There are those that you're instantly proud of, those that you worked on for so long that you are sick of it, and learn to appreciate it later on with some time away, those that are just okay, and then there are…the others.

The rejects, the bad and the ugly, the forced, the "what was I thinking?"

Some of these I never gave up hope for until recently, I kept a vigil for some of them, waiting for a eureka moment that never came.But these are my ugly children, the heretofore unseen, the lesser arcana, the, well, you get the idea. The impetus for posting these is twofold - a response to a recent comment that I bang out one good one after another, which is not the case. The other is a sort of wake, a last goodbye, a public funeral for these, my well-intentioned but doomed soldiers. I tried to save them all, I wanted them to succeed, but they were pretty much lame to begin with - and these aren't even the very worst of my ugly bunch!

Hopefully you will find some humor in this post. I present to you, ten of my very worst ideas, in no particular order…


Portal to Nowhere - I spent so much time on this one that I lost sight of the fact that there is no point to it, and never was. A little too comedic for my portfolio, but it's not a total loss - I used this environment for my recent "Because It Is A Desert."


Going…Down? - I liked the colors, the treatment, even the model shot. But, what the hell is he looking at? I didn't know then, and I still don't!



Father forgive me, I know not what I do! - I thought Ed would make a great priest character, but, again, what or who is he looking at? Where is he? No idea. A "testament" to unfinished, a gospel of nothing! 




Red Riding Hood is Pissed!  - but why? At whom? As she is addressing the camera, we will never know. By the time I got to this point, I didn't care either!


Magritte called, and he was not happy - This was to be part of my "Red Balloon series from last year, but there is no point to what's going on here. I loved the model shot, I loved the colors, but no amount of creative writing could give this mess a point of view!



Overdose - one of the recent ideas I had going into a shoot, and a reminder of never to plan shoots ever again! I couldn't decide if this was cool or stupid, even days later. If you can't even tell if you like it, you probably don't!




Slice of Beefcake - I loved the lighting on this shot. I even liked the cuts in the skin, but what the hell is this mess supposed to be? Turns out I didn't care and neither should you! I did recycle the model shot in another lame shot that I regret posting to this day, called "Augment and Diminish." 





Pay a Toll to the Troll!  - I really wanted this one to work - I loved Ed's theatricality here, and he really gave me a character. The idea was to continue my Ladders series with an idea that under every ladder, which represents opportunities and escapes, there is something that threatens to knock you down. This character was supposed to represent every negative impulse or energy in your life - the trouble is, I didn't like him either - so into the trash he went. 




The Dapper Crow - oh, what was I thinking? I distinctly remember this early one was done on a Sunday while I was bored. I grabbed a model shot, I grabbed a stock crow shot from online, and made…this. Why? I don't know, and I am grateful I had the sense to not post it. 




Hanoi Hanna?  - Oh man, what a piece of CRAP! It was silly, it was dorky, and the only thing I was happy with were the laser beams I made from scratch. This is certainly one of the worst of the worst!


I hope you enjoyed these in some way. And please, for all that is Holy, please do not share these images - EVER!

Michael Bilotta
Oct 15, 2013

The ability to change things with digital editing opens up all sorts of possibilities to the artist or editor. There are now more choices and do-overs possible than ever before. But just because a thing can be done, does not mean it necessarily should be done.

We've seen some of the pitfalls of this in music and film already. A few that come to mind are:

the Police "Don't Stand So Close To Me" - they all but broke up and then did one last recording - an update of their 1980 classic. It was polished, modernized, and utterly devoid of the character of the original.

George Lucas/Star Wars - updated the first three Star Wars films, adding pointless characters, a new alien band, and most of the other tweaks added nothing to the story, and served as flashy tests for his future films.

E.T. - the original film was beloved, emotional, and at the time, almost perfect. A few years later, the director, Stephen Spielberg decided it was too scary to have government agents wielding guns, so he digitally replaced them with walkie talkies. It looked stupid, and completely implausible.

But there are some re-cuts that do some good - it depends on the reasons why, and who is doing it, and what the objective of the attempt is. "Blade Runner" comes to mind. The original was kind of sabotaged by the studio, and the director and star were forced to add a Noirish voice-over to help the audience understand what was going on. They also had to tack on a sunny, happy ending. The Director's cut allowed the director to restore the film to his original vision - eliminating the narration track and the happy ending. Some prefer the older version - most people, once they embrace something, tend to reject someone tampering with what they love.

It seems like a futile exercise most of the time, a waste of time - why not work on new material? Well for me, the ones I have re-edited so far were, in my opinion, good ideas that were not as strong as they could be, largely because of editing skills that were not up to the task. Most artists evolve their aesthetic over time, and I am no different. After working on conceptual/fine art photography for two years now, I have learned a lot, and got better at it. I also have better tools now, and experience in shooting and editing that I didn't have when I started it. I learned from the mistakes as well as the successes, more from the mistakes.

The ones I have edited again were not mistakes, just a little rough around the edges, most of them a year old or so. Some were cropped too tightly, some had bad color decisions, and one had a location that was not logical to the concept. I may do a few more in the future, I will never claim that any of them are perfect. Some were bad ideas or weak, and no amount of editing can save them. Some were close but could be better. These are the ones I want to fix - the inner promise being not to distract from the concept a la George Lucas, but to strengthen what was there, or what should have been there, and serve the idea only.

Here are a recent few, presented side-by-side, before and after, and the notes I wrote about them:

the WorkForce (revisited):



This is one of the older ones that I've been meaning to revise but dreading it at the same time. It was complicated a year ago, it's even more complicated now. So many layers. One of the hardest ones I worked through a year ago, and now, one of the hardest revisions to complete.

What is the old adage? "If I knew then what I know now…"

Very true, and my approach to layer masking a year ago was a lot sloppier and chaotic than it is now. This is a clone shot. One foreground image, and a variation of it cloned multiple times behind him. Except, I stacked the clones on top of the foreground, and painted out the excess. Back then, I was not using a Wacom tablet, so the masks were sloppy, but easy to hide the rough edges with my washed out sky of the original. Dark backgrounds are notoriously difficult to mask over hair lines and such. I basically had to strip away everything but the group of clones to do this one over again, and try to massage the layer masks of the group as best I could.

And what is the real impetus for doing this shot over again? The original did well for me; it is one of my most stolen images online. A couple inquiries have come asking to use it for album art. It was one of my most popular a year ago. But…

This workforce should have been indoors. There is no reason for clouds, sky, and a floating clock and visible moons in this concept. The reasons they were there are twofold: one, the moons and clock are symbolic: the waxing and waning moons represents youth to old age working the job, working your life away. The clock, large as it is, is symbolic of the time driven working world, ruled by the almighty hour. Two: I did not have a way of building an indoor environment suitable for the shot back then.

So, it was a compromise of lack of resources and a little bit of laziness or impatience that led me to the final version as it was a year ago. Honestly though, interior composites are a lot harder for me than outdoor ones: you need straight lines, dimension, proper scale, and for my process, I need individual components that could marry into one: walls, floors, ceilings, windows, architectural features. My aesthetic preferences lean towards classic or antique in my imagery, and finding raw components for interiors has been an ongoing challenge to say the least.

But I was determined to give this image a cleanup, and put these men indoors, so I did. The background was a church interior I shot last year, which needed to be beaten into pixel submission to line up properly, overcoming some parallax distortion and angles. The depth of field blur had to be simulated. That gave me a workforce in the foreground in sharp focus, and a soft background. I needed something on their plane to give it some depth. The clock, a newer one, more ornate, was once again placed central, and I used a door frame art deco bracket I bought at an antique store to create some architectural buttresses above, merging with the clock.

Since this was part of the "Red Balloons" series, they needed to be back there, but more subtly this time. The balloons, as they do in the other images in the series, represents youth and innocence slipping away. Certainly the cold water reality of the daily grind does a good job at squashing our childhood right out of us!

I did add one new element in. They're blended into the overhead beams so you may not see them, but there are two snakes watching over the workers. As I am about to be unemployed from my own office job or horror, certainly the presence of snakes is one I can attest to - the symbolism needs no explanation to those who work in these environments. If you don't, trust me, the snakes are always there!

Lastly, I once again veered away from last years predominant color choice of green. It is indeed my favorite color, but this image and its concept did not need a verdant warm color, it needed icy cool tones, to make the bleak environment of the office drudgery resonate visually. That big window in the back may be beautiful and flooded with warm light, but it is out there, and the workers are inside, and by the time the clock strikes 5 o'clock above them, the sun will be gone, and they will go home in darkness, missing the daylight altogether, while they toil away at their repetitive tasks.

My opinion about the modern office environment and the jobs within has been pretty consistent for most of my adult life. I have never been able to make an adequate living being an artist, so far anyway, and since age twenty, I have been in one office job after another. The work I do is dull, ill-suited for me, and the days are too long. Eight hours, five days a week may be the norm, but it is too much a slice of your conscious hours, too much of the week, and two days on the weekend and two weeks a year for vacation is still an egregious imbalance. There are days where I can barely tolerate it, days where I feel like running out the building. I know this is not a unique feeling, but hard to take when your work is not what you love, not what you'd rather be doing, not your choice, and consumes most of your energy, leaving you with a few hours to try to kindle the dying flames of your real life.

the Collective (revisited):



Another in a string of revised versions of older pieces. I still am torn about tampering with older ones on principle, but I did a period of these last year as well, and the results were greatly improved versions of ones that may have suffered under a less experienced hand or sloppy edits. I don't intend to do this indefinitely, but as this piece is a year old now and I am a better editor now than I was then, this one needed some issues addressed that bothered me since it was completed.

"the Collective" was, at the time, a hard piece to complete. It was my first "clone" piece, and it was created spontaneously, no plan about what I was making prior to starting it. It did well for me; it's a popular one and it was runner up in a photography competition.

But, there were a few things that I didn't like about the final product, mostly due to the improvised editing and some techniques that were a little rough a year ago and have improved since then. The biggest issue was the crop - just too tight, the floating hat right up against the top edge of the image, his feet right up against the right. It felt claustrophobic and cramped, and this was due to the fact that I wasn't planning on having a hat floating above his head in the first place, and once I did, I knew no way to shrink and reposition the original image and expand the frame of the composition. The other aspect I wasn't pleased with was the color choices - a sickly green/yellow pallor over all. Not sure what it was at the time, but I did the green/yellow a lot back then; it was the reason for my last revision too.

Once these two issues were addressed, I decided to re-think two symbolic aspects of the original. "The Collective" is about the collective subconscious, the experience of ideas shared despite no apparent contact between the disparate parties. We see it in media, we see it entertainment, and I see it all the time in art photography, though some of that is clearly copycat syndrome. In the original, I had three strings coming out of the foreground man, to imply the path of thoughts or ideas. The clones had one string entering their heads, to imply receiving the information. In the sky, three stars were visible, in the same pattern of the men below. This was to suggest that the entire universe plays a part in the collective subconscious. These choices were fine for what they were, but the stars were a little soft and blurry, and the strings, well, they were badly placed and arranged, and weren't the best choice for a transmission metaphor. So, small antennae were used here instead, and three red balloons are floating in the sky now, a reference to my "Red Balloons" series from last year, and it gives me another reference of three, since the stars are now gone.

Lastly, the texture overlays were greatly reduced - I am working with less of them now, and a year ago, they were used largely because they helped hide some rough edges underneath. This is another benefit of improved editing skills - you don't have to hide as many things with a complicated composite.

I hope you like the revised version, and it's fine if you prefer the older one - I do not intend to do this to every single older one - just the ones I thought were a good idea to begin with that deserved better than they originally received.

the Merritt Street Transition (revisited):



Almost a year ago, I started work on a series of images called "the Red Balloons" primarily focused on innocence lost. The Merritt Street Transition was an unexpected one, and while I knew what it was about when finished, I chose to keep the specifics of the symbolism private, because they were very much private. But, there seems something arbitrary in the title I gave it, unless you know the specifics. After all, there is no street in the image, and the composition doesn't seem to support it. But the key to this image is not in the word street in the title, but the word 'transition. '

I wanted this to be a contradiction piece - the bright red balloons juxtaposed against the rather horrific sight of a scarred and burning face, the calm pose with the violence of his face deteriorating. The idea was a sort of nightmarish birthday boy, the general feel of a celebration gone wrong, or a party for something macabre.

So why the street?

Well, Merritt Street is a place I grew up in - my family did not stay in one house for my entire childhood, but I attribute this address to the most formative years prior to college. A lot of things changed there, and I don't mean just the rigors of puberty, though that certainly played its part. It is the site of my family fracturing, from a four person nuclear family, to a divorce fueled prism of strangers, new step parents, new boyfriends, of parents no longer towing the party line and keeping up appearances, and finally, the arrival of someone who can only be described as a menacing presence into our lives, one who brought violence, alcoholism, and brought out in me my first intense feelings of fear and hate.

The details of what happened and to whom are not important. What is significant, at least to me, and the meaning behind this image, is my life changed very suddenly, very harshly, and I did not have any control over anything that occurred. It was a span of a few years, but that home and that time in my life in some ways robbed me, and in other ways, artistically anyway, fueled me. It is hard to appreciate the events as useful or necessary to my development, and I think I am forever going to count them as dark times, where childhood was abruptly cancelled, and my course was changed all too suddenly. This is the boy with his face burned off - the loss of emotion, the loss of identity, the scarring of some hard times. The balloons in this piece, like in others in the series, represent childhood, innocence, simplicity, and though he is changing into something else, he grips those strings tightly, lest he lose all connection to them altogether.

In deciding to update this image, it was mainly technical things that I was concerned about fixing. I didn't like the green pallor of the original, I thought the scarring too blunt and the flames unconvincing. I had recently shot some stock flames and I thought this was a good opportunity to add some improvement to the pyrotechnics of the piece. Lastly, since there was little negative space in the background to work with, and it really was not the point anyway, I threw an arbitrary sky into it. This time, I wanted to give a sense of claustrophobia with the thick bushes and foliage behind him, to give the background a few notes but still keep the eyes drawn to the character and the balloons.

the Strange Self-Portrait of  Dr. Henry Jekyll (revisited):



A lot can happen in a year. One year ago I bought my current camera, finally getting a full frame camera, basically my dream camera. Shortly after buying it, did my first photo session with it. It was not exactly easy, I struggled with the new camera a little, and ideas were not exactly overflowing for the shoot. The one idea that I had was a riff on the Jekyll and Hyde duality concept, and this image was the result. It's been one year since I made this piece, and this one did pretty well for me - it was chosen by Canon's Project Imagination as a finalist, and was eventually picked to be incorporated by celebrity director Eva Longoria into her upcoming short film.

Not bad, right? So why tamper with it? Well, for starters, I am a better editor and photo manipulator now than I was a year ago, and even though there are pieces that I did a year ago I am still pleased with and would never touch, this was not one of them. The square format, something I started doing last year, was still new to me, and I didn't know how to expand a shot into a larger square, so, the crop on the original edit was too tight, with no breathing room around the poor doctor and his alter ego. Also, I chose a strange green color caste, something I love, which is my favorite color, but it gave the doctor a sickly pallor. Finally, the background was, well, there was no background, nothing to give the doctor any context or mood, other than the portrait he holds.

So, for its one year anniversary, I decided to take a stab at improving it. It's a subjective thing, whether this version is an improvement or not, and it's fine either way. Certainly I like this version better, and hopefully you do to. It's always a tough call, to revisit past works and tamper with them, but I doubt I will do that very often, and anyway, I think the doctor deserved a new paint job!

Michael Bilotta
October 13, 2013

 

Most of the time, I post a rather lengthy written piece to accompany my finished images. I started doing it over a year ago, and they have only grown lengthier and more personal ever since. For some reason, on this piece, which was completed a few months ago, I felt the need to hold some stuff back, due to the nature of the piece, its meaning, and how some people reading may take offense. I wrote some information on the artistic choices and the approach to construction, but chose to leave out the personal part of it. With its enigmatic, and seemingly nonsensical title coupled with the rather abstract imagery, it didn’t do as well in terms of viewership as other pieces, which made me a little sad, given it was a special one for me.

So, here is the full skinny, what I should have written at the time, and what it all means…

The title comes from a song by Karen Peris of the band the Innocence Mission, called “Notebook.” It’s a song that meant a lot to me and still does, because it is about one of the biggest cruxes in my life – the balance of the “real life” and the artistic pursuits. In it, she writes:

Museums on Sundays, whenever we can we both go
And stay there for hours, feeding our spirits
And beauty is there free, and beauty is not exclusive
And beauty is ours to touch and to know…

I write in my notebook, with feelings that take me by surprise
With feelings I don’t know I have
They’re hidden by useless facts that I compile at the office where I work
Where there is no time for feeling anything…
You see I just work there, to finance my real life that begins with scribbles on pages
And thoughts of how and why…

I think it is one of the most eloquently depicted expressions of this bane of the artistically inclined. Twenty plus years in, it is wearing on me now. I have been chasing my muse in various mediums for over two decades while putting my 40 hours in at offices, and the push and pull of that is getting tiresome, and more than a little difficult to maintain. The weeks leave you tired, and you have a small window of freedom of the weekend to bring your fading embers of art back to a fire. And before you know it, it’s time to start the drudgery again. This is what this piece is about – that Sunday night, late, past-bedtime push to finish something that feeds your soul and satisfies your desire to create, before you are forced to push it back under, under all that commuting, under all those useless meetings, under all those interminable hours of tasks you don’t want to do.

The hats are the commuters, the drones, and this is the part I did not want to be interpreted as mean-spirited or judgmental. I don’t think that people that go to work in offices are all drones, it just seems that way to me. Everyone seems to deal with it with a lot less emotion than I do. They get through it and accept it as part of life, and I still rail against it and get overly distraught over it. They are faceless, bodiless, just hats in a line on the way to work. They are dull in color, they are an orderly bunch, keys to their days at work at the ready. Contrasted against this is the artist, central in the image, who appears somewhat rushed or in a flourish of movement, the red fabric a nod to fighting the bulls, the brutal work week ahead, the strings trailing behind the tendrils of the art he’s leaving behind, and his elaborate headpiece is bombastic and grand, compared to those of his fellow commuters. Instead of the key tucked into the hats like the others, his pierces through the mind, it hurts the head, the work week and the office. The key he clutches, golden and shiny, the key that means the most to him, that unlocks the life he’s putting away again for the week. In this parade of commuters, he is out of place, overly visible and colorful, unable to blend in, despite his efforts to keep up.

And this is why it is special to me – it was completed on a Sunday night, well past a sensible hour to start the work week alert and rested, and the meaning fit the circumstances perfectly. Rather than paint others going to work in a negative light, the point of view is all from the artist, who can’t just get through the week, who knows he can’t exist well in that world, who wishes there was more time for the things that matter. In the office world, the 9 to 5, it is best to be the faceless person, the quiet, reliable, procedural and logical drone.

It is getting hard to overcome the contrast for me, and my current office job is ending. I am being let go, and as much as I am happy for the break from the monotony and undercurrent of brutality of the office, I know it is likely I have to return to it soon, to “finance my real life.” Despite the uncertainty of the future in the financial sense, I have a small window of time where I am free to be myself for a full day, a few weeks, and hopefully this respite will produce some great pieces that will help fuel me as I start to face the strong possibility of returning to that office world again, and try to pretend I am someone I am not.

Such is life, for now, until I can make the desired one the only one.

The original notes of “Museums on Sundays” can be found on my Flickr or here on my website:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/shibbopics/8863523252/

Michael Bilotta

October 4, 2013

As much as I love gear, and gadgets, at the end of the day, I am not a gearhead. I like the good stuff, I like the bells and whistles, but I appreciate them on a user level, and don’t spend much time dwelling on how it came to be, how to modify it, or what else is out there to make my shooting more sophisticated. Necessity drives the little research I do and have patience for, and nothing more. I would rather use something than read about how to use it.

That said, if anyone is interested, here is a little bit of detail about the technical aspects of how I shoot and what is used.

The current gear:

Camera: Canon 5d Mk ll

Lenses: Canon 50mm 1.4 and a Canon 85mm 1.8

Lights: 2 Canon 580 ex ll speedlites and one 430ex ll speedlite (all of these are modified with softboxes and triggered off camera

Modifiers: one 60” octabox softbox with one 580 ex ll shot through it, and one 16” softbox with a 580 ex ll through it, and one 22” beauty dish with a 430 ex ll through it, though I use this less and less.

All speedlites are fired off-camera using Cowboy Studio transmitter/receivers mounted on the hotshoe (think a poor man’s Pocket Wizard) – the construction of these cheapos is poor, but they never fail to fire.

And that’s it for gear! No reflectors, really. Occasionally I will bounce a key light off a reflector, but rarely. The real mainstay is the giant Octabox – it covers so much of the need, it is almost one-stop shopping. Most of the time, I am shooting sidelight with it, and using the other 580 with the smaller softbox on the other side for fill. I always side light. I love it. Lighting Guru and well-known Photographer Joel Grimes turned me onto using the Speedlites and the giant reflector, and he is a sidelighting master. The one thing I have taken away from his online tutorials and tips, is the larger the light source, and the closer it is to the subject, the softer the falloff across the subject. So, I take my giant Octabox and park it inches away from the model, just out of the frame, or sometimes in, and will angle it just forward of direct side, perhaps 20 degrees of direct side (I am not a good math person, so describing angles is not going well!) – in other words, just forward of the model, angling towards them at a 10 to 20 degree angle. The other fill light is placed wherever it is needed to pick up whatever area I want to fill. I consider the large box somewhat static, and do the modifying with the fill light. Having said that, I will modify the “zoom” and the power output of the lights, depending on exposure needs, but position of the key light is not moved much in the shoot. I would more likely move the model slightly.

I shoot at fairly high F stops (F11 or F12) to simulate the painterly aesthetic (painters didn’t experience shallow depth of field) so that means those speedlites are set to almost maximum output on one, and 1/8 to ½ on the other, depending on the desired fill and placement. Lately I have done some shooting at F1.4 or so, just to vary it up, but again, that depth of field is very photographic in nature, so I tend to shy away from that, at least for now. My sessions are about 3 to 4 hours long, snapping about 500 pics per session, so those lights need batteries and to avoid going broke, I use rechargeables and have a backup set charged up for each of the lights per session.

For all my sessions so far, I have shot my models against medium gray seamless,  9ft roll from ceiling to floor in a gradual curve and I add about 5 ft of floor covering and tape it off. This way I can shoot straight on or above the model, and always have a seamless gray surrounding him or her. The gray makes the compositing so much easier. I shoot either auto WB or in Daylight, knowing I will mess with the WB in Camera Raw anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. That gray can go blue or green or orange pretty easily, so it is acting like a blue screen for me. But I do not cut my models out and place them as a layer. Hairlines make this sloppy looking and problematic. My original shot is the bottom layer of every composition and all elements, even backgrounds are overlaid, and masked off.

About the Camera Raw step:

 After shooting, all Raw images (only shoot in RAW) are looked at and tweaked extensively in Camera Raw. Nothing is left shot as is. White Balance is adjusted, and I tend to favor slightly warming the original, adding a bit more yellow and less magenta, to give it a slight yellow/green cast. This tends to bump up the reds and oranges, so those two hues are slightly desaturated (this tempers the saturation of the skin on the models mainly). I usually shoot one to one stop under exposure (this is all trial and error, since you can’t use ETTL on your speedlites when shooting off-camera), so I usually bump up exposure slightly and bump up fill light quite a bit, depending on the contrast as it was shot and what I am going for. I soften the image by reducing Clarity with the slider, and then go to Sharpen and Noise Reduction and really wreck the image! I sharpen about 50% with a radius of about 1.7 (both sliders around the halfway point) and then go to Noise Reduction, pushing the Color Noise and Luminosity Noise sliders up to the max with the detail sliders for each at about half. Now, my shots don’t have a lot of noise in them, as I never go past 200 ISO (usually shoot at 100), but with all my exposure tweaks and fill light tweaks, this eliminates any resulting noise, but also, and this is my preference and aesthetic, it distorts the details of the shot to look almost like a line drawing or brush strokes. Is this reducing the quality and detail of the image? Absolutely, but again, I am going for a painterly aesthetic, so this is what I am looking for.

Once the Raw steps are done, I open in Photoshop, and the rest is all about composition and choices. I have a huge bank of skies I have shot for backgrounds (in case you haven’t noticed, I LOVE cloudy, moody skies!) and several texture overlays I have acquired either online or shot myself for texture of the image, particularly paper and canvas textures, but also rust, scratches, other distresses. A note about skies: This is where the gray seamless really comes in handy: I never add a sky in “Normal” blend mode – it’s usually Soft Light, Overlay, Hard Light, or Vivid Light mode, and this interacts with the gray background really well, marrying to it almost. I usually turn the sky layers black and white, otherwise, your sky plate is coloring your image, and what fun is that?? Once it is in place, I go to my original shot and magic wand select the gray areas around the model. Since gray is generally not in the skin tone, and if you light your model strongly enough, the wand does a decent job of creating a fairly accurate outline of your model, if a bit rough. Once the selection is made, I go to my sky layer, and click ADD MASK. The sky is now overlaid around the model, but of course there are some rough spots. This is dealt with by right clicking on the mask and Refine Mask options. I pull the mask into the model a bit and then feather generously. This bleeds into the extents of the model (arms and legs, for example) but it also makes the hairlines perfect. The bleed into the model can be then painted out and dealt with until all looks as it should.

Didn’t want to get into a tutorial here, but if anyone has any questions please feel free to send me a message!

Michael Bilotta
10/26/12

There was, once upon a time, a guy who was a musician, who studied at music college, and became a singer-songwriter. He wrote songs of a personal nature, and put a lot of imagery into his lyrics. Then he picked up his first digital point and shoot and re-ignited a boyhood desire to be a visual artist. After discovering Photoshop, he was hooked. As he learned more about the technical aspects of photography, and met his partner, who was also a photographer, he spent the next few years overly concerned with shutter speeds and ISO settings and depth of field. He forgot or never considered photography could be "about" something, and considered it a creative endeavor, but not artistic or expressive, not like songwriting.
 
He then discovered the work of a young woman named Brooke Shaden, a fine art photographer from California by way of Pennsylvania. Her bold visual style and surrealist approach, as well as an aesthetic that bordered on oil paintings, in short, blew him away, and awakened a dormant need to create something artistic and personal. Her portfolio and her timeless images made him want to ditch the occasional portrait sessions he was getting, and stop looking for clients that ultimately frustrate him, and focus on making images for himself.
 
In short, she was a wakeup call for my aspirations in visual art. And that was it. I mean, yes, like anyone exploring a medium, be it music, an instrument, a singer, a painter, a writer, you make some first steps by emulating your influences. Yes, I totally get that. I did three images that were very Brooke. One was a levitation shot (she sort of made that visual effect a staple), one used green apples, because, well, they looked awesome when she used them. Another was a woman in a giant birds nest, because, well, it was cool looking when she did it, and I had an abandoned birds nest in my backyard. And, again, that was it. I had a dim sense of satisfaction in copping a technique, in figuring it out for myself, in approximating something I liked when I saw it. But this did not satisfy me, because it was not my voice, it was not my vision. It was hers.
 
The only thing I have chosen to adopt from her toolbox, the only thing, was the square format. I really liked and appreciated her reasons why she chose the square aspect, and I am 100% in agreement of the WHY. I am not doing it to be like her. If you are interested in the "why," it's to pull it away from the aspect ratio of a photograph, to make it more of a painterly image. There is also a personal reason I prefer the square: I am a symmetry junkie, and I love my squares all nice and neat! Other things in her arsenal - heavy Photoshop manipulation, texture overlays, I had been doing for over 10 years now, well before I first found her work. I am not going to claim total originality, that would be ignorant and laughable - no one is free of influence and muses, especially artists, but there is a difference between subconsciously letting those influences bubble up naturally and making a lookalike image that borders on plagiarism. The key, I suspect, in doing the former, and not the latter, is maturity, in knowing who you are and from where you come from. In other words, if you have something to say, and it is coming from a place of honesty, it will surface, in time, when the technical aspects recede into reflex, and you stop trying to emulate, and dare to create.
 
Okay, so much for the musings on all things philosophical. Now to the point:
 
What is with all the Brookalikes??
 
Seriously, spend time like I do on sites that I frequent, and ferret out all conceptual or fine art photographers, and you will see dozens upon dozens of people, mainly young women, all copying their heroine with reckless abandon. There are now literally hundreds and hundreds of images of prairie dressed women floating in a field, floating in the woods, looking gothically distressed running from something, or nothing, and it is becoming laughable, frankly. There are thousands of images of dress extension shots - a woman in a brightly colored dress with cloned fabric billowing out for yards and yards all around. There are swarms of flora and fauna interacting with humans. These are or were all Brooke Shaden staples. These copycats are even getting into galleries, into magazines. One of them has even drafted an "artist statement" just like Brooke did, and hers claims "levitation is my passion." It's your PASSION?? A floating human is a passion?
 
I realize this comes off as highly judgmental, I do. But what is the point of a blog that is not honest, or pulls its punches? This is a little phenomenon that baffles me. I do understand the desire to emulate something cool. I totally get it. I have done it - not so much in photography, but in music. In the 80s, when U2 exploded in stardom, everyone including me bought delay pedals for their guitars to sound like the Edge. It was a great, fresh thing, and yeah, I wanted to sound just like it. But if there is one thing that I learned in becoming a songwriter, it's this: No matter what style you try to impose on your own art, no matter what groove you want to hear in a song you write, who and what you are, your honest true self, if you listen to it, will NOT take something inorganic imposed upon it. It will, if you listen to it and allow it, take you where you need to go, and that is the ONLY place where originality can exist or spring from. You need to get out of the airspace of your heroes, and learn to become what you are. Levitating humans is a definite cool thing. But what is that person levitating for? What is the story or the metaphor there? You don't need to have a story; a photo can just be a coolness endeavor, but if you claim to be a conceptual or fine art photographer, you damn well have to have something to say, and try to say it in your own voice. I say this in the afterglow of completing a round of images that definitely pay homage to Magritte, a definite influence on me. There is an earlier blog entry that talks about these images, called "chasing balloons." But rather than just put an apple in front of someone's face because Magritte did, I was playing in his playground, while telling my own tales in it. And it wasn't every image, it was a few, and there were personal reasons for all the objects and choices in those photos. In other words, you can do homage, or you can do mimicry, and the difference is honesty, intent, and artistic maturity.
 
What I find most odd about this hero worship, this Hydrox cookie wanting to be an Oreo, is how the Oreo advocates and publicly supports these knockoff cookies, and in doing so, elevates their profiles, their viewership, and validates what they are doing. Perhaps it is ego driven, perhaps it is safe to do so because when you are the genetic forefather of these photocopies, you know no one will have your resolution or status in this strange little world of conceptual photography.
 
I feel very far away from these Brookalikes, and I am glad to be. Not because I don't like the images themselves, necessarily, but because it is a hollow pursuit. It is quickly descending into caricature. It will never be the lightning in a bottle that Brooke's works were. I have found my own voice, but it really wasn't a long journey to get there, it was really resuming the same voice I forged in songwriting and lyrics. There are chords and melody choices I gravitate to in music, and so it is in photography, or any medium I take up. These Brookalikes may have some technical skill, but they are echoes of a voice, they are generic brands, they are incomplete artists, as they are not yet showing who they are. It's one thing to want to have a person float in the air, it's quite another to find a reason for it and imbue it with some story that means something, if not to anyone else, at least to you. If there is a good case for that person floating, if there is a point to a dress with miles of fabric, if there is a shred of personal meaning in having birds or lizards climbing over a model's head, the viewer will see it.
 
Otherwise, you are just painting by numbers.
 
The preceding blog was in no way meant to nor should be interpreted as a negative commentary on Ms. Shaden and her work. I have enjoyed her boldness, her imagery, her strong identity, and have met her while attending one of her workshops. She is a lovely person, and very open and giving to those that attend to her workshops.
 
Michael Bilotta
Oct 23rd, 2012