahead, if you have some blocks handy, check it out.)

In any case, decide on a strategy for how your images will be oriented on the faces of your blocks. In my case, I decided that images on opposite sides of a block would be vertically flipped (like on traditional alphabet blocks). Images on adjacent blocks would be flipped 90°, so no two touching faces would ever have the images oriented in the same direction. I did this, again, to provide greater contrast for the image that would be facing the camera.

Organizing the images might not sound important, but will save steps later on when you discover that an image 30 seconds from drying solid has been affixed to the block upside down.

Step four — Attaching images to the blocks

With the paint dry we’re finally ready to attach images to the sides of our custom alphabet blocks! If you’ve ever decoupaged, this part is super easy. Of course, prior to this project, I had never decoupaged… and it was still easy!

I used Mod Podge to affix the mini Loteria images to the sides of my painted blocks. Mod Podge is, basically, a bunch of goo that acts as a glue, finish and sealer, that comes in all kinds of “flavors” such as matte, gloss, and sparkle (and probably a lot more based on the dizzying array of bottles I found at my local craft store).  I chose Gloss Lustre. I also chose a container with a flip-top drip applicator, as I didn’t anticipate the need for a whole lot of Mod Podge. For larger projects you may want to get a big ol’ vat of Mod Podge and a paint brush to slop on your glue and sealant.

Attaching an image to a wood surface is a two step process:

The Glue Step

    1. Place a few drops of Mod Podge on the surface of a block.
    2. Spread the goo over the surface using a foam brush (or a paintbrush), thoroughly covering any area where you plan on attaching the image.
    3. Place the image face down on your workspace, and place a couple of drops of Mod Podge on the back of the image.
    4. Once again, spread that goo around, making sure that you brush the goo up to and over the edge of the image.
    5. Take the now gooey image and place it—face up, of course—on the equally gooey surface of the block. The image is going to slip and slide a bit, which is actually to your advantage as you can slip and slide it right into place at the very center of the alphabet block. I actually used the backside of a fork for this task, as the width of the fork was a little narrower than the height of the mini Loteria images, so I could easily eyeball the horizontal and vertical center points of my blocks.
    6. You want to make sure that every little piece of the image is well attached to the underlying block, and that evil air bubbles get squeezed out from beneath the commingling layers of goo. How? Oh, I suppose you could use a fancy rubber roller for this kind of job. I used the fork from step 5, rocking it back and forth to firmly seat the center of the image and squeeze out bubbles. I then ran the rounded edge of the tines along the perimeter of the image to squeeze out excess goo and make sure every edge and corner was firmly affixed to the block.
    7. Wait 15 or 20 minutes for the Mod Podge to dry. You can pass the time by reading my blog or by cleaning your brush using ordinary tap water.

Note!
Remember that Mod Podge is a glue, and though it is water soluble (to a point), your brushes will be very unhappy if they are allowed to dry solid in a coat of Mod Podge goo!

The Sealing Step
Once the first application of Mod Podge has dried, you seal and finish the now glued-on image with a second application of Mod Podge. Yes, the same Mod Podge. Remember, it’s a glue and sealer all in one!

    1. Place a few drops of Mod Podge on the surface of your image.
    2. Spread the goo over the image surface, making sure of three very important things:
      • Cover the entire surface, spreading beyond the edges and corners.
      • Brush as smoothly as possible (which is why a foam brush is recommended).
      • Brush in one direction.
    3. That’s it!

Allow 15 to 20 minutes for the sealant coat to dry—perfectly clear!—and one face of the alphabet block is finished.

For the Loteria blocks I worked on all six at the same time, basically doing the primary (i.e. the coolest) image for each block first, then rotating to an adjacent side to affix that image, and so forth until all six sides were complete.

The results?

My set of six finished Loteria blocks!

I’m incredibly happy with the way my blocks came out and I can’t wait to begin using them in upcoming photos! Next—and since I still have 10 unused blank blocks—I think I’ll begin brainstorming future custom alphabet blocks. Famous authors? Notable scientists? Tarot cards? What do you think, Patient Reader; any suggestions?

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