At first glance, looking at a classic SciFi film from the mid 70s might reveal a slightly tongue in cheek campiness and very little else. Logan's Run is a good example of something that might seem rather dated and silly, but has a lot of metaphorical layers to it. These layers connected with me as a young person and this film and its central themes stayed with me.

If you don't know the premise, it is essentially this:

In a post apocalyptic world, a domed city thrives with a population of beautiful, care-free people run by a central computer network. No one has to work - leisure and pleasure abound, but there is one catch: when you reach your thirtieth birthday, you must be "renewed" in Carousel. Carousel is a public spectacle where those whose "life clocks" have expired must rise to the top of the amphitheater to be obliterated by a lethal machine. The throng of spectators cheer because there is a rebirth promised to all who renew.

The purpose of a scarecrow is to, obviously, scare off crows. The idea is that a human presence will make the crows think twice about invading the fields of corn and flying off with stolen plunder. Whether it's ever been effective is questionable - perhaps in the short term it is.

Lately I have been thinking about perception - how others perceive you. How much is true perception and how much is expectation of your behavior? The fact of the matter is, people like to label you and need or at least expect you to be consistent.

But what happens if you change and the perceptions of others do not?

Social Media. It seemed like a good idea, and maybe at its heart, it is. But the state of it now, the sheer presence of it in our lives, feels vaguely corrosive to me. I am not a technophobe, I am not a luddite, but lately, I feel it would be a good idea to scale back on it entirely. I know some people online only - I have never met them, yet I've known them for years. This is not a bad thing, but it is somewhat odd. Other friends I haven't seen for years, some in decades, and through the bizarre lens of social media, they become abstracted, approximations of people you once knew and now are distilled to a few lines a week.

The most egregious thing about it all is, despite its moniker, it is anything but social! It does not bring people together, it keeps them isolated, more often than not. It maintains a level of familiarity with anyone you are connected that becomes "sufficient" and so personal connection, literal socialization is not as vital or wanted as it used to be. I have friends I used to see, to be with, who now only write through social media. If I pulled the plug and took myself off this grid, they would likely disappear from my life entirely.

If you read my blog or follow my work in any way, you probably know I share a lot of personal insights and feelings in my imagery as well as with my written work. You probably also have noticed a decline in the frequency of my output this year. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one has been my lifelong shadow, my ever-present companion, depression.

I have used my depression to create some images in the past, particularly one called "the Pull of the Tidal King," but this year was the first time that my depression has actually stopped the flow of creative work completely, and that was a sign that things were declining and something needed to be done.

It's odd to consider suicide while being completely terrified of death itself - the two viewpoints tend to cancel themselves out rather well, and that's fine, since it seemed my fleeting thoughts of my own demise and my fear of oblivion maintained a stalemate that stayed my hand from doing self harm. But the thoughts were there, and the loss of interest in what I do for creative expression followed me as I took a trip in April to New Mexico to gather what I hoped would be some imagery for future work.

sadness natural 850

 

There is a lot of conjecture about the nature and reality of depression in the modern world, and I daresay a lot of people diagnosing themselves with it who perhaps do not truly qualify. It is not a "blue" feeling, it is not merely a low point. It is actually quite hard to describe, even for someone as verbose as I tend to be. I tried to recently, in a blog and an image called "the Pull of the Tidal King."

This fictional ruler has grown more and more real for me over the last year - as a way to describe the experience, he is as close to an accurate description as I can get. Image being stranded on a small island, alone, with little to do or see. You try to build a life on this island, but far across the sea, there is an unseen ruler, a king, who can command the tides, and, without warning, send a force of waves at your island so powerful it will knock anything you've built down, and temporarily drown you. When his waters recede, you need to do it all over again - to find the strength to rebuild your life.

divorce 

A few weeks ago I tried something I have never tried before in my imagery: a conceptual image with no human in it. Ultimately this experiment resulted in firing a blank - there was nothing in it for me emotionally.

Let me back up and explain the intent and the image itself.

We see a house at night. On the top floor a set of windows are alight, and next to it, another set of lights in an adjoining room, but dimmer. The house looks peaceful - trees and bushes nestle it on either side, but above it, in the darkening sky, menacing hawks fly overhead, and a faint wisp of smoke is seen from the brightly lit windows of the upstairs room. In the foreground, in front of a house, a coin-op viewer is pointed at the house.

That was all it was. What was the concept?

My third year in review. As always, this is about my creative year, or year of creativity, more than anything else, but as real life tends to impact art quite a lot, some of that might slip in as well!

So, here goes…

My year started off pretty well, creatively. I had shot two model sessions in late 2013 and still had a lot of material to work with. A bit of a superstition of mine is to make sure I start each year off with a new image on the first day of the year, and I did that with this one…



Better than my previous New Year image, I felt, and a good way to set the tone for the work ahead. What was in short supply was imagery for creating landscapes and scenes though, and as I live in New England, there is not a lot of variety to be had in winter here. I was also let go of my day job in November of 2013, a blessing in many ways, believe me, and this stint as an unemployed but in other ways full time artist turned into quite a long one - nine months of time away from jobs I didn't want to do, and the ability to focus on my art. I decided to go visit a friend in San Diego in March, and in doing so, capture some material for building environments with more variety than my area allows. For one week, I shot beaches, deserts, mountains, and a quick spin through Salton Sea gave me some really interesting, if bleak landscape material. The trouble is, I was low on money and low on model shots by the time I came back.

even here we are 850

It's a beautiful flower in your garden
But the most beautiful by far
Is the one growing wild in the garbage dump
Even here, even here we are

by Paul Westerberg

This title and lyric has long been on my mind as a concept for an image, but the pieces needed for it never seemed to line up until now. Sometimes things come to you or come back to you seemingly out of nowhere and inform what you are working on. This seems to be the case here. The "garbage dump" I have been in has been a wasteland of artistic blockage for some time now. Life gets in the way, depression can stop short momentum, doubt can unhinge the most ironclad resolutions.

The ancient astronomers of Greece were the first to postulate the notion of a geocentric system of the cosmos - with the sun in the center and celestial bodies rotating around it. The desire to learn the path of the stars, the heavens, is a metaphor for the human condition, and one for the creation of art as well. We seek - we need understanding, we need order and logic. To make sense of the universe. We can live with a mystery for only so long before we succumb to our innate nature to learn and comprehend.

This is true of my approach to creating these images too. I inevitably create mysteries for myself to make sense of by shooting things separately and trying to put things together to mean something, at least to me. This can be said of this piece, certainly, as it has been sitting unfinished for several months now. The pose of the model, shot on a blank background, and then several grounds and skies and objects were tried and rejected. For most of the time, the working title was "Hello Earth" - a nod to the song by Kate Bush, and I was going to put my figure on the moon looking back at Earth in the night sky. Certainly the pose of the model seemed to suggest a sense of "behold!" but the inability to go to the moon to shoot our planet myself, as well as my aversion to using stock photos for my images meant this idea was not possible!

the Business of Dying

It started simply enough - a shot of a model walking away from the camera, mostly in silhouette. Lately I tend to do this - masking the identity of the person in the shot with a downward glance, a manipulation of the face, a from-behind angle. Why? Well, it's sometimes easier to keep it ambiguous, to lend the viewer some space for interpretation. It is also very anti-model, something I am gravitating to more and more. These are very few shots of someone posed, giving the cheekbones, the attitude and the heavy lids. Most of the time, I tell the models to almost never look directly into the camera. It's an aspiration to capturing a performance, an actor, and actors don't tend to stare directly into the camera when delivering their soliloquies.

That same ambiguity can have a reverse effect on the artist however…

I have been in a bit of a self-imposed exile lately, in terms of producing and posting new work. There are many reasons for it, burnout is certainly part of it, but the other is the rather insidious nature of social media and the rat race that most photographers succumb to all in the name of getting noticed. I will not get sanctimonious here, or place myself above anyone, but the process of trying to climb higher, to turn your art into your career, has been largely on my mind for the past year. I have been unemployed for the better part of a year, from my day job of the office world. That has not been a hardship - I hated most of the jobs I've had to have in order to support myself, but since losing my last job, I have focused rather heavily on trying to push my art into a career, a way to make money. Naturally, one turns to social media these days.

It can be as savage a place, more so even, than real interactions.

I have gone silent again, and it might be awhile before anything new surfaces in both art and speech. The reason? Overload and burnout. First, the overload…

We all know social media can be a useful tool for advertising and for raising your profile, and for photographers, it gets your work out there and hopefully your audience will grow. So you join photography or art groups on Facebook, you follow people, you hope they will follow you, and you post your work on all these groups and pages. The result? Over the last three years, I have done these things and I am now so sick of Facebook I don't even want to promote myself on it. I am literally inundated with notifications to the point where I can't even work on something without a constant barrage of interruptions. Notifications, private messages, conversations between groups of people. I have been tagged in things I didn't create, I have had people tag themselves in my work that they are not even in, I have unwittingly been added to groups that I didn't join or know about, and then assaulted with constant notifications from those groups. I have had to remove myself from dozens of them, and shut off notifications to more of them, and amend my settings to restrict people from adding me back into groups I didn't want to join in the first place. I get invites from people to like their pages when they have not done so to mine…it's maddening, it's exhausting, it's overload.

Finishing something from nothing is kind of a miracle, every time. I am speaking in this case about creating a finished image from the bare bones of model shots, landscapes, objects and anything else that goes in them. Every time I finish one I am convinced there are no more, there will never be more, that this is the end. But of course that is never the case, and the pursuit of the next one is soon underway. The other thing that can rattle your confidence and make you stop production is reaching a creative high point. I am speaking of personal high points of course, not critical appraisal of them. My last new piece, "the Sad Death of Giants" was, to me, a high point, and I was more than a little scared to follow it up, sure that nothing would be as good as that one. It also did not help that I am running low on fresh shots to use.

When I was very young, up until my mid teens, I wanted to be a visual artist, with my work appearing on the covers of books and in magazines. I was always attracted to the fantastical covers of novels and album art, and they were often a lure for me to buy those albums or books. I remember the wonderful album art of Depeche Mode and Pink Floyd, Duran Duran and ELO. I wanted to be the artist behind something like that, and it's a nice turn of events that those childhood aspirations are starting to come to pass all these years later. Imagery I have created is now in magazines, is now on a CD or two, and on a novel. So far. Hopefully this will all continue.

It was never known by me exactly how one becomes an artist for such things - there was no internet back then - and perhaps that is now no longer mysterious since the internet rules much of our lives now. Just in case you, the reader, are still in the dark about how all that come to pass, here is how I found my stuff gracing book covers, CDs and in magazines.

It is the nature of life and society on this world that the titans of today become the obscure and antiquated relics of tomorrow. It is unavoidable, though some keep a vigil and a respect for the past. The dinosaurs reigned supreme in this world, and then they were gone. The Egyptians and the Mayans were the most advanced civilizations of their time and now they are not. The proud warriors of the Native Americans were overcome by the Europeans who invaded. The list goes on. It happens in the microcosmic sense as well; the strong man brimming with strength and vigor will eventually falter in the later years, the intellect of another could be erased by dementia.

It is the way of things.

There is a theory in social psychology that proposes a basic conflict in humans having a desire to live but knowing that death is inevitable. This produces terror, and a solution to the terror in the form of religion, belief in the afterlife, seeking immortality  and even acts of violence. After reading a bit about it, it seems that the fear of dying, unique to humans, is the prime motivator for what we do in this world. The anxiety of our inevitable end creates laws, belief systems, deities, writers, artists, and it is a subconscious foundation in all our lives, whether we are aware of it or not.

I am in a stage of life where the terror level is most elevated. Apparently, it is high in the young, peaks in the mid life stage, and lessens in the later years. I can tell you for a fact that this is true, because it occupies much of my thought lately, and robs me of sleep. Looking back on my life, I think the terror of it was always there, always closer to the surface than is probably wise, and lately, with every muscle pull, with every outward sign of aging, I am preoccupied with it more and more. My terror management has only ever been one strategy: the creation of art, or something that will last beyond my years, that will be linked to who I was and be regarded fondly or profoundly. I do not believe in the afterlife, I do not believe in Heaven or Hell, and I do not believe in the immortal soul.

I wish that I did.

It's not an easy thing to do, after all, to create a miserable place. As an artist, I tend to want beauty, escape, surrealism leaning towards the fantastical, but the idea for this piece was hope in the midst of squalor. That requires an ugly place for counterpoint, it requires an undesirable environment, to juxtapose a ray of hope against. Having just endured a seemingly endless winter of cold, snow and darkness, and now in the gradual warmth of spring, the last thing I felt like depicting was more bleak snow, more darkness, more cold. But universally those qualities are regarded as misery incarnate, so they are there now.

I assembled the almost post-apocalyptic wasteland from bits and pieces I shot at Salton Sea in March, and the model was shot recently, with my favorite overhead dish light. Perhaps being an ex-Catholic this pose and this lighting always reminds me of Biblical depictions of Jesus in the garden the night before his death.

I think there is something powerful and sad about being naked in this environment. It is cold, it is jagged and inhospitable, and to be here with no protection, no warmth, is about as despairing as it can get. As humans we look for light, we look for warmth and comfort. Our bodies are insufficient to survive most of the climates on the planet without some sort of shelter or clothing. As I built this, I imagined this man was a survivor of a holocaust, perhaps a homeless man, perhaps the last man on Earth. This place is a ruin, and all the power is gone, the lights do not shine, the walls, if there were any, are gone. And still, he sets himself near the light posts - an instinctual move towards something that once represented light and safety. There is a remnant of a wall, graffiti still on it. Perhaps this wall, with evidence of writing on it is a connection to another person, even if that person is unknown or gone, it means that in this place once went another human, and so he stays by it.

And then we do have a light after all, and it illuminates the man and penetrates the darkness and shadows of his sad home. His gaze is fixed on it, and perhaps he is encouraged by it, but he is not reaching for it, he is not perhaps convinced this is real. A key floats before him - a symbol of hope, of unlocking another time or place, hopefully a better one. And still he does not reach for it. I think what is important, at least to me, is that the light is there, whether he acts on it or not. That, finally, is the point of this image: even here, even in a dark place, hope exists. I think we find it instinctually, will it to be, need it to be there. I think it is connected indelibly to our survival instinct, a part of it. The need and the belief of hope, the very concept of it, has given rise to all the religions of the world, all the spiritual beliefs of individuals, and as mortal beings aware of our own mortality, the specter of death is just too much to bear without hope, without belief, without relief.

Death is a dark place. Death is a wasteland. Those of us alive now have never been there, and those who have passed on have never returned. It is a great mystery, and the great ending to our stories. Some cling to their faith, their religion, and some of us, who exist without those convictions, have other lights and hopes to ease us into that dark place. The hope that something we did mattered. The hope that we mattered to someone. The hope that someone will remember us for a time after we have passed.

My title is derived from two places. a verse from the Bible, which has been translated a million times and basically says this:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Peter Gabriel composed the music for the film "the Last Temptation of Christ" and one of the tracks was called, "Of These, Hope." The title suggests that the composer chose hope over love from the passage, and if that is true, I am in agreement. I think hope is the greatest power we have in this world, and it is hard to see most of the time, yet we will always find a trace of it at our darkest hour, even if it's all in our mind.

Michael Bilotta
05/02/2014

 

 

 

It's a logic breakdown, it's irrational, and, as told in the Bible, the story of Creation in the book of Genesis is the story of an omnipotent and highly dangerous prankster known as God. Here it is in a nutshell:

God creates the universe, including the world. God populates the world with flora and fauna, air and water, all that. God creates his ultimate creation, Man, in his own image, whatever that means. God gives him paradise to live in, and plants a tree right in the middle of it that he tells the man not to touch. God creates Woman as a companion for Man. God, presumably Creator of all, also created Satan, or the Devil. The Devil tempts the Woman to take from the tree the fruit and eat it, telling her that it will give her knowledge because, well, he was right - God said this was the Tree of Knowledge. Man and Woman, desiring knowledge, eat the fruit. God gets angry. God makes them mortal with all the suffering that implies, and expels them from Paradise. As an added bonus, he condemns this act for all eternity and creates the concept of Original Sin, which basically translates to punishing the child for the sins of the father - for all eternity. For eating an apple. Off of a tree that you put there. Knowing that they would be tempted, knowing human nature, which, again, he created. And, when Satan, Eve and Adam all do what they were created to do, all according to his design, he throws a fit and gets vengeful and completely irrational in terms of forgiveness.

That's the story of Creation in a decidedly sardonic delivery, but the contents are the contents, no matter my tone. And no matter how resolute, devout or deluded you are, you have to admit, God, in this case, in this story, is kind of an asshole. The good news is that Genesis, the Story of Adam and Eve, all that, is not real. It is allegory, or more specifically, a parable. It is a simple story illustrating a subtext, a metaphor for the human condition, for the nature of mankind. It is a parable about temptation and entrapment, and about actions and consequences. It is no more real to me than the story of Medusa, Perseus, or Odin.

In my image, which I fancied a sort of sequel to Genesis, we have a modern man instead of naked Adam. He seems a little to-the-manner-born, a little less gullible, than poor Adam having just lost his rib. My man seems to be looking up at God saying, "are you kidding me?" Do you really think I am going to fall for this again?" He is wise to the trap, and he doesn't need the knowledge that eating it would gain him. He is not going to be tolerant of any of this "look but don't touch, touch but don't taste" foolery. He knows his nature, and he doesn't need old fire and brimstone on high to teach him any longer.

Regarding the creation of this image now, I wanted to talk a little about happy accidents that combine to create something, and lastly, about the negative influence of critics and why it is important to be confident in your work. It's odd what motivations can conspire to create something. This image, for example, was improvised with the model on the day we shot, and while I have used this table before, and while I have used a green apple once before, I decided to put him at this table with this apple for unknown reasons, and I remember shooting it and thinking, "what the hell am I doing with this?" Adding to the mystery, I had him looking up, away from the apple because of a lighting issue. So, not looking at the object in front of him, which is clearly important in the frame, is, well, odd.

The reason he was looking up and away is not mystical though, it was practical; my favorite light to use, a large beauty dish, happens to look fantastic as an overhead light, but, that does require all models to use a raised eye line if their face is to be illuminated at all.

Last night I was combing through all the shots from the session, looking for a good candidate to use as a basis for something new, and I saw this one. I loved the reflections on the table, I loved his expression, as enigmatic as it was, and I liked his hands in the shot. What I did not like was the awful, bright blue chair he was sitting on though.

I have used it before, and it fits for me because it reads as Victorian, but the color really is atrocious. Something about the green apple though…green is arguably my favorite color, and yet I have been steering clear of it in my pieces for quite some time now, working with a lot of blues and magentas. My earlier work was very much a green paradise, but there is one thing about using a green overlay on a human that is less than desirable - it tends to turn the skin a sickly green as well. In any event, I decided to change the color of the chair to match the apple, and immediately I liked this image a lot. Once I put the blue tones in, I had one of my favorite color palettes - blues and greens are what I consider paradise, even if the overall tone of this piece is cool and perhaps a little cold blue, there is nothing more comparable to life itself than blues and greens together.

Maybe it was the apple, the "paradise" of green and blue, but the word "paradise" was starting to stick. Add to that, the man was looking up, and often, I regard that pose as looking at heaven or a deity in the sky. This image, to me, was complete with the addition of a little burst of light above the man, and nothing else. I loved how ambiguous it was, even though it was clear to me. I loved how uncluttered and simple it was, and I loved the lines of it. Unfortunately, after almost three years of criticism from social media sites and so-called photography experts reciting rules as critiques, ugly voices in my head began clamoring for context to be literal. I have been told this so often - you MUST show the viewer what the subject is looking at.

Well, guess what? NO, YOU DON'T. It's called imagination, it's called ambiguity, it's breathable this way, it is flexible. Those with a Judeo-Christian background will likely know what this piece implies from the limited clues in it, and the rest, well, if someone sees something different or regards it as meaning something else, then I am thrilled. I want that to be the case. Art is not a diagram, art is not an instruction manual. If you can't figure it out and you are annoyed by it then go look at photos of sunsets. It is my own insecurities to blame, but these echoes of critiques past had me spending hours putting trees and snakes on the top of the frame, and I just didn't need them. I didn't want them.

Though some may find it lacking, some may regard it as incomplete or "breaking rules" I really like this piece, for all it is saying and how simply it is doing so. The composition demanded simplicity and I embraced it eventually, and shut the voices out.

Once I do that, I can live with the inevitable critics that will find fault with it, because I got to a place with it that I am happy, and that level of surety is ironclad, and nothing can change my opinion now on this one. By providing trees and snakes I am sticking this image firmly in the book of Genesis, and while that is the meaning, TO ME, it would be sad if that was the only one possible. That is a mantra I may take away from this one, this learning experience I call "the Paradise Trap." It does not need to be literal, It does not need to be literal, It does not need to be literal…

Michael Bilotta

04/30/2014

 

 

 In speculation regarding the theory of other life in the galaxy and the possibility of contact with a new civilization, most of us fall into two camps: One is of the belief that a species capable of traveling to us in the first place, and therefore more advanced than we are technologically, must be benevolent, the theory being that benevolence is the by product of time, intelligence and evolution. The other camp believes that any superior force would likely be a conquering force that would subjugate any lesser species it encounters.

Both may be right, and I believe there is no constant in the universe when it comes to the motivations and emotions of others. But any species would likely have evolved from a basic survival instinct imperative, and we are imbued with it as well. Therefore, any species, when fearing harm or death, would likely respond to this imperative and go to great lengths to justify any actions required in the pursuit of its own survival. Certainly we have seen this in our own recorded history.

My image started off as whimsical, and still is somewhat, but as I spent days on it, thoughts of alien civilizations played through my head, and I began to regard this image differently. It seems harmless -  an observer, a cartographer, an archivist quietly observing a representation of a planet, careful not to interact with it, keeping to the darkness. In my mind, this was an observer, a benevolent visitor in a holographic outpost of sorts, watching our planet discreetly and covertly, beaming back all the information he gathers to his people.

But the first task in invasion, the first step towards attack, is observation. Assessment of the target's abilities, weaknesses, capabilities. If this alien is benevolent, as his actions seem to indicate he is, what would this information be used for if the race from which he came decided to use that data for military purposes? In other words, "Who Watches The Watchmen?"

This phrase originates from a first century Latin poet, Juvenal. Though the satire it came from dealt with marital fidelity, the issue of moral fidelity is at play here too. If this alien is the benevolent watcher, who is watching him? Who will ensure he adheres to his own morality, if indeed anyone and everyone is corruptible? This is why I hold no faith, no belief in the religions of our time - because any group, any gathering greater than one, is corruptible, susceptible to politic maneuverings, and no one in that group is beyond corruption.

Originally, this image started off as a satire on the "careful tourist" - the traveler who adheres to the safe, the prescribed paths, and never gets his hands into the heart of the land and culture he is visiting. Once I made him into an alien observer, my mind reached back to an old episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation which has a similar title,  where the Federation, adhering to their own Prime Directive of non-interference of a less advanced culture, discreetly observe a primitive race from a hidden outpost. Through an accident, the outpost is seen by the race they are watching, and the Prime Directive is violated, contaminating the natural evolution of the people and their world. Their very beliefs are changed in a day when they behold the "miracles" of the advanced society that was studying them.

It reminded me of something I read once about the paradox of observing quantum mechanics. Essentially, it is not possible to observe a system without changing that system, and the observer and the act of observation, therefore, must be considered part of the system being observed!

In other words, the ethics of surveillance, as it relates to this fantasy piece, is the issue. Whatever the intentions are of the Watchman here, the information he gathers could one day be used to change the world he is observing, and the concern is one that applies to almost any culture, and leader, any society: Who Watches the Watchmen?


Michael Bilotta

04/28/2014

In Jungian Psychology, the Shadow archetype is sort of a repository for all an individual's darker qualities: the weaknesses, instinctual impulses, the negative tendencies and motivations. It is the wild side, the chaos, the unknown, the repressed ideas that the conscious mind. The shadow is often projected outward; instead of accepting this dark side as part of ourselves, we project our shadows onto others. Jung also described the shadow as the base of creativity - a rebellious force of nature acting against the rational, the logical "real world" around us.

In my recent session with this model, a few of the shots failed to trigger the lights, giving me essentially a dark silhouette of the man. I decided to play with these shapes, and attempt to build a piece based on the shadowy figures I was creating with the model.

As I built this piece, as usual, I did not know what I was ultimately creating, and it seemed to stay ambiguous for most of the process. Starting with the silhouette figure, I gave him a counterpart in the distance and liked that they resembled each other yet did not seem to acknowledge each other.

The setting of the Salton Sea, a desolate place if there ever was one, was something I wanted to use since I shot there last month. Part of this was the ruins of a small home structure, and I added light poles from another location in the ruins to conjure up a forgotten landscape, a place in decay or stasis. Adding snow and setting it at night certainly helped give it a sense of foreboding.

So what was the relationship between these two? Why is one waiting and what is he waiting for? What is he looking at? Why is the shadow figure avoiding the light?

It became an exercise of light and shadow, and a Jungian metaphor. The conscious side of the man is in the light, contemplative and patient, while the shadow appears to be moving or at least stepping away from the light. The light is reason, the light is consciousness, The man is unaware that his shadow is at his side, always with him, stalking him - one staying safely in the light, the other moving into darkness. The poles seemed to represent barriers or degrees of separation between them, and the scale became somewhat significant too - the shadow figure being much larger than the Self.

I gave the man and his shadow some familiars, birds to mirror this universal constant of the conscious mind and the subconscious - one content to remain in light and the other, the shadow, restless and on the move. Perhaps this desolate place is too arid, too dreary and uninspiring for the creative force of the Shadow to remain here. If this part of us truly represents our creative energy, our hidden desires, perhaps the Shadow is right in leaving, as the cold light of waking life offers little comfort. Perhaps the unknown, despite the dark path one must travel to get there, is a better place than what the Self accepts as his real life.

Despite the negative connotations associated with the Shadow archetype, it can motivate us, it can expand us if we accept this part of ourself and confront it, contain it. We see the Shadow in much of our contemporary and classic literature - a prime example being Mr. Hyde, the Shadow persona of Dr. Jekyll. Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes, Darth Vader and Obi Wan, the Emperor and Yoda, Harry Potter and Voldemort. Even Batman can be seen as the Shadow of Bruce Wayne. All these characters eventually confront or contain their Shadows and a resolution is achieved, a balance is struck, a sense of something completed, a journey concluded. Jung called this process individuation - a process of assimilating the shadow into the persona.

The man and his Shadow in this image do not appear to be at that stage yet -  alongside each other yet unaware of the other. They are in the dreamscape here, which often can be a place where we see our Shadows at work, an attempt to communicate with that side of ourselves we repress and fear.

Regarding the title, I thought it was somewhat playful, using the theoretical substance of our universe but also referencing the darkness of the matter at hand - the man and his Shadow and their connections - like dark matter, unseen yet binding them together.

Model: Ben

A Before and After version of this image will be available on my Facebook page and my website:

www.facebook.com/MichaelBilottaPhotography
www.michaelbilotta.com

 

George Lucas, the film producer/director responsible for Star Wars, pretty much made me want to be in the visual arts single-handedly. It came out when I was still quite young, and the visual effects on the screen were nothing the world had seen before, with a realism that had never been attempted on that scale. I was always interested in the how of things - how did they shoot that, how did they make that effect happen? I got my hands on as many behind the scenes books as I could at the time, and tried to grasp the concept of blue screen compositing and mattes. Several years later,  I find that early childhood fascination with special effects very handy in creating my imagery in the world of photo manipulation. As a matter of fact, the first thing I did when i got Photoshop was learn how to make light sabers!

Below is one of my first Photoshop efforts, making my Star Wars inspired lightsaber effect using my first point and shoot (Canon Digital Elph, 2002).



Photoshop is a wonderful tool, but just like a hammer, you can either make something strong and secure or you can beat it to death and wreck it completely. Most people, myself included, go too far with it when they first start learning it. It's natural. Just like everything though, you gain more skill the longer you use it, and while you hopefully never stop learning, you become proficient with getting the job done as you gather more tried and true techniques into your wheelhouse.

Have you ever seen an older film with horrible matte lines or green fringe around an actor who was obviously shot on a green screen stage? Even the older Star Wars films have some issues with the compositing process, and while they were mainly due to the limitations of the pre digital age, the same issues can come up now if you don't take care to avoid potential problems while shooting.

I have a few "rules" when it comes to compositing, and I realize that not everyone has the means or ability to do the same things I do in the same way, but perhaps they can help just the same.

Rule 1: Shoot with a good camera!

In fourteen years since getting my first digital camera, I have used everything from a cheap point and shoots (my old Canon Digital Elph 2.1), a few entry level DSLRs (Rebel Xti and T2i) and now a full-frame sensor Canon 5d Mk II. I also went from kit zoom lenses to 3 prime lenses, no zoom, fixed length, 24mm, 50mm, 85mm. They serve me well, and in the time between my Rebel SLRs to my 5D mk II, I bought these lenses, and even on the Rebels, the lenses made a big difference in image quality. But everything took a big leap forward with the 5D - a full frame sensor means not only a larger image file, but also a higher quality image with more pixels, and pixels mean information, and information means getting better results with compositing images together. Starting off with a high quality photo makes a huge difference when compositing and creating layer masks.

Rule 2: Never cut someone out and stick them onto a background!

This is the thing I see most often, and most of the time it is noticeable. People have hair, mostly, and hairlines are the bane of the compositor's world. There is simply no good way to realistically cut someone out well, no matter how much time you spend, and have it hold up under close inspection. None of my backgrounds are below the subject - they are on top, with a model shaped hole cut into them. Same thing, right? No, big difference, which leads me to my next rule:

Rule 3: Be a photographer, but edit like a projectionist

If you project something over the model softly, the lines around the model-shaped hole are much more forgiving. What does this mean? Well, I shoot all models on a neutral gray backdrop. The backdrop is lit as evenly as possible, and is fairly brightly illuminated. This backdrop acts as a green screen in terms of keying out the model, but being gray means no color caste, no green or blue fringe around the model's edge's, and it essentially acts like a silver screen in the cinema. Because the background is illuminated and visible, the backgrounds can be "beamed" onto this gray backdrop gently. In other words, the blend mode of the background you want to drop in can be changed from Normal (the default) to something like Overlay or Hard Light. This is very similar to having a projector pointed at a screen with a model standing in front of it. The intensity of the image is greatly reduced as it travels to the screen, and the screen's reflective property assists in regaining the vibrancy of the image.

There are a number of things that can assist compositing from this point that are too lengthy to go into here, and frankly, too boring, but generally, that is what I employ: beaming my background elements over the model shot. I usually approach elements in the built up environments logically too: ground first, sky, if there is a sun or moon I put them behind the sky because, well, that is where they are in nature. Close objects are higher up the layer palette, distant ones closer to the bottom.

Rule 4: Try to always shoot with the same camera and lenses!

There are ways to overcome image quality and parallax distortion discrepancies, but they are a lot of extra steps, and all of them have the potential for blowing your illusion. I shoot all my material with the same camera, the same three lenses. This way, there is a basis of commonality - even if Shot 1 was done in January and Shot 2 was done in July - they are coming from the same source, the same sensor. I would not, at this point, even consider using say, an iPhone snap to blend in with my Canon photos - the quality is just going to wildly different.

Rule 5: Do Not Be Lazy!

There were some shots early on in my conceptual work that suffered from being lazy, or just not sweating the details. There is just no reason for it. Do you think your mask is perfect? Zoom in to 300% and look again. Can you make it better? If yes, but you don't want to, put it away for a day and come back when you are in the mood to really nail it. I have gone in and cleaned up masks using a 2 pixel brush just to make sure that if the image is ever scrutinized or zoomed in, no one will see anything sloppy. Is it always possible to be perfect? No, but try!

Rule 6: Stock Answers are Poor Answers

Is there a reason to use stock images? Sure. Did I used to use them? Yes. Do I now use them? No. Pride is one reason, quality is another. Pride in what you create - that's a big part of it. If my image is of a man on a horse with a killer sunset behind him, and the horse and the sunset is a stock image I pulled off the internet, how much of the end result is mine? Just the man. It's not truly yours. I used to use them, and besides the obvious issues: legality, credit, quality of the image, lighting of the stock image as it compares to yours, there is a sense of accomplishment in taking all the shots needed for a composite - that everything presented was a result of your effort and determination. I used to use them all the time. Then, I modified that to be a sort of unspoken rule: If the stock image is a minor feature in the final piece, then it is okay, but not if it is an important piece. Finally, I stopped using them altogether and now shoot everything myself. Another large part of this is quality. Most if not all images you pull off the internet are heavily compressed jpegs. This means that right away the stock image is going to be low quality compared to my model shot. I shoot in RAW mode only - no compression, and edit them that way too, up to a certain point. A pristine shot from a good camera is not going to blend well with a crappy jpeg from the internet. It just won't. Not under close inspection. If you are not interested in anyone seeing your work in large format or print, then perhaps this compromise is fine, but I want something that will hold up at high levels of magnification. This is a personal choice, and my rule for myself. It does not mean it is right for everyone.

Rule 7: See The Light, But Not Too Much Of It!

When in doubt, always under expose. Always. If I am shooting and I see in my display that something is perfectly exposed according to the meter, nine times out of ten I will find that it is too bright when I go to edit it. There are a host of reasons for this - all technical ones involving camera settings a point selections for metering, but I always play it safe here and shoot under by 1 to 2 stops. When I edit these or prep them in Adobe Camera Raw prior to opening them in Photoshop, I can recover the exposure almost every time and selectively darken or lighten certain channels or aspects of the shot. Information that is not visible in the shot as is, hidden in the shadows, is there. If you overexpose your shot, and have some white-hot blown out highlights, the information is lost and is never going to be recovered. A lot of this depends on the quality of the camera and lenses, of course. I believe all rules are flexible and some don't work for everyone, but this one, in the world of digital photography, is the closest I have to a Golden Rule. Always under expose!

Rule 8: Don't be Afraid, It's Only Light

Too many times I see people describe themselves as "natural light" photographers. This usually means that they have no idea how to use lighting kits in a studio setting. Look, it IS daunting and frustrating when you begin, I agree. But in the end, it is light, and best of all, you can control it! If you only use natural light, in other words, shoot with available light whether outside or inside, you are limiting yourself to shooting at the golden hours: dawn and dusk, or on overcast days only, or ramping up your ISO to destructive levels. It's not that I don't believe you can't do those things and still get great pictures, but why limit yourself? Why wait for the settings to be ideal? You can get what you want indoors at any time. Obviously I have to shoot my environments in natural light - I am not made of money where I have a lighting crew to light up a giant field. But shooting models separately, indoors, means that you can schedule shoots regardless of the weather or light conditions, and get exactly what you want in terms of mood.

If you are interested in what I use for lighting, it is quite primitive:

2 580ex II Canon Speedlites
1 430ex II Canon Speedlite

I use the two 580s with big diffuser boxes: One is a 48" strip light box, and the other is a 60"" Octabox. The 430ex II is in a 24" beauty dish. Usually I use two, occasionally all three. They are all fired together using an ultra cheap set of Cowboy Studio transmitter/receivers. A transmitter sits on my camera's hot shoe, and the receivers are all on the light stands. I press the shutter, and all three fire at once. No wires to trip over, ultra lightweight and with the purchase of several sets of rechargeable AA batteries, fairly inexpensive. All my shoots have so far been in my home's little basement space. Three sets of batteries will last a good 3 hour session, and the gray seamless paper will last 1-5 shoots, depending on how messy things get.

Now, these rules work for me. I have been compositing images in Photoshop for 14 years, and these rules have evolved over trial and error, doing bad composites and good ones. But the thing about rules and Photoshop, there really are not rules - or one way to do something. Whatever works for you is a good way to do things. The preceding information and processes mentioned are the things that give me good results for now, but that could change in a few years!

Just for fun, here are some old composite pieces from several years ago - older cameras and older techniques, and yes, using some stock images! 



Michael Bilotta
03/27/2014

 

 

This blog entry is surely not going to be a very popular one, and will likely be taken as a defensive posture, but it's been something on my mind lately and since it's not going away, I decided I must say my piece and get it all out. That last phrase, "get it all out" will have some bearing on the words to come, and is at the heart of this blog. We all strive for happiness in life, most of us generally regard the pursuit of happiness to be a basic human right and desire we share in common. I would never say I was contrary to that sentiment or goal, but…

Lately there is a cult mentality forming in the obtuse world of social media which has largely replaced old-fashioned human interaction, and sadly passes for our friendships now. The Cult of Happiness, the Purveyors of Positivity, the Negaters of Negativity. In other words, those that have a zero tolerance policy for anything they perceive to be "negative" or pessimistic. I tend to fall into their radar often, and these are not just casual, online acquaintances, no, some are my friends, some are family members. They criticize anything you post that they perceive to be negative. They offer up advice in replies starting with "you should" or "why don't you…" Unsolicited advice, often.

I see many of my contemporaries doling out the refreshing Kool-Aid of positivity too, as if being a reservoir of good tidings will make people love what you create even more. Perhaps it does, but then, consider your audience, and why they need an idol of happy to warm themselves around. I see people creating art in my genre (for lack of a better term) focusing on their "message" of glad tidings more than their art, and I see their art suffer as a result. This is of course my opinion, and I will never name the names - it's an observation I have had for many months now. I see their desire to be thought of as positive outweigh their focus on their art, and I have to ask why, why is the attainment of "happy person" status more vital to you than your creative work? Who is that serving? Is it all just a marketing strategy? It may well be, and it may be working in the short term, but the more forced your outward appearance becomes, the more it becomes something to maintain, the more your focus is strained away from your art. You are not required to be an inspiration to anyone, and if you are indeed an inspiration to some, it should be as a result of your work, not your words or happy thoughts. Being inspiring should be a by-product, never the goal.

In our modern culture, we see these self-help gurus everywhere: on television, the insipid infomercials, and tome after tome of how to change your life and outlook and level of happiness. it is almost no longer allowed to express any dissension about anything, lest you be branded a malcontent. This puts me in the dubious light of defending negativity, and in a way I am, but only for the sake of rationality, honesty, and reality. But of course, it is also a defensive posture, as I have often been called a Negative Person. This category, this label, is something attached to people by the majority, otherwise known as the bully mentality, and it is no different than terms like happy, jock, ditz, brainiac, nerd, slut, or idiot. By calling someone negative, you are summarizing their entire being into a convenient category, one created by the majority for the convenience of you, the accuser, to organize your life and minimize the randomness.

In terms of art, the demands of the happy produce very little to sink your emotional teeth into. Maybe pretty pictures are okay for some, but I look to art as a reflection of the zeitgeist, the human experience creatively expressed through the changing times and resonating in a fundamental way. Shakespeare, for example, one the most profound writers of our history, produced sonnets, comedies, tragedies, and I am betting that the more popular or more often produced works of his are the tragedies. If you take the cultural phenomenon of "Star Wars" and ask any diehard fans of the first three films which was the best, it would be the second, "The Empire Strikes Back," the tragedy of the trilogy. There were no happy endings in that one, and all the heroes were suffering and darkness was winning. Why are we drawn to the antihero in the arts? Why was "Breaking Bad," "the Sopranos," "the Walking Dead" and even "the Dark Knight" so popular? Why do they endure? Why do they receive such accolades?

Once again, this is my opinion, my take on things, and I say the answer is, well, because tragedy and darkness is the more common experience in the human condition, and happiness is the rarity. Dark art, or tragic art, speaks to our own struggles, our fears, our experiences more than the lighter side of things. We connect to it because it is a shared experience, and in seeing that connection in art - be it visual or song, we feel a deeper connection to the tragedies in our own lives. The Cult of Happiness is around of late because in this epoch of human history we have more free time to ponder, more time to waste, and more time to complain than ever before. It is a luxury, this pursuit of happiness, and many do not have that luxury. Again, I am not opposed to being happy, I just prefer to consider the source of this happiness, and seek the legitimacy of its claim.

Saying you are positive does not make you so. Saying you are happy does not mean you are. Shunning what you perceive to be negative will not eradicate it from your life. Mantras do not work, and cannot be wielded as a talisman against the sadness. I wish it were so, but I am a realist, a pragmatist. I am also an artist, and I think filtering your thoughts is exactly the worst thing you can do to your creative output. We are born into a hostile world. The birthing of a human is pain, the consciousness of the human able to perceive their own mortality is to be afraid, and the crimes both physical and emotional we commit are terrifying. Our history is bloody, our emotions are strong, and we all carry a large amount of stress with us in our lives. How we choose to deal with it is a personal decision, but the role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to society and reflect back creatively how we are.

I choose to examine the darkness in my concepts. I choose to speak of loneliness, the silence of God, the hopes betrayed, the depression I experience. I am a live wire with no insulation - have been since I was a child. It is who I am. But then the Cult looks at my work, my penchant for sarcasm, misinterprets my sense of humor as defeatist, and labels me "negative." What they choose to overlook, or what the strangers in his Cult do not know about me, is that I have a quiet life, have my basic needs met, have a loving partner and a devoted dog, and a fairly satisfying creative life. To say I am happy is not exactly true, but then, those labels of "happy" and "sad," "negative" and "positive" are too simplistic, and I think they are naive. There are things I wish were different, there are things about me I wish I could change. Who doesn't? But this label continues to follow me around, and I decided here to speak to it. You can take your limited information about a person, about me, and reduce it down to a label, or you can examine the whole picture and see what nuances lie beneath.

The truth of the matter is, our need to label someone always speaks more to the person assigning the label than the person they are describing. What you are really saying is "this person is not like me, and I do not like that." It's really that simple. And then you need to peel back another layer and ask yourself "why do you not like that?" What's behind your attractions or aversions? As tempting as it is to reduce things into convenient categories, it's just not very realistic, and batting back the randomness or unseemly in life is only an exercise in futility.

And so here we have social media, where we express our thoughts, share our witticisms, provide our points of view and share things we find funny or disturbing. It is a platform of celebrity wannabes, all of us included, and we have the stage and a potential audience for every post. If you continue this metaphor, you are alone on the stage, a microphone in front of you, and an audience in their seats. What do you say? What do comedians do? Do they express what makes them happy and keeps them satisfied? No, they do not. Comedy is derived from the darker stuff, the stuff we all find maddening, the fights we have, the miscommunications, the push and pull of life. You need to hook your audience, and most of all, you need to be real with them, and not a caricature. You cannot step up to the microphone and list things that make you smile, things that keep you nominal, and only say positive things. That is a different audience, that is an audience looking for answers out of their misery, the self-help flock - exactly the perfect audience for the Cult of Happiness to cater to.

So, for the record, I do not validate the dumb categories in this world, and I refuse to own "negative" or "positive" or any such artificial classifications. You need to term me so, I do not. You need to bat back the darkness, I do not. I am choosing to hold it, to get it out in another form, to hopefully transform it into my art. And you know, in those simplistic terms, I think that is the most "positive" thing you can do with it. As for my sarcasm, it is intended for the audience seeking to be entertained, and if you find my pessimism or "negativity" off-putting, I suggest you may be in the wrong auditorium - the Tony Robbins lecture is in another room. In this room, it's just the truth as I see it, and you might not want to hear it. You don't have to.

As a footnote to all this, recently I saw one of my images shared on another person's wall. The image was shared without the title or the explanatory notes that usually accompany my work, and the comments of the piece shared on another's wall were all decidedly optimistic. The piece I did, at the top of this blog, was about trying for an escape but everything is conspiring against it, and it was certainly a "dark" piece, and yet, depending on who is looking and their own personal outlook, the piece read as optimistic to some. I really loved that - it meant that it was open-ended enough to allow differing interpretations. It meant that for that one image, and therefore me as its creator, I was supplying something optimistic to some, and not only "negative."

03/14/2013
Michael Bilotta

 

I have, in the past, posted pieces I had completed that were not published, mainly due to questionable quality or a concept gone awry. This time, I am posting pieces that were not published but I actually like. They are casualties of the journey, the soldiers that brought the idea home by sacrificing themselves along the way! Take this one, for example, the final piece of a process that involved four completed images before settling into what you see here, in "Death In The Afternoon."



The idea was improvised during the shoot, with the model playing with some poses and red fabric. With what he was wearing, his features and hairstyle, these was definitely something Spanish and matador about him, though we did not have a real matador costume during the shoot. When I started editing, I started trying to hone in on this concept and what I could do with it. My first idea was the concept of a young man practicing, training to be a matador, and symbolically what that could mean. I built up two images from the best shots of this "series:"



Sadly, although I like the tonal qualities and poses of these images, they didn't sell the idea successfully. Why was he practicing in a field? Why indeed - I do not have shots of a bull ring, so that was not going to be possible. Gradually, the concept evolved into the bullfight as a metaphor - learning to fight, the fight as a dance, the fight as growing up. That idea gave me this piece, with the working title "Learning to Fight:"



Now, I really like this image - I like the colors, the overall flow of it, so why not post it? Well, despite the concept being there, the pose is fairly static, placid, and the knives do not seem much of a threat, so this warrior in training seems a little inept, a little too posed, where more motion and action would work better. I wish I had those shots to do over, but I don't, so this one was left on the sidelines.

At this point I had three images with none of them exactly working well enough to sell the idea. Once i merged elements of both, I pretty much got my intent completed, using the pose from "Learning To Fight" and the field and environment from the Matador pieces:


It takes a lot of restraint and discipline to hold something you work on for a long time. I used to post anything I completed, and over time, I started removing the clunkers from my online portfolios, to publish only ones that I was confident with and proud of. Nevertheless, when you spend days working on something to make it as good as it can be, it's hard to put them in the folder and tuck them away. Especially these, which I classify as "close calls." So at least they can appear here, on this blog, as a little evolution of an idea, and how it got from beginning to end.

Thanks for reading and watching!

Michael Bilotta
March 3, 2014

 

 

 

It's been a few weeks since I posted anything, and about two weeks since any finished work has emerged, so I thought I would write something to fill in the blanks a bit. I tend to write these things in first draft mode - unplanned, unmapped, and extremely stream of consciousness, but I do try to structure at least a little bit, so it reads a little less like the meanderings of a diary. Always the context should be about the work, the art, so I will try to keep that mind, but most of the last few weeks have been devoid of art, and this is what I will focus on.

There is a party line in the world, in the arts, that you have to maintain a steely exterior, an iron clad confidence that makes you indifferent to criticism and negative reactions to your work, but I have never been much for parties. The point is, things get to me, even if they are temporary, even if I don't respect the person from which the reaction is emanating. It is always amazing to me how a run of misfortune seems to multiply, straining the resolve of a person to the breaking point. This month has been that for me. I am not made of steel, and I am not immune to negative feedback, even if the consensus of all creatives out there is that I should be.

To find the reason for this sensitivity would be arduous, and this is not meant to be a self-indulgent therapy session, but the sensitivity is there, and I don't understand how an artist can claim to be immune to negative feedback and still be an artist - the very nature of an artist should and does contradict this tough posturing. I suppose that confidence and self-worth play into this equation too, so perhaps there are others that find dismissing these "attacks" easier than I do, but regardless of where anyone else is on the scale, I feel them, and I react to them.

Contributing to my low tide this month, and leading up to the crest and the break, is a run of personal problems that I will not delve into deeply, but suffice to say, it's all "real world" stuff: money, family issues, seasonal depression, employment, and the bitter cold and weather that seems to keep me housebound more than I should be. Then a few other things, from the artistic side of life: good material is in short supply now: model shoots are needed, but no money to do them, environment/scenics are needed, but the weather and the locations seem to conspire against those things being obtained. Each piece gets harder and harder to complete because I am working with some pretty severe limitations of material at this point. There is nothing wrong with taking some time off - indeed, I should, given my prodigious output of recent months, but the problem with that is I like doing this, so not doing it is beyond frustrating to me, and it makes me feel empty not to have something to work on.

And then came some negative comments about my work. In the last few weeks, I have seen comments like "artless," "soulless," "depressing," "empty," and criticizing my choice of colors, my cropping, everything. One even likened one of my pieces to a moment in a rock video, meaning nothing, with no artistic merit. Of course these people were emboldened to rip me apart safely in the land of internet anonymity, and of course most of these people have nothing of their own work on display - I have been down this road before, and I know that those types are out there, lurking in the cyber shadows. But no matter the source, this kind of attack gets through, and plants a seed of self doubt in me, and I go into shutdown, into a period of self-assessment and analysis.

I am confident enough about my work - I like to think I am pretty good at looking at it objectively, and I spend an enormous amount of time avoiding laziness and trying to make things as well as I can. I want my pieces to mean something - I don't want simply a pretty picture, and I don't want to create nonsense. I know when I am finished something that regardless of how successfully conveyed the meaning is, there IS meaning in it, and I put it there deliberately. It is quite a lengthy process to gradually form an idea and visually represent that idea. Some come easier than others, and yes, some of them are not my best work - everyone is capable of creating duds, and I am no exception to that. But I know that there is some measure of integrity in all of them, some attempt at symbolic meaning and communication at their core, and so my integrity does not feel this attack, but my humanity does, my skin, my desire to be appreciated, which we all have no matter our bluster and noise to the contrary.

One of the pieces that came under particularly harsh attack was one of my personal favorites, and it was one that was days in the making, and also one that required me to do it twice, as the original file became corrupted and I had to start all over again from the beginning. That it was completed at all was a test of my patience, and my desire to see it through and make it work was a personal victory for me, since I am not known for my patience in life. It was stuffed with meaning, symbolically of course, and I thought it held together quite nicely. During a curation process, the piece was appraised without title, without my explanatory notes. And it was attacked.

I live in my own world artistically. In visual arts, as in music, when I was a songwriter, I don't really absorb a lot of work from others while I create - that can lead to copying ideas, so my development is measured internally, by me, and the body of work becomes a progression, a personal one, like raising a child and seeing all the iterations of that child throughout its development. It is a key motivator for me - this desire to see things through, to see where it could go and how good it could get along the way. There is never a destination really, it is a journey, it is developing a muscle, and your strength relies on perseverance. Since what I do is neither straight photography or painting, but somewhere in between, I have to post my work somewhere online, and most of the places it resides are photography sites.

Photography can indeed be an art form, but not all photographers are artists, or even artistically inclined. Some of them wouldn't know a work of art if they fell onto it from 20,000 feet and were impaled by it. With great disdain some of them view my work and call it over-processed, artificial, and they become almost hostile when they have no idea what it means or what it is trying to say. And so the scathing comments come. But after my initial reaction of being hurt, it occurs to me that these people are utterly incapable of looking at anything that isn't cut and dry, and they require, insist really, on being spoon fed. Naturally, something surreal would irritate them. Of course something symbolic would perplex their literal and narrow minds.

This amounts to a pep talk, and something I try to tell myself when I see these comments. But the initial attack has done its damage, and eventually my desire to create something will override their hateful words, and output will resume. It is just very unfortunate timing that it comes now, when everything else is low, everything else is hard, and for the one constant in my life, my creative output, to be harped on now is just too much. Even if it is momentary, even if it is unqualified, you start to view your work through their eyes, and suddenly you question your talent, your ability, and all seems rather pointless and futile. Even if this lasts a day, it is damaging. Even if you have lots of positive support outweighing the negative, the bully in your life will always cut the deepest. Why? Because bullies are the only one carrying the knives. Because the part of you that resides in all of us that doubts, that feels worthless, is awakened by these bullies, and that part temporarily takes the foreground when it should be left dormant and inert.

And so I am climbing out of the hole slowly, and trying to resume. I am often dismayed by being labeled so often as "negative." I would never say to anyone something so harsh as I have seen about my work directly, even if I felt it. I like to think I at least try to see something redeeming in people's artistic expression, but if I really don't like something, I would not set out to inform them of this. It astonishes me that there are people who feel compelled to do so, and further confirms my suspicions that most of humanity is savage, most should be kept at arm's length.

To the purist photographers out there who hate what I do, you should know that, besides being a complete hypocrite, what you do and what I do are worlds apart. What I display is not something I captured or documented, something approaching voyeurism often, but it is the result of willing something into existence, and I am not at all interested or aspire to capturing something real or as is. I am not a reporter, I am not a documentarian. I am an artist, and what you do is more akin to hunting, and I don't really care. It is why I prefer fiction over biography, films over documentaries, scripted shows over newscasts. There is nothing interesting in that realm for me. I don't need to spend any more time in the real world, I am forced to be in it daily. I want the surreal, the fantastical, the impossible and the dream-like. I want the message to be delivered allegorically, not plainly. And if you are perplexed by what I am trying to say, or feel I am saying nothing at all, then maybe the void that you experience is really your own inability and unwillingness to find meaning in something that isn't literal.

I realize not everything I do will be great, or good, and not everyone likes the same thing. My tolerance of those differences needs work, certainly, but clearly not as much as some of my contemporaries, given the misery they felt so free to unleash. Kicking while someone is down is probably the least attractive quality in the human condition, and one that makes me feel very apart from it, and alone. I am not a saint, certainly, and I have strong opinions, but not everyone needs to know your opinions.

The last time I got some form of artistic rejection, I created a piece as a reaction to it, letting my current and raw feelings seep into it, and certainly it was a piece created out of anger, out of self-defense. Perhaps it is bad form to do so, but then again, if I am being honest with myself and my work, then why not show that too? I have a feeling the experiences of this awful month will find their way into the next round of imagery, whenever they may come, and I think I will let it be, and give it voice, as I have here now. Why not? What good is an artist that tempers what he does, that restricts and edits the raw material, that worries about the party line and falls in line with the rhetoric most seem to value? I am not interested in that.

Perhaps my explanatory notes that accompany the images will cease in the future, given the revelations of this month, it seems that too many don't want to work hard or even a little to glean the meaning in something, and want it all laid out for them. Maybe I am doing myself a disservice by writing the notes, and should let the pieces speak for themselves, though I do enjoy writing them.

For those of you out there who may have read this, who may also create art, I hope this connected with you, and you should know that it's okay to be sensitive to the negative comments you may receive, and to desensitize yourself is unnatural if you want to be an artist. Artists need to be sensitive, perhaps hypersensitive. It's unfortunate though that the world at large is so overrun with the insensitive and cruel.

This piece began life, as ever, with a simple model shot and pose, and then, weeks later while editing, evolved into a meditation on the deaths in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius covered the city and all its occupants in ash, preserving them seemingly frozen in time at the point of their death. Ash I could do, roman architecture and volcanoes, well, those items are in short supply in my area. This sat around for weeks until I decided to scrap Pompeii and see what else this pose, which I really liked, could become.

Two aborted trips to gain new environmental material and an old Sarah McLachlan song became the sources for what you see now.  Winter in New England is a damnable thing - you never know what you are getting with the weather from one day to the next. I went out twice in the hopes of getting some new places shot, only to come back empty handed. I got a corn field in winter, cut down to the quick, and on the second trip, almost nothing - a few shots of some branches and a bit of a barbed wire fence.

I have always been a big believer in great titles and try to come up with good ones. Growing up, there are more than a few songs, albums and books I bought solely on the title alone - if they were image-laden, if they were alluring, I was hooked. Once you start writing your own work (I am a songwriter as well), you begin to realize that a title is not enough - or, if you have a killer title, you damned well better deliver the promised goods. Case in point, this title, by Sarah McLachlan. I remember this song only in passing - I remember seeing the album in the store, "Solace," and reading the titles of the songs. "The Path of Thorns" - oooh that sounds rich!  Thorns make me think of Biblical things (Jesus and his crown of thorns) being an ex-Catholic, and you can see in your mind's eye wonderful imagery with a title like this. I never did buy the album for some reason, but I never forgot the title.

Who knows why things are dredged up from your psyche and what it all means, but now, almost twenty years since that album came out or more, the title came to me as something I should explore doing in my work. Thorns…hmmm. Well, I could go to a flower store and buy some roses, but who needs the expense? Besides, thorns are so literal a thing, and rose thorns would likely be too small for what I wanted. I had my barbed wire though, from the failed trip to shoot scenery. Certainly in the thorn family, albeit man-made. I added the wire into the model and built up a suggesting of a barrier in front of the model with it. I added the decimated cornfield right over my Pompeii ground layers and then things started clicking. The crucifixes were a no-brainer; thorns will forever be associated with the Bible in my mind, so an icon like the cross not only gave me some ominous cemetery subtext, but also pulled this into a commentary about my stance on religion in general - the depleted cornfield, the symbol of death that is the cross, and the barbed wire all created, in my mind, a symbolic path of thorns - a path to pain, restriction, emptiness and ruin. This led to me adding a bit of blood on the model to imply his attempts at navigating this barbed wire barrier, and also gave me a color scheme to aim for - for some reason, and again, who knows why, I associate purple with church.

I decided at this point to actually listen to the song I was using the title of, and check out the lyrics of it to see what tidbits of inspiration could be gleaned from it. I was pretty disappointed with what I found, and this goes back to my position on having a great title and backing it up with the goods. It turns out that this song, certainly a nice song, nice melody, well sung, is…a love song, or rather, a relationship song. What a huge disappointment. You have "the Path of Thorns" and all you can think of is a complicated relationship? The title is referencing only one line in the song, and is not the "real" title at all. It is, if you follow the pop song biology and let the music and structure dictate the central theme, "Terms of Endearment." I can see why she would choose to not use this, but in my head, I expected an epic, image-laden, almost mythical journey with a title like that, and not some disappointed lover moaning about the loser who let her down. You only get one "Path of Thorns" to use in your career, so you need to make it count! When you use iconic language like "path" and "thorns" those things need to be present, otherwise you are just false advertising, luring people in with promise of "the greatest show on earth" and delivering to them one single sad clown.

I don't mean to tear her down - I don't hate Sarah, I even have a couple of her albums, and regard her as a good songwriter generally. But you don't use an epic title like that and reduce it to a moan about disappointing paramours! Clearly, this song was not going to help or be connected to my image at all. What does one think of with a path of thorns as a concept? Well, certainly a dangerous path, a path of pain, strife, peril, but you also have to think about the starting point of the journey as well as the destination - where is this path going to? And this is what I spent wondering about in the three days this image took to complete. If religion is my path of thorns here, where is it leading to? Well, nowhere, actually - my model is stopped, wounded, naked and alone. All this fire and brimstone you get from the Bible can only lead you to cold comfort, which is really no comfort at all. It demands of us linear, practical, sensory dependent people to believe in the unsubstantiated, to believe in the scientifically impossible, and to trust that which has never been seen or heard. It demands abstraction and yet wants to be taken literally. It boasts peace, yet wages wars to get it. It divides more people than it unites.

I could go on, but this is all my point of view on the topic, and need not be yours. Therefore, my path of thorns is a personal one - a person at the point of losing his faith after getting stabbed a few times with these "thorns." He is entangled in them, will have scars from the experience, and hopefully will get off this path once he is strong enough to lift himself up, shake off his disillusionment, and find comfort elsewhere.

Ironically, or at least symbolically, this path of thorns became a bit of life imitating art for me. It's hard to convey all this in a blog, but you hit certain crossroads and roadblocks as you produce artwork. I just did some pretty strong pieces, personal high points for me, all in a row, and when they come out one after the other like that, you tend to build up anxiety about the inevitable brick wall you will face. this cycle of prolific output and then a crisis of dry spell has happened before and will again, but it is never easy getting to that point - the trudging through it, surviving it, is a miserable pain in the ass, and always will be. Over the course of two years, I have been developing my own techniques, my own way of achieving a look I like, and now that engine is humming along quite nicely - I could do this approach indefinitely. But that is not growth, and treading water like that eventually creates a mini crisis in your mind - will I ever do anything new or am I a one-trick pony?

I am speaking mainly, in terms of this image, about color. Being a colorist is a huge part of what I do - most of my raw shots of the models are devoid of strong color, being shot on gray paper and most of the models wearing dark clothing or nude. I have developed a way to apply color for my pieces and it is now almost a method, a process. After a while, you begin to ask, is there nothing more? Is it only just red, green blue, violet, orange and yellow? It was almost becoming, "well, I think I have done too many blues lately, let's go yellow!" I spent most of one day trying new ways to color this piece, and threw out the tried and true method. This piece will be stored in my memory now as the one that showed me a few new techniques to apply color and dynamics. Will I be able to use them again? Who knows, but the point is I learned something new to try, and my bag of tricks is a little more robust for the journey. Also, I feel the guilt of relying on my one approach has abated now, I can be reassured that I don't need to churn out carbon copies over and over, that there are other ways of doing things.

Did I deliver an image worthy of the delicious title? Well, that is a matter of opinion, but at least the flavor of it is there, and not some lamentation of love going wrong, and I would rather reach for the grand and mythical and be accused of missing the mark than downplay the intent with a throwaway title like "beware the barbed wire fence!"

 

 

 

I ended last year with a blog post called "a Year in Review" which was rather long and ponderous, covering nearly everything I did in the world of art photography as well as some biographical information. This year will be different - basically because more things happened, strange as that seems!

The list would be something like this:


I shot 11 model shoots this year (6 models, three of them more than once)
I was published in magazines for the first time
I had images stolen from me online
I won a Photography Competition
I gained a much larger audience online
I finally got a workflow together with a printer I liked
I sold an image as a book cover
I sold some images to a magazine
I self-published a photo collection book (in two formats)
I created my most popular images to date


Not bad right? Well, it's easy to list these things in hindsight in a bullet list and pat yourself on the back, but if anything useful is to be gained from a blog post like this, it is in the details and not in the broad strokes. So off we go…

Shooting models is essential to me as I don't enjoy doing self-portraits at all. This year I learned that quality is of course better than quantity and stopped fretting about getting a fresh face for every shoot. Mind you - I DO look for new models from time to time - I think it is healthy, but more and more I have come to really value the contributions of those that gave me their time and energy, and decided to not worry about using them more than once. Of course a large part of this is due to their talent in front of the camera, and I think I really do put my models to task - it cannot be easy - I give them almost no indication of what we are going for because most of the time I do not know myself. They must improvise, they must trust me, and above all, as most of them pose nude as well, they must be utterly comfortable with themselves. Comfort is a big factor for me as well - I am incredibly nervous going into a shoot - akin to stage fright, and working with a model more than once makes this so much easier. I have gained something useful and created some really strong images with everyone I have work with so far, and my hopes of creating a little stable of recurring models seems to be forming. If I have not done so publicly before, I would like to thank sincerely all the models for 2013: Ed, Gilberto, Mike, Edward, Felix, Zack, and Luis.

Being published in a magazine is a big deal and I won't downplay it (too much) but I find as I get older, these benchmarks are less exciting but nevertheless satisfying. It meant that this year I could finally say I was a published photographer. First it was an online magazine called JC&Art Elite, which does print copies as well, and then I had two pieces published in the UK magazine Practical Photoshop - one being a breakdown of one of my images layer by layer. It was great to see that on the printed page, and even a thumbnail of the article on the cover! I will cover the next magazine in more detail in the a section dedicated to competitions, but I was also published in a biannual literary journal called Camera Obscura Journal, having one one part of the competition and receiving Honorable Mention in another. That was pretty gratifying too. On the site 1x.com, a curated site that chooses what they publish, I had many pieces granted publication and they even contacted me to tell me that one of my pieces was going to be published in the annual yearbook! It's a beautiful collection, and one I am proud to be a part of. They also produce a how-to tutorial book once a year and I will have an image/write up in that as well, though it seems like it will be available in 2014 at this point. Finally, in November and December, I was published by way of selling three images to Healthy Living Magazine - one image in the November issue and two in the December issue. A nice way to end my first year being a published photographer! 



Being stolen is certainly a horrible thing to experience, but on the bright side, it must mean you are doing something right too. Early in the year I found a few of my images on Tumblr, and while I was credited, the images were altered to black and white. I am not a huge fan of black and white, and I think it is beyond shitty to alter someone's intended presentation without consent. Since then I have been vigilant, and had to reduce the size of my posted photos online and insist on watermarking them everywhere they go. If is not enough though - this past summer, I discovered a site was using two of my images on their Facebook page - one heavily altered as their logo! The other was being used for some contest promo. I got pretty heated, but managed to get them to take them down, and they responded in kind and with respect, so all was well. Still, I do now make periodic sweeps of the online universe to see where my babies are going, and who is doing what. This has nothing to do with sharing - those that share images from my site and credit accordingly are beyond kind - this sort of thing helps me by growing an audience and I am over the top appreciative of those that like my work enough to share it!

Two competitions were payoffs for me - or so I thought. Late last year I won a slot with Canon's Project Imagination and this year the press started for that. I got a few mentions in local papers, and I suppose wherever the press releases from Canon wound up my name was mentioned but…it didn't really make much of an impact. Sure it's nice bragging rights, sure it's cool and there was a little prize money in the form of Canon Online dollars (new lens, thanks very much). By the time the competition culminated in October in a film festival with the films that were inspired by the winning photos, I was pretty unphased by it - after all, it was nearly one year since entering the thing - and then, when I finally saw the film my image was supposedly incorporated into, I was…annoyed. The film was not inspired by anything - it was a vanity project of the celebrity director/star. I saw not even the slightest hint of my image used, or even some of the others, and I was kind of disgusted with the whole thing. I will likely not enter it again unless the direction and concept of the competition changes in the future. The other win was the Camera Obscura Journal's annual photo competition. I won 1st place in the Amateur category, and Honorable Mention in the Professional category. I was happy to receive this news, but upon seeing the magazine in print, a tad disappointed that the photos were interspersed with nary a mention about the photographers - no write up, no bio, nothing. The focus of the publication is short stories, so the Photography section is really just an aside. Still, bragging rights in a quality publication - I am pleased! 



Last November I had about 100 followers on Facebook. Flickr, my mainstay for publishing photos, was my largest audience, but it would sometimes take one week before a new image was viewed 100 times. By the end of this year I should be at 20,000 Facebook followers and now my photos on Flickr reach 100 views in the first hour or so of release. Progress indeed. This was not divine intervention though - it was work and planning, and even some money. I made sure to release new images at least once a week - a grind at times - they do take me a long time to create - and I made sure my blog was updated at least once a month - that can be hard to keep up too. I even did some paid ads on Facebook to get the word out - and it worked really well. Now I can ease off that and let the rest happen by word of mouth hopefully. Paid ads are nothing to be ashamed of - it means you believe in yourself and you want an audience for your work. Any artist that claims they don't is lying. Getting likes on Facebook is do-able by paid ads - keeping them and growing them is up to you and your work. As draining as it can be, I am on Facebook daily trying to find ways to grow my audience. I share on various pages, I make contacts and virtual friends with fellow photographers, and all that plus keeping fresh material coming has really paid off this year. Is it catapulting me to photographer stardom? No, not yet - but you never know - a year ago I had no followers and had never been published.

Turning my work into fine art prints proved to be quite a saga his year, and none of it was resolved or working until the middle of the year. I won't bore you with the blow by blow, but my goal was to find a relatively small printing house that I could work with to get my prints to look like I intended and using the finest paper and archival inks. I must have tried five printers in 2013 until I finally have it going in the right direction now - and they look great. The goal for next year though is to find buyers for them - these prints are expensive to produce and I cannot sell them at cost - so I need to attract an art buying audience - for now, these prints are ready to go, but priced as art, so, ummm, they are not exactly going! 



Designing book covers and record sleeves was a childhood dream of mine, and in 2013, I got both! Sort of. I started being a contributor to ArcAngel Images last year - they are an image house that markets primarily to book publishers, and this year I finally got one sold - a Polish novel used it. And with all the handsome and attractive models I work with and have in my portfolio, who did they go with? Me! There are very few conceptual pieces using my face, but one of these apparently fit the bill, so my face is apparently on racks across Krakow now! I was also contacted by a composer who wanted to use one of my images for his original music project, so now I have, albeit virtual and electronic,  my second childhood dream come true - an album cover. Thank you to ArcAngel Images and to Richard Ames Music for making these events happen this year!


Late in the year, as I have already mentioned, I sold three images to Healthy Living Magazine. Sold, as in, I was paid. I cannot begin to tell you that these checks, while small and not something I can quit the dreaded day job over, meant more to me than anything I have been paid for before. They were purchased as is, not by decree, and apparently worth using to them. This is significant to me - I do not want an assignment-based portfolio - I want my work to be what it wants to be - and if someone finds value in what I do, well, how can I be anything but happy about that?



Doing my own book was not exactly a priority this year, it was maybe something relegated to the future wish list, but given that there are ways to self-publish books now with printing done as needed, and not in bulk, I decided to get a collection done and take a chance. I was really pleased with the results - I chose a good grade of paper and did a nice, large collection of 55 images with their accompanying notes, all in an image-wrapped hardcover presentation. Of course, being rather verbose, these write-ups and editing them proved to be the hardest part - I had to self-edit, and often cut down the original texts to a more manageable size. This meant cutting out a lot of the technical background information on the images, but that was fine - I would rather present them as conceptual works and not focus on the technical when it comes to doing an art/photography book. Of course, given the materials used and the size of the book and the page count, this tome is rather expensive to even produce and at a very modest percentage for profit, it is not exactly priced to fly off the shelf! I decided to do a smaller, softcover version with no notes, and added 20 additional images to it. So, now i have two books to display my wares. I am proud to have it in my home, and even more proud that some actually purchased it and have it in theirs now!

There are a few ways you can get some big numbers on some of these web sites like Flickr and 500px.com: Editor's Pick, for example, or being "explored" on Flickr. This means you get thousands and thousands of views. I have never gotten either of those, and at times it bugs me. I drove a lot of traffic to Flickr this year - over half a million views, and yet none of mine have ever been picked up on Explore. On 500px, I get most of my images up to "Popular" status, usually topping out at the mid 90s percentage-wise, and still no Editor's Pick. In theory those boons would get me a much larger audience, but for whatever reason, it has not yet happened. Still, some of my images from this year have gotten some impressive numbers, all things considered. My top five images on Flickr were all created this year. I will show the top five below. One image really got a helping hand from the band Duran Duran. I created an image using one of their song titles, "Is There Something I Should Know?" This song's video had some connectivity to the idea I was trying to convey, and on a hunch, I sent it to them via Facebook. They posted it on their page and I had one really great evening of thousands and thousands of views. So, thank you Duran Duran!

It's been a good year; as much as I can complain about some things, I really can't or shouldn't. Things are growing, and moving in the right direction. Most important to me though is the work itself, and I am happy that this growth coincides with my personal growth and satisfaction of the images i create. I won't say that there have not been some clunkers this year - there have been - but much less so than the prior year. I created over 100 new pieces this year, and most of them are in what I consider my portfolio, which would represent my personal best work. There have been creative slumps, frustrations, sure, but the highs this year greatly outweighed the lows.

And on that note, a good one, I will say goodnight and thank you to all who read this, to all who encourage me, and to all who helped me make 2013 my best year so far.

This layer by layer tour is done from the ground up. That means every layer shown is from the bottom layer upwards.

As always, this image was built with no preconceived ideas when it was shot. For the past few model sessions, I have been playing with this bench. It's simple in design, and I thought adding some architecture for the model to interact with could yield some ideas. This is how the raw shot looked:

Once I decided to remove the legs of the bench, it was just a matter of painting out the legs with a color similar to the background gray. It doesn't need to be perfect, because the gray area is going to serve as the layer mask selection:

Since i know that my process will deepen the saturation of colors, I add an adjustment layer of Hue/Saturation and reduce the red and yellow channels, bleaching out the body of the model:

I add the sky over these layers, and use a blending mode of Hard Light. Once I select the gray around the model layer completely using the Magic Wand, I switch to the sky layer and click "Add Layer Mask." The mask is still rough around the edges though, so I paint edit the hair line with a very soft brush, blending the layer mask into the hair. I also paint out the area where my cityscape will go:

I duplicate the sky layer and change the blend mode to "Screen" and reduce the opacity to about 20%. This gives the sky a little more light and airy quality:

I create a second copy and move the position of it around to fill in a few more clouds on the upper part of the frame. You can do this without affecting the mask position by unlinking the mask before moving the sky itself:

Next I add a sun spot. This is a 3-layer white elipse I have created a while ago and use repeatedly because it works well enough:

As you can see above, the sun is pretty much over the model's face, so to tuck it in a bit, I copy the sky layers mask and paste that mask onto the sun layer. I feather the mask significantly so some of the light naturally falls over the hair line:

Next comes the cityscape. This is an older shot from five years ago of San Francisco that I took with an older camera of lesser quality, but since I am going to be blurring it anyway, the resolution variance won't be much of an issue. I switch it to black and white and lay down the layer with a blend mode of Multiply. This is a darkening of the original shot, but since it was very washed out in noontime light, I want it to be a little deeper. I paint out the sky of the city shot so my sky shows through:

 

Another copy is made of the city layer, and this one is changed to a blend mode of Hard Light. This gives more detail and definition to the city:

Lastly, another copy of the city is made overlaid with a blend mode of Screen with the opacity turned way down. This gives a suggestion of haze:

Speaking of haze, since I wanted my image to be high up in the clouds, I add a layer of haze over the model too. This is done by another cloud layer (a diferent one) which is blurred significantly and overlaid with a blend mode of Screen. The opacity is turned way down, and the lower half is painted out. I also add in a system of zeppelins drifting by. I say a system because It is a combination of a shot of a miniature model, a layer mask, and several little lights painted over it. This is saved as a group, and the group is multiplied as many times as needed:

Next comes color. I wanted this to be a warm, sunset color, so I started with an orange/yellow solid overlaid with a blend mode of Color with an opacity of about 10%:

The color is a little greenish, so to offset it I add another solid, this time purple, with the same blend mode and opacity. This gives it a washed out sepia tone:

Since the last few steps of my workflow deepen the saturations overall, I add an adjustment layer of Vibrance and reduce the saturation and vibrance a bit:

Next, I wanted to close in the composition a bit and give more focus to the model. To do this, I add an elliptical vignette. To do this, I add a black solid layer and punch out a circle centralized circle. The remaning black is blurred greatly, the opacity is reduced, and the blend mode is set to Multiply. It's subtle, but the last two steps will deepen it a bit:

The last two steps are adjustment layers of Levels and Curves. First, Levels are used to punch up the mid tones and the highlights. This really intensifies the sun:

The last step is curves, giving a heavy amount of contrast. I used a preset of Heavy Contrast on this layer. This is the final look:

A note about hairlines: By shooting my models with interior lighting against a gray background, I never have to suffer the agony of cutting out hair lines, or models for that matter. The model is not cut out of his backgound - instead, everything is laid over the model shot, and the blend modes simulate a projected image on a silver screen (the gray background). This means that all I have to clean up is the hair line and I can paint loosely over the hair with the sky layer. It means every strand of hair is accounted for and nothing is jagged:

The neutral gray background makes selections for layer masking much easier. With a few clicks of the magic wand, I get an almost perfect layer mask that stands up even under closeup scrutiny:

I hope you enjoyed the little layer tour. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to write me a message!

Michael Bilotta
November 26, 2013

 

 

I have two collections of my surreal and conceptual images on sale. "Peter's Epilogue" contains 55 of my pieces with full introductions for each image. This is a large, hardcover book. "The Road To find Out" is a softcover only, smaller book, and contains no introductory notes but has 75 images. You can preview both books here:


Preview displays only 15 pages.
Book Dimensions are 12 × 12 in / 30 × 30 cm, contains 114 pages and is printed on Premium Paper with a lustre finish.


Preview displays only 15 pages.
Book Dimensions are 10 × 8 in / 25 × 20 cm, contains 80 pages and is printed on Premium Paper with a lustre finish.

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


I write this on a Friday of a really awful week, awful because of reality, awful because of stress, awful because of others and their interactions with me. It is nearly over, weekend is coming, I am almost free, but it was the kind of week where the interference patterns of stress, discord, fear, and exhaustion effectively killed my artistic output this week. At first, I was deeply resentful of this expense – how dare the mundane part of my life exact such a toll on what I love to do in my meager spare time? But, there may be some favorable outcome to all this after all, and while I do not intend this blog to be advice, or motivational or inspirational at ALL, ever (I just find that a little forced when others do that), I will say perhaps some of you out there will relate, and maybe find some comfort in knowing you are not alone.

So the week of hell was mainly a bad week at the day job. The day job is 8.5 hours a day, and to drive back and forth is another 3 hours added on. As you can imagine, that leaves very little time Mon-Fri to do anything creative, and even less mental energy to do it! On top of that, I have a dog and a partner, and so, a lot of basic life stuff takes up most of the day. The only reason I am able to do anything during the week towards my art is I make a very stubborn, conscious decision to not allow work to claim any more than it does. That means no overtime, no being “on-call.” No vacation days where I am monitoring emails just in case. To any of you out there with an office job, you can imagine this makes me less than desirable in that world, even though I get my work done entirely and on time and accurately, it still would “look better” for me to put in overtime, just for show. But I don’t, and when I tear out of that parking lot, it is with a mind completely flushed of the day’s issues, and I start the long ride home thinking about my next piece or whatever I have in the works. But this is the norm, and this week was not the norm.

I had a confrontation with my manager this week – for weeks she’s been snapping at me, and I wanted to find out what was going on, to resolve it. She essentially told me, mainly in the things she did NOT say, that she did not like me at all, and probably has my end in sight, in other words, I may be fired. Most of me would love this to be the case; imagine how much I could do with these miserable 11 hours a day removed from my life – but practically speaking, there is no way I can do this, and I need to make money in this way, for now, as awful as it is. You can imagine the stress this terrorism tactic can unleash on a person – I was waiting for the inevitable ball to drop all week, had a panic attack yesterday at work, and was just angry and tense all week. This was during a week where I had to write a long tutorial for an upcoming publication, as well as write answers out for an interview piece being done about me and my artwork. Most nights I would go home and not even try to create anything – I was fried, and the daily toll of all this office hostility amounted to me falling asleep in front of the television earlier than usual.

But here is where the silver lining comes in…

This week has sharpened and redefined the void and chasm in my life between reality and artistic pursuits. I found out how delicate the artistic world is and how susceptible to outside invaders it can be. I not only have to shore up the defensive shields around it, but I also have to find a way to make this chasm smaller, or gone altogether. In other words, I am more driven now than ever before to make what I was meant to do, what I want to do, my career, and not this horrifying, unattractively surreal, soul-sucking corporate world, which was never a good fit for me. It needs to go away. I need to find a way out of it. And I also have some new, sharply focused angst to translate into imagery. Sure, I have always had these thoughts, these fears, these complaints, but a good dose of high-powered misery can really get the metaphor engine revving, and I can unleash all this pent-up aggression into some imagery, hopefully soon!

Michael Bilotta

August 23, 2013

 

 
the main source of my artistic inspiration growing up was song lyrics, poetry, the imagery derived from the written word. As I turned myself into a songwriter over time, I started to develop my own parameters for what I would choose to talk about, what images would and would not be usable in my written work. I never wrote "nothing" songs, I never wrote a "Don't Worry Be Happy" type of ditty. I derived inspiration and formative sensibilities from heavy hitters like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Sting. Most of these artists are still actively recording today, and a few of them are still people I would purchase something from without hearing a note.
 
Paul Simon is responsible from some of the most beautiful lyrical poetry and clever turns of phrase in popular culture. Joni Mitchell may be the most poignant, gifted, and wholly artistic force I have ever encountered. Peter Gabriel is intensity, passion, and deeply primordial in not only his lyrics, but also his soulful singing. Sting was my guidepost as I became a musician - he embodied so many qualities I wanted for myself: writer, musician, lyricist - he was a triple threat. His lyrics for three songs on the album "Syncronicity" made me want to be a writer: "King of Pain," "Tea in the Sahara" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" were so timeless and vivid, so deep and meaningful, I was hooked.
 
The power of these words, and I was only ever really interested in music insofar as it was lyrical and song-based, made me turn away from my visual art aspirations I had since a child, and delve into the world of music. Like all mediums when you take the first step, I was rubbish. My lyrics were highly derivative, my scope of experience was nothing, and the fact of the matter is, I had not lived enough to be a writer. I was a teenager. But, over time, I started producing songs I was proud of, songs that I still like to this day, and lyrically, were finally about something. It ran its course, and I am not actively writing now, but the odd song comes through now and again when I check the well for that particular water, but for now, the visuals are back in my life, and I am able to take my sensibilities and interests and channel them, usually successfully, into a visual representation. It feels, in a way, like coming back to something I left behind, but in most ways, it is an extension of what I was doing as a lyricist.
 
Art is art - the mediums change, but the source is the same.
 
Like many of the songwriters I admire, I look to other sources for themes and settings for my art. Sting referenced, in fact, directly translated a chapter of Paul Bowles' "the Sheltering Sky" into his song "Tea in the Sahara. " Peter Gabriel channeled Anne Sexton for "Mercy Street." I am no different, and I am inspired by a lot of the songs I hold dear to me, and their words take on relevance and meaning depending on what is going on in my life.
 
Take the "Soul Cages," for example. It is the name of the Sting's third solo album and also the title track song. It is somewhat a concept album, with a theme of family and the trap it can become woven throughout. Sting distanced himself from his upbringing, his family, to make himself into who he wanted to be. A shipbuilder's son, the nautical imagery of the lyrics were hypnotic and palpable. It is by far my favorite album of his catalog.
 
Family can indeed be a trap - and it's one I have tried to side-step for many years. I did not have the most idyllic childhood. A lot of it I would like to forget. I am estranged from most of my family now, and honestly, that is how it needs to be for me to ever hope to become happy or comfortable with who I am. Early into my adulthood, after college, I started the distancing, and I felt I needed to control who and what was allowed into my life. You cannot choose your family, but there is no requirement for you to retain them. At some point, you have to ask yourself if the people in your life provide any value, and joy at all, and if they do not, you have to decide how much you are willing to sacrifice for these people. I have no children, and I keep myself fairly insulated from most of my family now. It's not that they are bad people, all of them, it's about need. What do you need to become the person you wish to be? What is sustaining, what is depleting? This is not at all a unique point of view - many people feel they were born into the wrong family. I feel very alone when I am with them - no one shares my point of view, my aesthetics, my thoughts. Feeling like an alien is something we all experience now and again, but at some point you long to return to your home planet.
 
At my age, this is not a big upheaval - things have settled into what they are, and most of us have our own lives. But the drama, the dysfunction, the debris, is all around, and shrapnel is still flying, and I feel a potential cage, the chains threatening to pull me under again. It is not about compassion, not about love, it is about survival. There are elements in my life that are not allowed in any longer, and I will not alter this for anyone.
 
And so, this theme resurfaces, and finds its way into my art. Three months ago I shot model Mike Ryan with no preconceptions of what I was shooting, what this raw material would become. I did a few shots of him jumping up and down. Who knows what it could be? It eluded me for months. Two months ago I shot a large body of water, and two weeks ago I bought these massive, heavy and rusted chains. This weekend, I found a way to use these elements to revisit the Soul Cages, the metaphor of being trapped by your past or your family. My character is trying to lift off, achieve escape velocity from the dark sea, and chains hold him fast, threatening to pull him down. All around him are the hats , those that tried to escape before that did not make it out.
 
The irony of this image, the song, and the events and thoughts motivating it, is that nothing would be there at all without the darkness that created it. If nothing happens to you, if you live in Pleasantville, there is little to write about, to process into your work, to fuel your alchemy, turning angst and pain into art. The cage underwater fuels the desire to escape, the fear of being pulled back does too, and the need to express all of this does too. They are all connected. Perhaps the attempt to escape, the desire to be free of it all, to float above it, is finally the point, and the cage is never really going to release us, but reaching for the sky gives the cage context and relevance, and the effort of rising out of the water, the space between the limitless sky and the murky deep, is actually where art lives. I suspect it does, at least for me.

Michael Bilotta
July 29, 2013
 
 
 

 

One of my goals this year, in terms of photography and art, was to start learning the world of fine art printing, specifically, my own. Printing has always been frustrating to me, and the few times I tried to get my stuff printed, I found the results disappointing – too dark, too contrasty – colors drifting away from the intended ones. While I think 2013 is too early to consider trying for a gallery showing of my work, I did want to start getting the prints up and running, and see what, if any, audience out there was interested in buying what I do. If a gallery showing does come my way, I want those prints to be good, and know that I can produce them reliably and consistently.

This year, right on January 2nd, I started looking into it intently. Since then, I have had six test prints created for me by four different printers. I am close to getting this up and running, but not quite there yet. There are a lot of hurdles. First, you need to know what kind of medium you want to print on; there are dozens of papers, mounting and framing options. It can be overwhelming to the uninitiated. Without the blow by blow, I will say that at this point, I have my preferred paper in place, and have settled on a printing company, and the last hurdle is pricing. More on that later.

I am not going to name names here, but here is my experience with the printers so far…

The first one gave me some great advice, and a good deal of time on a Saturday, and I walked away with a lot to think about. He also showed me a canvas wrap of one of my images in his studio. It was exciting to see it presented on something other than a monitor, and I was elated, but there was a concern about the hi gloss sheen on it. I asked about it: he told me he had not finished some sort of post treatment on it and it should be fine going forward. The best piece of advice he gave me was to take control of the print sales, and stop using sites like FineArtAmerica.com and RedBubble.com, etc. The biggest problem with these services is you have no idea what people are getting on the other end. You usually have to upload your files as jpegs, a lossy compression, and you never see the prints unless you buy one yourself. Also, these companies produce things like t-shirts and iphone cases with your artwork, so if that works for you, great, but I did not want to be on a mug with my work. The pricing structure is set by the site, and you have no real say in it, and they are priced to move. Again, you have NO IDEA what it looks like on the other end, if the print is of good quality, what medium it’s on, etc. The point is, your name is going out there, and if your print looks terrible because the site is upscaling an image past the quality point to sell them larger, or their calibrations don’t match yours, you run the risk of angering a buyer without even knowing it. You also get a pittance, a small percentage of the sale that is already priced too low for fine art. While this might be good for some photographers, depending on the style they shoot, my fine art conceptual work was not going to work in this bargain-based pricing strategy. So, I pulled all my profiles down off these sites – I had only sold a couple of small prints anyway, so this was not a hardship at the time.

He also gave me some advice and time regarding calibration – this was a huge piece of the puzzle. Often, you get an image to look exactly how you want it on your monitor, and then…too dark, too bright, colors look different, etc. I ended up, on his advice, buying a little piece of hardware that you use to calibrate your monitor, and then it sits on your table and takes periodic readings of ambient light levels so you are always viewing the calibration profile at the same intensity level. It has made the transition from monitor to good printing results almost seamless, but still, there can be variances to your calibration profile and the printer’s profile, so some issues still pop up.

In the end, this printer was a wealth of information, and I thought this would be a good fit, but when I asked for a finished canvas wrap of one of my pieces for myself, to have a sample in my hands to showcase on Facebook and other social media sites, he seemed annoyed that it was not a “real” sale, even though I was paying for it. Perhaps for that reason he took his time, a long time, getting it done, and when two weeks went by, I asked where it was and he had not done it yet, and said it was a freebie, for me. This is a nice gesture, but it seemed at the time it was to save face because of the turnaround time. When I got it, it looked great – all shiny and new and ready to hang. But I repeat, all shiny…I had expressed my concern about the glossy finish before, and this one was like a high gloss lacquer was applied to it. You literally could not view it in a room with a light source in it! I mentioned to him that that colors were spot on, the quality was great, the canvas wrap and hardware was great, but the shine – I really thought that my work, especially on canvas, would look best with a matte finish. He balked at this, again seemed annoyed with me, and said he never heard of someone asking for matte finish before. Huh?? NEVER??? But thanks for making me feel stupid about asking questions. No, this was not going to work. Next…

The next one did a test print for me, and after having a heart to heart discussion with him about my concerns about glossy finishes, I got…a glossy test print. Thanks for listening. Next…

I tried one that a friend uses. She is really happy with the results she gets from them. I chatted on the phone with them. Lovely couple, very much caring about doing good printing of good imagery, and I was really excited to see what the test would produce. It came – wasn’t thrilled with the poster tube method of delivery, and the print, while the detail was great, was way too dark, and he cropped the image. I lost about 20% of my imagery real estate. I sent emails addressing my concerns. All of them went unanswered. Then I started getting emails asking about the results – was I happy with it? It was as if my emails were going unseen into a spam folder and we were both talking into the wind. Sorry, not going to work. Plus, they were in a faraway state, and I have heard and believe that it is best to develop a personal working relationship with your printer so they know you, and know what you need and expect. Communicating via unseen emails and cell phones was not going to work. Next…

Ironically, I ended up going to a printing company nearby that primarily focuses on black and white photography, and given that I rarely use that, it seems a bad fit, but the test prints I got from them were the best yet (still some kinks to work out) but more importantly, their customer service is so great. I got all my questions answered, and they never made me feel stupid for asking them. I met with them, and worked out some concerns. I am, at the time of writing this, waiting for another test print, and once I know that our calibrations are working in harmony, and I can expect a good reproduction from screen to print, I am off and running finally, seven months after starting down this road. I expect, by next week, to have prints ready to sell, with exceptionally good quality, on archival, heavy, lightly textured fine-art paper and inks that will last 100 years or more. I will have size options worked out, and price points per size.

And here is where it gets sticky…

Pricing. It is really hard to learn about this, and few people in the industry offer their lessons-learned for free. I am, while a photographer, really more of an artist. I am doing pieces that take a long time to conceive and complete. I am not snapping scenery and running it through a few presets in Lightroom and producing hundreds of shots per week. I produce about 1 to 2 pieces a week, and that is a lot of work, actually. So, I need to price my prints as fine art prints would be priced, and that gets into an area of the great unknown, in terms of advice. I have one artist/photographer to thank for offering her pricing structure to the public, and that is Brooke Shaden, who, on an online workshop, dispelled the specifics of her sizing and pricing structure. I decided to use this as a guideline, and while I have made some variations of pricing and sizing, the lesson to be learned here was to not undersell your work. You are not just paying for the cost of the print and shipping, you are paying yourself for your effort, your experience and expertise, your gear, your expenses that went into it. All of that, plus, you are selling your work as art, not bargain prints like a poster shop in a mall. These prints are expensive to produce. They are done with high quality media, and that raises the price too. Of course, a little voice in your head balks at the prices you are going to charge, the fear of being perceived as egotistical or pretentious, of self-doubt, but you need to override those things and determine what the value of this work is.

In a week or so, I will start to advertise my prints as available for sale. Like many, I have decided to make most sizes limited editions, and since they are going to be limited, I need to make sure each sale fetches a good and adequate price. Adding to this structure, I decided to make one size available as unlimited (the smallest size), and offer it in a few ways: print only, print framed and matted, print on aluminum dibold with a hanger so it “floats” on the wall, ready to hang out of the box. We will see what this structure does and where it goes. I reserve the right to adjust it, but I do not want to undersell or undervalue what I do, which is expensive, absorbing, and extremely time consuming. It is also art – whether or not you agree with that sentiment, it is my personal art, my expression, and I see no point in devaluing it onto mugs or phone cases! I also plan on looking into self-publishing a photo book, with 50 prints in one book – and see if that becomes something more viable in terms of buying something from my collection, if not a print. We’ll see. The book seems like it is headed towards $100 or more for me to produce one copy, so the price tag could therefore become large on that was well!

Regardless of the outcome, I now have the goal achieved. Come what may, I have printing underway, I have prices in mind, and sizes worked out. So if those galleries start nibbling, I will be ready!

July 18, 2013

Michael Bilotta

 

 

 

 

It’s a vague and certainly over-used word, depression. It has become erroneously synonymous with sad or feeling “blue.” It’s not that simple, as anyone who has had it can attest. I do, and have for decades. I will not classify it as “suffering with” depression, because I believe it is a permanent state, a part of my core being, and whatever genetic anomaly or strain has taken hold is not something you can extract or easily overcome. To be honest, I am not sure it is wise to try. In the interest of full and honest disclosure, let me be clear: I consider myself a moderate case. I am not extreme, I am not schizophrenic, I am not sure I am manic-depressive. I have never tried to take my own life or hurt myself outright, though have contemplated the former a few times. I think there is a kernel of optimism in me somewhere, but it is hard to find, and harder still for others to see. Mostly, I feel at odds with the world, with the people in it, and I feel like an alien most of the time. I am someone that most classify as “negative” but I don’t really believe in that word or give much credence to classifications like “positive” or “happy” or “dark.” I am simply who I am, like everyone else, a product of personal DNA and circumstance and life experience. I do not see a way up and out of it, because I am not entirely sure that what I am is something that needs extensive modification.

This is one of the benefits of getting older: clarity. I am not the most wise, the most intelligent, the most insightful, but I am no slouch either. And living with my eternal inner companion, depression, is as natural to me as anything else, for better or worse. There are pluses and minuses to this companion though, and that is where this confessional diatribe finally arrives at the world of art and photography.

I believe that a person’s point of view and state of mind, if they are channeling honestly into their art, informs the work, and can be seen or felt in the results. I believe that a lot of art is an allegorical, abstract personal expression totaling a sort of autobiography of the author or artist. Since these are my convictions, the best thing I can do is ride the waves of my ebb and flow, of my “mood swings” and let them flow into the pixels of my compositions. I do not think that waiting until you feel “better” is the time to do the work, I think a spike in your depression is the perfect time to dive in, to channel it, and hopefully give it expression, and maybe help it resolve into a transformative experience and hopefully a piece of art. I do not mean for this to be a “how to” blog about coping with depression, in fact, I have no insights into it, as it seems to be the Tidal King, the ruler of your oceans, the wave and the undertow. I do not think this king a dictator, a corruption or a thief, I believe he was in place since birth, and is likely to rule my oceans and islands for the rest of my days. He has, I suppose, taken things from me, robbed me of some peace of mind, but he has also been generous with his influence – he has given me some depth, some insight, and some art, that I may otherwise not have. I hope there is something “more” or some meaning that some of my work provides the viewer with, but that is dependent on not only the success of my vision and execution, but also the experiential palette of the viewer. But either way, creating something has been a fixture in my life from earliest memory, it is something I have always gravitated towards, and it is now as embedded and indelible to my identity as my depression is. They may likely be tied together, twin entities from the same source.

My spikes are tied to certain month of the year, certain days of the week, and I am very much attuned to them and can see them coming. I know which months are loaded with memory and wear me down, which ones are revivifying and uplifting, and what days of the week I am likely to be “up” or “down.” I will admit that the times when I am clear of the fog and spray from the Tidal King are easier to work in – my mind is more focused and intent on completion and procedure and diligence kick in and are accessible. But the “darker” times have a richer substance, and air heavy with meaning and symbolism, and the work in that time seems more personal and vital to me. There is a song I wrote, and borrowed its title for a recent image, called “Monday Bleeding” that I distinctly remember writing in a really low period, and I was sad, I was angry, and the words were pretty direct and focused. I remember the goose flesh that the coda outro of that song gave me long after I wrote it, every time I performed it. It was a feeling of vindication, of taking the “poison” from the Tidal King and turning it into an elixir, a potent and transformative moment accessible whenever I sang it. I get these flashes and feelings in some of my imagery now, when I am composing in those times, and the results sing to me. Those are the ones that make it worth it, give meaning to my sometimes difficult life, and keeps me invested in working on my portfolio – they are the fuel for the engine that drives me, that keep me coming back for more, that make it all okay, ultimately. It is sometimes hard to even want to work in the high tides of depression, it seems impossible, at this moment, for instance, that I will ever complete another piece, that there is any point to it, or any purpose that makes how I feel worth it. I have lived enough years though to know that it is worth the effort, and it is a catharsis in itself, and worth the struggle to begin. And so I will, because the tide is high, and the king demands it.

It’s a funny thing to be branded as negative so often by so many people. It is cause for concern I suppose, that you are not one of the Joneses, but then again, what is the value in adapting to the majority for ease and convenience? Why is the dissent of the masses, the people in your life, cause for a complete psychological overhaul? Who has vetted their dispositions and certified them as more valid? In terms of artistic composition, the negative space is just as vital sometimes as the focal point, and informs and frames the focal point, and gives it context. The same can be said from within – my “negative” space, my high tide, is as crucial to my inner ecology as the low tide. Being “negative” defines the positive, and shapes its borders and colors it. If it is easier to see people as black or white, negative or positive, depressing or inspiring, so be it, but I choose to look at them both as vital, and equally useful.

I suppose this has amounted to a personal statement more than a blog entry befitting a photography/art site, but then, to anyone who has viewed or commented or appreciated what I do, you already know who I am in a way, through the abstract, through the concepts and themes I gravitate towards. Once again, I see no point in pulling punches and keeping a blog that is less than honest. The Tidal King and his turbulent waters are just as important to what I do as Photoshop or my Wacom tablet or my Mac are, so perhaps you can consider this another blog of the tools of my trade!

July 10, 2013

Michael Bilotta

It happens to everyone who creates. Blockage, uncertainty, failed attempts, bad paths. I am sure I am not alone when I say I feel frustrated and incomplete when I don't produce something consistently. I enjoy the sense of completion more that the process, the satisfaction of the conjuring, the will to create. Fitting a steady artistic life in around a full time "day job" and a personal life is extremely difficult to say the least. Generally, I count on the weekends for the more ambitious projects and images, and if I get one during the week, then I consider it a bonus and a happy surprise. Hence, I average about one or two a week. To make even this happen, it requires having a supply of raw material i.e. model shots at the ready, and all the myriad objects and materials needed for the compositions. That means shooting a model about once a month, and hunting for objects, shooting the objects, keeping an eye out for optimal skies, trees, etc. So, all that happens, ideas or not, and then the weekend comes, like this one, and…failure.
 
It's not really a failure, but let me err on the side of pragmatism over treacle, and say that the failed attempts DO in fact lead to other things, and are an unfortunate and unavoidable part of the process, but dammit they are unwelcome and really unfortunate when the weekend rolls around with time for creating, and nothing much comes of it.
 
Okay, enough of the theory, and down to the specifics: Here was this weekend…
 
I had finished "When the Angels Fall" last week and was really pleased with the results, and consider it one of my best. These come once in a while, and they have a specific, twofold effect on me: a burst of motivation and a bit of a high, as well as a little angst over what I can do more, what I can do better on the next one. Sometimes to crack on from these benchmark images, I start where I left off, using the style layers of the previous one as a starting point on the next one. It's a way of igniting something, since the last one was a pleasing result, why not stay in that world on the next one, to expand it, to see what else it can house. And so, focusing on watery images lately, I began with the template created for "When the Angels Fall" and picked an image from a previous shoot, with a different model, as a start point. I thought, after three consecutive images focusing on a priestly character, to give that a break, and find something new. I chose a shot from my recent session with model Mike Ryan, and found one I liked, and pretty much new what it was going to be: an image inspired by one of my favorite films, Lord of the Rings. Using the water of the reservoir I shot recently, I decided on the Dead Marshes, a bog where dead bodies under the stinking water can mesmerize the traveler into following their "lights" or "candles" into the water and become one of the unfortunate dead of the marshes.
 
It should have worked but it didn't. Something about it fell flat, and I thought it didn't do a thing for my portfolio or the Tolkein legacy of artistic interpretations. I started it on a Friday night, and worked at least 12 hours on it on Saturday. On Sunday I tried to save it, and even convinced myself it was finished after three more hours. But I did not write it up, and did not release it. It was dead on arrival, and I knew it, but I was too focused on getting one done for the weekend to accept it. Once I decided to shelve it, I decided to use the rest of Sunday to at least start another, knowing that they take days to complete lately, and I feel better when one is in the pipeline. I again used the style template of "When the Angels Fall" and found a new model shot to start with. I won't bore you with the specifics of that one, since the image online is accompanied by my usual write-up about it, but this time the image worked. The result was "Procel: The Demons of the Goetia."I got it done in less than eight hours to my satisfaction, and I can feel good about posting this one, as it is visually something I am proud of, or at least pleased with.
 
I could call this perseverance, but it is more likely stubbornness, hopefully the good kind. I suppose there would be some value in taking some time off and laying low, certainly I could use it, but I like what I do too much to willingly take a break, and the curiosity of what may come next is too strong to ignore. These kind of weekends remind me that no matter what kind of discipline and dedication I apply to what I do, there is only so much I can control, and creativity takes its own time and marches to its own beat.
 
All I can do is keep vigilant and wait for it.
 
 
June 30, 2013
Michael Bilotta
 
 

Welcome to a little process I like to call Digital Frosting or Digital Spackle. The basic idea is applying layers over the composition to help "marry" the elements together. A cake, with two layers, needs frosting between and over all to keep the layers together, so consider this a 47-layer cake, and in this case, all the frosting is on top.
 
Here is the finished composite of "Calling All Angels"  with all layers and elements in place, minus the digital frosting. It's not bad, and some may even prefer it, but a closeup inspection of the elements seen at 100% woul show some ragged edges of masks, some color variations that don't make sense, and just a general lack of unity. In other words, it will look very much like what it is: a collage of photographs taken at different times in different light conditions. Now, I do minimize this as mich as possible by shooting as many elements as I can with the same lights and settings. The model, the umbrellas, and the cables all were shot with the same lights and equipment. But the antennae and the foliage were obviously shot outdoors, and the sky was a stormy day, and the trees were all shot on a sunny day. You can see a hazy blue cast over the antennae:
 
 
 
Another thing I did not like was the fact that the strongest light was to the right of the image, and if pulled focus away from the character, to the negative space to the right. To fix this, I evened out the lighting in a way. This might be better explained in a video focusing on this one aspect, but here goes...

Occasionally I get asked what gear I use. I totally understand this question, I used to ask it all the time too. It can help, it can point to what is needed to achieve a finished result you aspire to. Of course, over time, you start to realize that the gear is not nearly as important as the result, and the maxim "whaever works" is totally true - it really doesn't matter if the results are good! What I have I use because it works for me, for what I do, at this time. Will it change someday? Will I? Perhaps, probably. But for now, it has settled into a method that I can depend on, and that helps - when the uncertainty factors are dialed down.
 
So, without further ado...
 
The MASTER SHOT - welcome to the dark basement of toys
 
In this shot, my "stage." a 9 foot roll of medium gray (dove gray) paper, about $65 per roll, and I get about two sessions with each roll. To the right, you see my 50" octabox diffuser, and this was my best purchase, and the most vital piece for my lighting. It's large enough to illuminate an average human standing, and it gives off a soft, beautiful light that wraps gently around a person's features. I side-light almost exclusively, so this is my key light, my main source, and it's large enough to spill over most of the background paper and illuminate it. To the left, is a long, thin softbox, I think it's 40" - and it has now replaced my smaller, 13" softboxes (on the far left) that were fine for faces, but not big enough for a secondary light for side-lighting. Over the expensive red chair prop from Pier 1, which you will see in many of my images (the Collective, for example), is the monster, the beast. It's a 16" beauty dish, named aptly, because when I do use it, oh my, the light is gorgeous (see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shibbopics/8297303106/in/set-72157632449605530), but oh, it is a PAIN to use. It's very heavy, and it needs a counterweight, moving it is not easy, and as I prefer it to be an overhead, heavenly light, it is difficult to get up above it to adjust the flash head. there is a sweet spot for the light, but it takes time to find it, and I spend a long time adjusting both the model and the light when I use it.
 
Other than that, not much else is used! I will cover the lights themselves in a bit...
 
 
a closeup of the 50" octabox and the 40" tall diffuser...
...

There are times when you want a sparse, minimalist image, and other times you want a challenge. For me, someone who does not do well shooting outdoors and prefers the controlled setting of an indoor studio with controlled lighting, any time I want to convey an outdoor environment means piecing it together one layer at a time. The downside to this is it can be dificult, hard to blend, and you need to gather the needed pieces from somewhere. The positive side of this is I have total control over the exposure of each element, and can choose what the sky is doing, where the light is falling, etc. For this one, I wanted a rich, fully realized outdoor environment. I gathered the pieces on a day trip to the location this image is named after, and started to assemble them. Here is the layer palette of the composition - 48 layers in all, some obscured by grouping:

Sometimes a concept forms without your knowledge, or despite your desire to create one entirely different. It reminds me that although I believe art an creation is mainly a force of will, there are other elements at work, and all of them come from within - that much I do believe.
 
It started a few weeks ago with making "the Myth of Fingerprints" - another in a little series of merging natural elements like tree textures and plants with human form. This one was a little different though, at least for me. This plaintive, lone character in a field seemed to say something more to me, despite the simplicity of the image, despite that lack of other elements in the piece. It was, at least to me, like a snapshot from a dream, or an imagined life just out of reach.
 

A fairly simple image to make, all things considered. The success of it really was the random luck that I had a shot of a tree that worked on the countours of my model's body pretty well, but that's not too hard to come across, especially if you are shooting the model at a straightforward angle like I did.
 
Here is the original shot, tweaked a bit using Liquify in PS5 to expand the shoulders, make the body more symmetrical, and slimming the midsection a bit:

Greetings! 
 
I just finished what I call a "monster edit" - one that almost got the better of me, with dozens and dozens of layers, that pushed my ability level a notch up. I was going to do a visual blog about that one ("the Awful Rowing Toward God") but honestly, after spending many days, countless hours with it, I never want to see it again! This moring I thought I would tinker with one that has beein in the works for a few days, taking occasional stabs at it, but thought it would be a simple little image to cleanse the palette after the monster.
 
I was right and sort of wrong. It IS a simple image, but it was not an easy edit. Here is the finished image for "the Thoughts That Flap and Fly:"
 

 
 
The purpose of this blog is twofold: a personal exercise of writing - a journal or diary, the trials and tribulations of me in regards to the pursuit of artistic expression. The other purpose, at best a hope but by no means the impetus, is that it will give the reader insight into the realities of the creative process, or perhaps, if they are creatives themselves, reflect and confirm what they experience and know all too well. But any writing designed solely to attract an audience is hollow, as with all art - it must be personal at its core, and emanate outward. The effects, the ripples from that epicenter are beside the point, and ultimately not as important, as the genesis.
 
All that to say, I hope you get something useful out of it, but even if you do not, I am probably going to do it anyway!

 
 
What a difference a year makes! A little over 13 months ago, I started focusing on art photography/surrealism/impressionism/conceptual art/call-it-what-you-will, and haven't looked back. I stopped doing portrait sessions for the occasional paying clients, and started doing only what I wanted to do. I have upgraded all my equipment solely in pursuit of better imagery, at great expense to my credit status and increasing the burden of personal debt in the process. I have now worked with 6 models, and shot 10 sessions with them. I have made my portfolio go from one or two pieces that I am pleased with, to 55 or so that I am really proud of and another 50 that I can live with. I won a slot in Canon's Project Imagination. I got some press last year - a magazine mention or some local papers, but still, something. Recently I focused my efforts on upping my audience on Facebook, and it's gone from a dismal 160 likes in November to almost 2000 at the time of writing this. It's not a lot, but it's upward, it's progress in the right direction.
 
So what is there to be negative about?

I write this with a little trepidation, as I am by no means an expert on this subject, and you should not take my word as anything but my opinion and method that works for me. Now that I have issued that disclaimer, I want to talk about this subject - which I consider fascinating, and if there is any value in it for you I am delighted, but if there is not, well, writing it is an exercise in focusing myself and providing clarity on the subject at hand, so it is not a complete waste. I want to discuss some of the things that go through my head as I put together my pieces, not just to tell you how I think, but the why of it, and the where to put things is constantly changing and evolving, and, as ever, subject to change with the whims and needs of the artist and the particular needs of the piece in question.
 
Squares And More Squares
 
One of the things you may have noticed about my work is the fact that they are all squares. I came to that decision about a year ago, and they motivation for it was two-fold. One: the work of Brooke Shaden, who also works in squares. Her rationale behind it was she wanted to take it away from the familiar aspect ratio of a rectangular photograph, and make it more like an art piece or painting. This made a lot of sense to me, as I too wish my work to not be considered just photography, and usually push my imagery to a painterly aesthetic. So, good to go - square it is. But also, and this is closer to home, is I am a symmetry junkie. I love things all in a row, in order, in logical dispersion. It is true of my home and how I lay out objects and furniture, and also true of my art. I like that the squares will always be presented online with uniformity, and with a linear quality to them. I like the fact that a gallery presentation of my work - something I hope will happen soon, will also be presented with the same ease and consistency.
 
But there is more to consider than idiosyncrasy and uniformity when working with square format. A LOT more.
 
This is where composition needs to be considered, before and after the shutter is released. Unless you have a square format camera, you are not going to come about these squares naturally, as almost every modern camera shoots rectangular in both portrait and landscape. So you have two choices: You can crop your rectangle into a square or you can shoot additional material to make your rectangle a giant square, stitching the pieces together. The first one is certainly easier with a few caveats: you will get a smaller raw image, which may limit the size potential of your prints, and therefore the price you can fetch for it, and you have to consider in your viewfinder how you might have to crop what you see. You are therefore going to have to shoot wider to get a whole person into your eventual square, or know where they will be cut off eventually when you crop your subject. This takes some practice, and a lot of learning by doing. If you recall, I shoot always against a solid gray background, a blank canvas, and my subject is usually the only thing in the shot. However many years you may have under your belt in learning how to frame your shots by what you see through the viewfinder, you now will have the added task of composing in theory, supposing your crop area in what you are seeing live, and making a good guess as to what you need to capture. This feels like double the work sometimes. For me, I have to consider the remaining negative space around my subject in this future square crop, and know how much I am leaving myself, as this space is often left for me to fill in the "missing pieces" - the icons or symbolism or objects that complete my concept or metaphor. I often don't know what will be in the shots or what the idea will evolve into, so that leaves even more guesswork to be done before and after the image is captured in the camera.  
 
If you choose to expand your rectangle into a larger square, you are likely always going to need a tripod for your shoot. Nothing wrong with that, but there is a loss of randomness in that, as you have to take care to set it up and lock it down, and try not to shake or shift it when you hit the shutter. Let's say you are shooting in landscape mode, and you are shooting a person on the beach. You capture that person and the scenery behind them, but now you have to either tilt the camera up or down to grab more sky or foreground to add to your rectangle and turn it into a square. Okay, so you do that - now you have a lot of "negative" space above or below there subject. What are you going to do with it? It seems Brooke Shaden employs this approach a lot, or almost all the time, and therefore she has a lot of "free" space above her subjects. This is where the "story" elements go, or can go, unless there is a compelling reason to have a giant swatch of sky above your subject. This is why Ms. Shaden often depicts things happening in the sky above - because there needs to be SOMETHING going on there, to make that choice deliberate and mean something. It's not always enough of a reason to shoot a great expanse of sky above the subject just because the sky looks great and breathtaking. If your subject is a person, as it is in the example I am using here, then that much of the image being just sky starts to compete with the person for attention, and the dominant element in the image is decreased and devalued by these combatting percentages. I won't get into rule of thirds here - there are people and information available out there that know more about it than I do, but, if in my example of the person on the beach, the bottom third of the image is foreground and model, and the upper two thirds of the composition is vast cloudy sky, then what is more important? What is taking up more real estate? Why is it given such priority? Now, if you use the same image, and you have birds circling the subject above her head, or smoke emanating from her head out into the sky, then you have a story, you have a supported reason and justification for all that space, and it becomes germain to the image. With these expanded rectangles, with these two rectangles becoming one giant square, you are given a much larger file, larger print size potential, but you also have to be less spontaneous in your shooting, are beholden to a tripod, and you best have a fast computer stuffed to the hilt with RAM to deal with editing a file that size! There is another thing to consider too, and I would be narrow minded to consider this invalid or irrelevant…sometimes, a large negative space is the exact right choice for your composition! if you have that model in the shot, alone on a beach, depending on the tone and the mood, if you are trying to convey a sense of being overwhelmed by nature, or isolation or loneliness, then a vast vista and a puny human is the exact right choice, or can be, based on what and who you are shooting. There are NO right answers or definitive rules in composition, only truisms that can sometimes be turned on their ear, depending on the composition and the skill and thought process of the artist.
 
For me, the former approach works best. I leave a lot of room for improvisation with my models, and I don't have a completed vision in my head when I shoot, and enjoy darting to and fro composing as I see things. This means I have to crop my rectangles into squares (on some occasions I get lucky and have so much blank space on the top I am able to push my rectangle's negative space into a large rectangle) and that means a smaller file and raw image. I have accepted that limitation because working in square is, for now, worth it to me. I also have seen my work in 16 x 16 and 24 x 24 and it seems big enough for me. Larger than that starts to go into EPIC scale, and I don't know if I want that experience for the viewer. I much prefer my images, again, for now, to be more intimate and personal, and I think 24 x 24 is just right for that effect. I am sure I could push them to 32 x 32 or more, given my camera pixels and quality, but I have not tried to yet, so I cannot attest to the quality and how it holds up.
 
Lastly, I want to leave you some things I have learned in this year of square imagery, just some things I have noted and learned, and if this is of interest to you in any way, maybe will give you some tidbits to consider.
 
Humans are rectangular….most of us are taller than we are wide, so that means, in order to work in square format and capture a full head to toe human being, you will have a lot of negative space to the left and right to consider. Do you always want them dead center of the square? Do you need the whole body to convey your idea? If you choose to shoot them laying down, body relaxed, and shoot them profile, you will have a TON of space above or below them to consider. What will be there? Are you losing intimacy with the face of the model in favor of capturing their whole anatomy? Why is this important? Will you have enough to say in the space given to fill it adequately?
 
Landscapes like a lot of room!  - so, if you shoot beautiful scenic vistas, if that's your thing, then square may be a bad choice for this. If you come across a thicket of tress that naturally frame something, then perhaps a square is bang on the right choice for you. It really depends on your compositional needs.
 
YOU MEAN I HAVE TO MOVE???

Prime Lenses, or Fixed lenses work better for cropping and expanding than zooms. They create less distortion, less curvature, than their zoom-capable cousins, and therefore stitching two images together at the common points will be a lot easier than if you have two fish eyed images to try to make sense of. I tend to shoot with two lenses in particular: a 50mm and an 85mm, though the 85mm is usually reserved for closeups and portraiture. The 50mm offers minimal distortion of your subject and a lot less chromatic aberration around the edges. But these fixed lenses mean you WILL have to back up and move forward on your own, and until you get used to it, you may yearn for your zooms!
 
I will say this about square format, in closing: It's brought on a new set of challenges, a lot of new things to consider when shooting, and I really enjoy the challenge of it. It's not as common as rectangular imagery, and I enjoy presenting things in this format for now, and of course love that the end result gives me the symmetry that I love so much. I find, in many things, and in every creative medium I have tried my hand at, that working with a set of limitations really makes you work harder, and in turn makes your work stronger. If you have every crayola in the box at your disposal, you may want to use a ton of color. But limit yourself to 5 or 6, and those colors and where you use them and how much you use of them become more important and vital. I like the idea of limitless creative tools in theory, but in practice, limiting your palette has more rewards than obstacles, ultimately!
 
 
"the WorkForce"
 
Just a little background on this image and the compositional challenges involved in it....
 
Aside from my central character in the foreground and the throng of worker drones behind them, I wanted a clock to be dominant in the scene, to drive home the time-centric workday - a sense of being dominated by the 9 to 5 world. Originally I wanted to put these workers in an industrial setting; pipes, steel, girders and rivets - a sort of Metropolis aesthetic. It would have worked that way, but all the detail in the background was competing with my already busy foreground, and the background was not the point. Adding to that, I wanted to add a waxing and waning moon, a nod to Rene Magritte, and once you talk moons, you kind of need sky. Then the issue became how does a clock work in the sky, and it bothered me, the logistics of that. But in the end, the moons and the clock settled into their positions and they just became icons of the sky, and the symbolism, I feel, carried and overrode the logic issues of how the clock is just "there." But, even though that was all worked out, I still didn't like the sky and the implication of this workforce working in the outside air, so I backed off the clouds towards the workers and created a gradient of no sky/sky as you go upward. It was sort of a conceptual compromise to make all the elements I wanted in the shot work together. Finally, the eyes of the drones were turned into slightly ethereal white glows to give them less personality so my main character, dressed as all the others, would be more unique.
 
 
 
 
 
January 28, 2013
 
 
 

Time for a rant…
 
There are photographers, peers I guess, out there that I consider purists - those that believe that a photograph should start and end in-camera, with no enhancements or treatments whatsoever. Most of them gravitate towards the following genres: Macro, Landscape, Street Photography.
 
We all have opinions, I realize that, and I am no different. My opinion is: photography without enhancement is boring. It's just what I enjoy. I associate purist photographers with documentary filmmakers, There is a place for documentaries, and I like some of them, but I am not at all interested in being a journalist or a documentary lenser. I am interested in the cinematic, in heightened reality, fantasy, surrealism and conceptualism.
 
But the one thing I have noticed is this snobbery coming at me from the purists, sometimes politely, sometimes not, about what I do. In fact, I just got a comment that prompted me writing this in the first place. The comment was about this image:
 

and the comment was: "Maybe it's more graphic, than photography!?"
 
Well no, it's not. So not only is your comment unwelcome, it is inaccurate. This image is 100% photographic; the field, the model, the crucifixes, the sky, all shot by me. Even the debris coming off his hat in the foreground, was a high speed shot of soil being sifted from my hand. So let's take stock here, if you want to challenge "what is photography" shall we? If this person focuses on landscapes, for example, he is likely walking fields and mountains, hill and dale with a camera bag, a camera, and a few lenses. He is likely using natural light, and adjusting his camera settings accordingly. So, he gets a great landscape, courtesy of nature, light, and all things random and wild. Great! Congratulations on being there and twisting your knob. My opinion is coming out here, but it's partly from a place of defense, so please bear with me…
 
Now let's talk about what I did to get the pieces that comprise my shot:
 
I booked a model. I shot the model with studio lighting. I went out to a field and shot the field in natural light. I shot the soil being sifted from my hand using high speed strobes. I shot a close-up of the crucifix prop. The rest was made using borrowed and altered photographs - the light, for example, was a shot of the sun I took in the sky with my aperture stopped all the way down, and then heavily manipulated. So…natural light photography, studio/high-speed lighting photography…hmmm, mine seems to demonstrate a little more in the way of techniques, and so far, all of them photography-based. In short, mine took more effort than yours did.
 
Now before I offend anyone…that previous statement does NOT mean that mine is better. At all. It simply means that I choose to use photography as a medium for art compositing and collage, and you choose to only focus on the photography in and of itself. I consider what i do "Deliberate Composing" for lack of a better term. It is the same approach to painting or sketching.
 
And guess what: there is room for both.
 
But do NOT come at me with your purist snobbery about mine being somehow "less than" photography, when in fact, sir, it is MORE photographic in spirit than yours. At least that is the way I see it. Do not assume I do what I do because I lack some skills behind the camera and am hiding behind trickery. I choose to do this because it is what makes me happy. It is a form of artistic expression, and shooting a homeless person on a gritty city street is not art TO ME. To others it might be, and that is fine, but to me it is journalism, or a documentary, and well, slightly invasive.
 
This purism snobbery has always been there, in all mediums against another. Painters felt threatened and therefore lashed out against photography when it emerged. Black and white film purists felt color film was sacrilege. Theater took a dim view of movies. Filmmakers had a low opinion of television. And on and on…
 
I do not consider what I do groundbreaking or remotely new. Jerry Uelsmann has been doing photo collages since before Photoshop was even around to help! His wife Maggie Taylor is a pioneer and visionary in that field as well. The list is long.
 
I have no illusions about what I do, and as some background, in my defense against these ignorant opinions, I have been shooting cameras for 12 years, and started with portraiture. I have done macro photography, product photography, occasional landscapes (not my thing at all), a couple live events, dogs in the wild at play, and have shot twelve live performance videos and several other music videos. I can edit in Final Cut, and Premiere Pro, have extensive experience using Photoshop and After Effects, and have been teaching myself studio lighting for six years. I shoot a Canon 5d mk II and have three prime lenses that I use because they cause less chromatic aberration than the zooms, and the clarity and quality is so much better. I own a tripod, I own radio transmitters, and have a basement full of light diffusers and gear.
 
So, Mr. Purist, who doubts my bid for photographic credibility, I have done my time, I have learned my lessons, and I can shoot a picture. i just choose to look at it now as a starting point, and not the end point. I choose to compose my shots deliberately, not to be a slave to random occurrences and luck of just being there at the right place and time. I choose to control light, not be controlled by it. I choose to express something in my art, not just capture something.
 
This is not the first comment I got like this. Recently someone insisted calling what i do "graphic design" and that really got under my skin. I have been pretty vocal about the purist mentality on 1x.com as well (see my blog post "the Sublime and the Snobbery.").
 
So you go be Michael Moore, or whatever documentarian you appreciate, and I will be Spielberg, Lucas, and Del Toro. That's who I want to be, and I am busy now looking at scripts and dreaming up surreal environments, so take your close-minded opinions and long lens and take a walk in the woods - I am sure something amazing will present itself.
 
Or maybe it won't.
 
Michael Bilotta, January 13, 2013
 
 

Greetings!
 
I started this image at midnight on January 1, 2013, and finished, with only a couple breaks, at 4 pm or so. I tried to leave it and get some sleep, but I like getting things in order before leaving it, and it was not settled in enough for me to leave it. I went to bed, and a half hour later, I gave up on that idea and went back to it. Starting with the raw shot, I knew more or less what I wanted this to be called, and what mood and concept was to be added to it. Getting there is never logical or easy, with many things started then deleted, and things moved around here and there. But those things are impossible to stop and document, so this step by step is partly edited - it did not go this smoothly or orderly, but for the purposes of this blog, here is the layer by layer process:
 
 
This is the raw photo as shot, no editing, no tweaking...
 
 
Next comes "pre-treating" in Adobe Camera Raw:"
 
 
My first task was to blind him! I used the clone tool to partially close up Ed's left eye:
 
 
It's not a perfect clone, but it doesn't matter, since I will be adding textures and damage layers over it. I just wanted to obscure the eye detail. The damage layers are added and masked into logical shapes. I used cracked paint textures, grayscaled, and overlaid:
 
 
Here is a closeup of the eye area with damage added:
 
 
Next, the sky is added. This sky mask was particularly hard, firstly because I was using a transfer mode of hard light, which made the sky more robust, more "there," which meant the mask was quite hard to make acceptable, and at least an hour was spent finessing the mask around the model shot:
 
 
Using a few shots of potting soil sifted in a column and captured at high speed, I added some "debris" to the lower half of my model. I wanted to imply a structural breakdown, a weakening of the motion of the man:
 
 
The color of the potting soil was very easy to blend with the suit color. Here is a closeup:
 
 
 
next, the "eleven" of the shot were added. Eleven umbrellas, but really, just one shot of my umbrella cloned 9 times (there were 10 floating umbrellas, plus the one held by the model, making eleven). This step, seemingly easy, took a LONG time, because it's not just a matter of plunking them in the scene, it's about compositional balance, and finding where they will best fit, in terms of scale, dispersion, etc. I think I moved these around a dozen times until I settled for their final positions...
 
 
Next I added wires or strings. I wanted to give it a sense of entaglement, of being trapped or hindered. I didn't think on this too much, it felt right for the tone, and for an in-joke, I made seven of them (7 11, get it!?). You will see eight here, but I deleted one at the last minute!
 
 
Now that all the elements of the shot were in place (they moved around a bit, but you get the idea), I spent a long time adding light enhancements. Light effects are one of my favorite things to do, and they do take some time to make look organic, but these lights gave some definition to the umbrellas, added more depth and drama to the sky, and gave my model a weird, backlight ethereal glow:
 
 
The next step was adding some grungy texture. Lately I have been easing off the texture overlays a bit, but this one needed it, not only to marry all the images together, but to add some "moody noise" to the scene. There were a total of three different textures used, including a scratchy grunge, a textured paper with some gradient, and a rusty metal texture used lightly to add some punch of color to the somewhat muted palette:
 
 
On top of all this, I add a color solid, lightly applied to push the image to a soft blue (blue is a lonely color after all!):
 
 
Once all this is done, two adjsutment layers are added: Curves and Levels. I cannot stress how great these two items are in terms of punching up the image, adding depth and drama, and pushing the contrast to the "epic" scale. The highlights are brought as close to overexposed as possible, and the midtones are tamped down to the point where the items in the shot are visible, but just so...
 
 
After all this is done, the PSD is saved, and then a flattened, TIF version is made. This TIF version is further edited, punching up detail and some other techniques that add a "painterly" quality to the image. Here is a final closeup detail of the final shot:
 
 
 
And that's it. Here is a shot of the layers palette, and while it looks simple, these layers are mostly groups. There were:
 
2 shots of the model used
2 layers of sky
7 layers for wires
10 layers of umbrellas
3 layers for "damage"
4 layers of "debris"
3 layers of textures
32 layers of "lights"
2 adjustment layers
2 color layers
 
 
67 layers in all! It took 15 hours total from beginning to end, and my computer was NOT happy dealing with this file. Should have asked Santa for some RAM this Christmas. Oh well!
 
I hope you liked the before and after, and if you have any questions, shoot me a message here or on my FB page at www.facebook.com/MichaelBilottaPhotography
 

Thanks for looking and reading, and Happy New Year!
 
Michael, January 1, 2013
 
 
 
 

A few of you have been asking about a tutorial on photoshop techniques. This is harder to do than it would seem. The process is not something that can be explained in an orderly, step by step fashion. It is somewhat organic; try a little of this, discard it, try something else. But, since I am going to try to explain some of it, I have to present it in some fashion, so, this little preview will be from layer one up, all the way to layer 28 - but, and I cannot stress this enough, this was NOT how it was built. At the very least you will see what each layer does, in order, and that might provide some tidbits of use. Actually, the order of layers is crucial; change the relative position of one layer, and you can change the whole image!
 
So, this image was built using 6 photos:
 
My model shot against gray seamless
A nice cloudy sky
a bright grassy field in full sunlight
the balloon strings dangling from a balloon
a metal crucifix prop I purchased some time ago
a photo of a skeleton key prop I bought:
 
balloon_only.jpgkey_only.jpgsky_only.jpg
 
field_only.jpgcross_only.jpg
 
 
In case you haven't noticed, I prefer my images to be square. I am a symmetry junkie, so I like those nice neat squares all uniform and even steven. Makes me happy. I will write more on the square composition some time in the future, when I feel I know more about it - I've only been using it for about a year. Shooting with a non-square format camera means imagining where you will crop. In this case, I expanded my rectangle shot into a large square by creating a new canvas in photoshop using the largest dimension of the original image and squaring it. That means I had to extend the sides of the gray seamless paper to stretch across my now large square to fill in all that additional real estate. And that is a big part of why I use gray seamless. It's very versatile.
 
anyway. so now I have a large square with a model fairly centered. There are numerous pre-treatments I do to an image to prep it for surgery that would be really LONG and boring to write out, so maybe, if there is interest in the future, I will expand on that. But the short version is: neutralize the color cast of the gray paper, reduce orange and red, "distress: the image to look more like paint strokes, bump up exposure or fill light if needed, sharpen AND reduce clarity. This is all done in Adobe Camera Raw. I only shoot RAW.
Once I open in Photoshop, there are some adjustment layers I always add as I am sure I will need them eventually: Curves, Levels, Color Balance, Hue and Saturation…all these get piled on top of my main image.
 
here is the finished PSD with all the layers shown and turned on. There are 28, though if you count there will be less; the crosses are all grouped. Oh, and you will also see the working titles on the top bar LOL. "Leper" - oh my.
 
2012-12-21_22-14-57.png
 
here is the layer panel…
 
2012-12-21_22-15-42.png

And here is what the composition looks like with every layer but the main shot turned off…
 
2012-12-21_22-16-49.png
 
First step is to always make a copy of the main layer, for safety and for do-over potential. In this case, I neutralized the red warm tone of the gray paper even more…
 
2012-12-21_22-17-24.png
 
Here is the key image added to his back. The key was masked/painted out of its background - always use a Layer Mask - don't erase anything EVER! The excess key was masked off where it intersects his body…
 
2012-12-21_22-18-11.png
 
 
 
2012-12-21_22-18-40.png
 
Next come the crosses. All eight are the same shot, masked out of its background (I shoot the props with the same lights on the same paper), slightly blurred, and the blur is different to simulate distance and depth of field. Once in the desired positions, the layers are grouped to get them out of the way and cut down on clutter.  As you can see, there are some areas in the crosses that I didn't mask out  - the cutaways in the engraving. I didn't bother because I didn't notice - it was not an issue on the finished image.
 
2012-12-21_22-19-48.png
 
Next come the balloon string shot. The strings is placed and blended to match the white bandage of the foot. A duplicate is made and placed alongside. The strings are masked out of their backgrounds.
 
2012-12-21_22-21-31.png
 
Next comes the shot of the field. I added additional blur to the hills in the distance, as I thought they were too distracting, and I wanted a lot of DOF in this piece...
 
2012-12-21_22-22-29.png
 
A duplicate is made and blurred and overlaid using a different transfer mode, creating a slightly foggy, shimmery effect. This mask work is hard and slow; you need to cut out the shape of the model only from the grass layer, and this is where the gray plain paper really helps, as well as the precision of using a Wacom Tablet to carefully paint out the edges.
 
2012-12-21_22-23-04.png
 
Next is an adjustment layer of Hue and Saturation to mute the colors almost entirely  - it's now virtually black and white. You will see why this is done later on…
 
2012-12-21_22-23-52.png
 
As you can see, the mask is okay, but he is cleanly walking on the grass, and it looks fake and two dimensional:
 
2012-12-21_22-24-41.png
 
To sell the illusion a little, a touch of grass is copied from the original layer of grass, and lumped in over his foot and painted out to give a hind of his foot stepping into grass, to simulate some depth to it. This looks not great now, but it will work in the end well enough - one of the final steps is to go over all these details with a clone tool and address bad patches, dog hairs, lint, pimples, etc…
 
2012-12-21_22-25-24.png
 
Next comes an art paper texture that I use often, not for the texture, but for the fact that it has a highlight area in the center, with falloff to shadow on the corners, giving it a nice function of a marquee to highlight the subject:
 
2012-12-21_22-26-20.png
 

Finally the sky is added. This mask is a little easier, since the gray of the sky almost matches the tone of the paper. The model shape is cut out on the layer mask, and feathered to clean up the edge. a duplicate layer is added and additional blur is used with a different transfer mode to give it a bit of a foggy look.
 
2012-12-21_22-26-52.png
 
2012-12-21_22-27-19.png
 
Next comes gray blobs, crudely painted in a layer. With the transfer mode used, the image can be brightened in some areas, kept dark in others, depending on the level of the paint in the layer. As you can see, this is now a VERY bright, foggy image…
 
2012-12-21_22-27-59.png
 
another layer of solid white is used in similar fashion in Luminosity transfer mode, to punch up the highlights…
 
2012-12-21_22-28-32.png

The beige scarf I bought was ornate but dull in color, so I painted it red. Looking at it in this way, I see what a bad paint job I did, but it didn't really matter, as I was painting with all the layers turned on and it didn't show up as bad in the end result:
 
2012-12-21_22-29-36.png
 
So now all the components of the piece are in place…and it's very bleached of color and overly bright (to me)…
 
2012-12-21_22-30-32.png
 
I add a rough paper texture image over it, to give it some detail and some graininess.This texture is also darker around the edges, so it creates a slight iris or spotlight on the subject, depending on how you place it.
 
This is how it looks originally:
 
2012-12-21_22-31-25.png
 
Always keep texture images black and white unless you want them to recolor what you've done!

Ah the magic of Levels and Curves! These pop the brights, and darken the shadows, and add serious drama to the image… see!
 
2012-12-21_22-33-09.png
 
 
When the shadows are amplified and the highlights brought up as well as the midtones, a lot of the color we siphoned off in the beginning comes back, which is why I remove a lot of it down below.
 
Finally, a color solid is added on top of all, and ramps down to single digit opacity - just a pop of color cast over all:
 
2012-12-21_22-33-40.png
 
2012-12-21_22-35-07.png

As you can see, at this point it is done, but the final image was altered further from this spot. At this point, I was satisfied with the composition and saved the PSD file so I can fix things later if I want to, and then made a flattened copy as a TIF. The TiF goes through 5 more alterations - all very long and hard to describe. I am not trying to be enigmatic - just really depends on each image, so I couldn't say "do this at 10%, do this at 40%… it all depends. But in any event, that was the tour through the 28 layers! And now I must go back and clean up the red paint job that is now bothering me, now that I have taken all the layers off and demonstrated how sloppy it is!
 
I hope it helped a little, or, failing that, was at least interesting if you are into this sort of thing! I welcome feedback on this blog post, especially any questions. I will try to answer if I can. Doing this, it occurs to me that showing this live, with people driving at the wheels themselves, would be the easiest way to demonstrate this stuff. Maybe someday it will be wanted enough for me to do a workshop class.

Thanks for reading and viewing!
 
Michael, Dec 21st 2012
 
 
 

Late in 2011 I had this idea. I thought it would be a really cool project for myself to take on the Tarot Cards and make a photographic series based on them. After doing some searches online, it seemed that no one had done it so far – really?? No one? Did I stumble onto untapped fodder for ideas? Could I be that lucky? Jazzed as I was by this, I researched everything I could find on the cards – there was a LOT of information, and many, many versions of the deck. Not being terribly familiar with them, I nevertheless, once upon a time, owned a Rider Deck, and that’s the one I was most familiar with, so I decided to base mine on those. After absorbing a lot about the symbolism within the illustrations, the color scheme and what each meant, and even the connection to the zodiac and which signs pertained to which deck of the Minor Arcana, I was ready to start this project.

I first determined the size needed, basing it on the Rider Deck dimensions. I decided on the overall color palette of each suit of the Minor Arcana, from which our modern playing cards evolved. I assigned the three corresponding zodiac symbols and even a runic symbol appropriate to the suit and their meanings. Fonts were decided upon, and the basic template was made for the border and graphics of the cards. So far so good, but there were no images.

I decided to start gently, doing the Ace of each suit of the Minor Arcana. See, the suits all have a prop: Pentacle, Sword, Wand, Cup, and each sequential card in the suit adds more and more of the props in the images. Ergo, Ace of Pentacles begets one Pentacle, Two of Pentacles begets two, and so on. So, starting with the Aces meant only one prop needed, and no models, as each Ace in the Rider Deck is a disembodied hand holding its suit’s symbol. A simple place to start…except where to find these props?

I got lucky with the Pentacle, finding a nice 8” wall piece of a Celtic Pentacle. Done! I ordered a sword replica from Amazon. Not so great. It was too big, and way to mirror-reflective of a finsh to be anything but a nightmare to shoot. The Wand took forever to find – because really, what the hell is a wand?? In the Rider Deck, it is more like a walking staff, a bamboo rod with live buds sprouting out of it. But, in the modern vernacular, we think of “magic wand” when we hear the word “wand.” So I opted for both, and bought an antique walking stick for my magic wand, and a couple bamboo stalks for my other wand. The cup was the biggest pain in the ass. I never did find one that was right – I ended up using an old antique wine goblet, but it wasn’t right. I searched and searched online, usually for chalices, but all of them were too Judeo-Christian, too shiny, or too small for my purposes.

But anyway, I started making some of the cards happen, doing the Aces to set the tone for the Minor Arcana suits, and having a color and design palette to jump off from. So far so good. After the expense of procuring the hero props I realized very early on that I could only afford one prop per suit, so I was going to have to do some Photoshop cloning to make more than one happen per suit. I used myself as a model for a couple of the cards, and dealt with the first clone shot for the Two of Pentacles.

As I went along, knocking out one card after another, slowly, over months, I realized the scope of this undertaking was pretty mammoth, and was going to take possibly years. There was the sheer volume of it: 78 cards in all. There was the number of cards requiring models and costumes: nearly every one. There were props I had no idea how I would get or fake or afford like thrones for the Kings and Queens, A dark Tower, a Chariot. A Chariot!! Where the hell does one rent a Chariot?? All this to say, it is a very big undertaking, which in and of itself is not a problem – I would dedicate myself to the time it took to do a good job, but you have to be really passionate about what you are doing to stay focused on it for that long, and at the end of the day, I wasn’t. I think the EUREKA moment of what a good idea it was, and how the project could actually be lucrative if completed into a viable deck for sale, and how it had a built in audience factor was eclipsing the fact that I just didn’t care enough about it to see it through. I think some of the decks are beautifully done, and I thought I could make some striking images from them, but it wasn’t enough fuel to keep me going, and I want to be free to explore ideas as they come, and not be tied to representing already established images. In other words, I wanted to write original songs, and not do cover songs for the next two years or so.

It’s one of the few times I have taken on a creative endeavor and abandoned it unfinished, but it was starting to feel like an anchor and a chore, and that does not make for a well-produced result. So, while it’s never wise to say “forever” about anything, for now, it feels done. Incomplete. It was fun for a while – putting the design of the cards together, doing the research, and I am proud of some of them. So, unless I revisit them sometime in the future, here are the ones I completed, in no particular order, one last time.

 

Thanks for reading.

Michael – Dec 04, 2012

 
What a difference a year makes. Despite that being a cliche, I am going to stick to it for the remainder of this blog entry. Or that's the plan, anyway. As this year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on what I consider Year One, which is a funny thing to have in your 40s. But it is, really, in terms of photography. No, I have not been shooting for only a year; in actuality it's been about 10 years, but this is the first year of producing images that i care about, that i would be proud to stand by, to present, and to represent my aesthetic, my art, or my soul - for lack of a better word, as an atheist chaffs from the use of the word "soul." But you know what i mean. Why did it take so long to produce something that's a keeper? Why this year?
 
Well, to reiterate the history in meticulous detail is tedious, even to me, so to summarize, it goes something like this:
 
I wanted to be an artist since I can remember, or rather, I have been an artist since I can remember, and would draw all the time as a kid. I wanted to be a filmmaker as an adolescent, and when Star Wars came out in 1977, I REALLY wanted to be a filmmaker, or more specifically, a special effects artist working for either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. The trouble with those dreams when you are a child of 9 years old prior to the digital technology age, is they are financially out of reach, when you grow up on the lower end of the middle class spectrum. There were no digital camcorders, no non-linear editing software, and really, no home PCs. So those dreams were just that: dreams, and as I plodded through my teens, I got bit HARD by the music bug, and the visual art was still there, since it was the 80s, and the MTV heyday was in full swing. I learned an instrument, and went to music college, and became a songwriter. I conjured up imagery through lyrics, and cool suspended chords with 9ths, and wrote about 200 songs, 50 of which I am still proud of. But music never became a career, and maybe that's okay, because I never had to be in a wedding band, or sing "Celebrate" by Kool and the Gang, and music was never something linked to a chore, it stayed pure, and was a steady pursuit until my early 30s. But, I never did become the next Peter Gabriel, the next Sting, and by then, it was 2001, and as music started waning a bit, I realized that there were digital cameras out there, there were digital point and shoots, and of course computers. So I got my first point and shoot in 2001, for Christmas, and between that and Photoshop, I was hooked, again, on the visual arts I dabbled in as a child, and this time I could actually produce something. The first thing I made, I seem to remember, was a lightsaber. And then laser beams, and all sorts of scifi cool things that Photoshop does so well. The day I got Photoshop, I was so enthralled, I called in sick from my crappy day job for two days and spent most of those 48 hours playing with Photoshop.
 
Anyway, long story short, I caught a little fire, and over the next ten years, I learned video editing, and then After Effects, and actually got a few modest, low-paying clients and produced some music videos for bands and solo artists, making my two passions combine in a way that was…fairly satisfying. I was also shooting the odd portrait session here and there too, with my little point and shoot, and then, later, with my first DSLR, around 2007. Lighting was always a struggle, especially for video work, as my light kits were on the cheap side, and there never seemed to be enough of it, or a good way to diffuse these REALLY HOT LIGHTS. I burned my fingers more than once. When I met my partner in 2006, he was already a working photographer, and I learned a lot from him, especially when I got my first DSLR a year later. Suddenly there were things to think about that I had no foundation in: Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, F stops, all the things I didn't need to think about or could control with my little point and shoot. So the next few years I went to school on these things, asking questions, and these technical aspects of photography became a bit of an obsession, as I was determined not to be a hack in this regard. So I did a lot of the things a tech head would do in the world of "what to shoot." I shot portrait sessions as well, here and there, using my partner's big strobes, which bugged me in their size, and the cables everywhere, especially the leash of the sync cord connected to the camera, and always falling in front of the lens. But mostly, I was looking for things to specialize in, such as high speed fruit drops, and dancing paint blobs, and endless shots of bugs with macro lenses. Some of it was cool, but again, it was only mildly satisfying - I didn't feel very artistic shooting these things, just vaguely challenged, but mostly frustrated. The most frustrating aspect was the fact that it's incredibly difficult to stand out of the growing crowds of would-be photographers shooting these genres. And, I don't think my passion was snapping fruit at the moment of impact with water.
 
 
The only thing I had a bit of a leg up on was Photoshop skills, and I was pretty good at shooting humans, having done portraits for almost ten years. The biggest breakthrough in terms of gear was getting some Canon Speedlites in 2011. Once I learned how to use them off-camera using triggers, and once I bought diffusers for them, I finally found a lighting setup I could feel good about, and had a handle on them, and could take them anywhere, and, best of all, NO WIRES!!! In 2011I also discovered the wonderful work of photographer Joel Grimes, who is the mack daddy of Speedlites. I learned a lot about lighting from his very generous tutorials online, and bought a total of three speedlites and a beauty dish because of him. I also discovered the work of Brooke Shaden and that was a Eureka moment. She was a wake-up call to my dormant artistic pursuits. She reminded me that this medium could be meaningful, allegorical, metaphorical, and visually interesting. Her visual palette reminded me of my own lyrical aesthetics - a timelessness, and nothing particularly contemporary, and symbolism held sway over all. Of course, stumbling across her work has the effect of turning you into one of the many Brookealikes springing up everywhere, and after doing my first levitation shot a la Brooke, I was delighted but only a bit. Doing it was cool, but it was the equivalent of doing a cover version of a song - it's not yours, and it is most likely not as good as the original. So, that was that - my days as a Brookealike were but a few, but her effect should not be underestimated. I spent so many years worrying about F stops and shutter speeds I forgot Art, and she snapped me out of it. 2011 was the launch of my pursuit of art through photography, and besides my ten years of portraiture and photoshop techniques, I have to thank Joel Grimes and Brooke Shaden for supplying inspired master classes in lighting and surrealism, respectively. I also had absorbed enough photographic tech stuff to throw it away and not give a shit about it anymore. It was no longer the point of it, it was just there as a subconscious resource. Finally!
 
September, 2011 - the Newtonian Room - my first shot that I was proud of. Looking at it now, I am still fond of it, but mainly for the memories of making it work, and putting it together. From that point on, I was focused on the big question: What Am I Trying To Say?? This shot didn't have much to say, it was mainly an exercise in composition and technical challenges, but I learned a lot from it. Between September and December of 2011, I tried this and that, and things started getting a little moodier, a little edgier, a little more unique, and miles away from the fruit drops and the macro bugs.
 
 
December 2011 - I did my last client session. Clients were always a frustration for me - the typical frustration of a "pro" that takes on a client that thinks they know how to do your job, and wear you down with their requests for edits and opinions of what would be better. I shot corporate head shots for a small company, and that was the last coffin nail. No more trying to be a professional photographers doing portraits and events, enough is enough. I decided to only focus on artistic pursuits with photography, and would rather pay to get something I am proud of than make money doing something that drove me crazy. I would need models, not clients, and since I was going to get a model, I would shoot a nude model, something I consider a challenge and still do, and wanted to try for a long time.
 
Enter Ed Barron.
 
I found Ed on Model Mayhem, and I decided to go with Ed, who is older than most of the models on the site, because he was an experienced figure model, and was comfortable being nude, So I booked him, for Dec 7th, and unfortunately that was the day after a 6 day business trip to Seattle for my day job. I got home at 8pm the night before, and Ed was coming noon the next day. I was tired, and I had no idea what I was going to shoot, but I just wanted to get it over with and get my first model shoot behind me. Having to use myself as a model to try things the year before, I was happy to be only behind  the camera and have someone in better shape in front of it, who would do what I asked. the session was fairly short, and I focused mainly on getting some nicely lit portraits done. Ed was a good experience, and after he left I spent  the next month or so putting together the shots from the shoot, and they turned out better than I expected, and I got some nice response from them. They were the best shots to date, but there still was not a lot of meat to them - not a lot of elements, mostly prettified portrait treatments. But Ed had a lot of expression in his face, and it lent some implied story or theme to the shots.
 
 
I toiled for another couple months, using myself again as a model and produced some interesting self portraits that I still like to this day, getting more adventurous in my layering and themes. It was around March that I made my most ridiculous purchase. Frustrated, and feeling guilty about lifting photographic elements off the web for my composites, I decided to buy a preserved, large, exotic butterfly for around $75 to use as a prop in some shots. I shot it for a day, and since it was so delicate, it crumbled and was rendered useless in less than two days. I got a few shots from it, and only one that I still like. But still, a waste of money.
 
 
 
In March, eager to work with another model, I searched, and searched, but after seeing one after the other covered in tattoos, something that is baffling to me in someone desiring to be a model, I decided to call Ed again, and this time I had more concepts in mind and decided to make this shoot a bit of a cohesive project. This was my first shoot that locked in everything to follow - the approach to shooting, the style points, the textures, and the post work. All in all, I think I got about 12 shots all loosely based on the theme of aging and mortality, fear of dying, and a couple of these images are still in my personal best folder. Ed really rose to the challenge, and my portfolio was growing.
 
 
But after two sessions with Ed and a smattering of self-portraits, my portfolio was largely comprised of Ed, and only Ed. It was also 100% images of men. I wanted my images and portfolio to be more diverse, so I was determined to get some female energy into it. I shot my first female model in May, someone who does not wish her name to be used, as she prefers to keep her modeling life separate from her private life. By this time, I had the beginning of a method forming in my shoots - one part concept and ideas, and the other improvised movement, where I would have the model try things, dance around, whatever. This part of the shoot usually produced the best shots of the session, more than the planned concepts. This shoot gave me a good supply of images featuring a lovely female presence, and I was happy with the output. This was also the first time I was in the presence of a naked woman in about 20 years, and I thought that would be weird for me, but I am happy to report that it's all business when behind the camera, and I wasn't weirded out by it at all!
 
 
After this shoot, and before my next session with a model who calls herself Shoney, I attended a Brooke Shaden workshop, who was doing a small tour of cities teaching her techniques to small groups. I was excited to see it myself, but in the time since I signed up for it and the day of the workshop, I was asserting my techniques and my approach to shooting, and it was quite far from Brooke's, who does not shoot with lighting, and favors real environments and natural light. It was a day of being out of my element, shooting on the spot, working with a model I only met an hour before, and ramping up my ISO to levels I would never even consider usable to shoot in the dim confines of a warehouse space. I also was pretty strong in terms of Photoshop, so I was not sure how much I would take away from this workshop. But the energy was good, and the day was fun, and Brooke was a gracious and generous host, and it was a good day overall. But it certainly did clarify this growing trend of Brookealikes, or wannabes, which I've talked about in this blog previously (see "Attack of the Brookealikes"), and I wanted no part in imitation.
 
 
The next day, I had my shoot with Shoney, and she was an absolute delight to work with, and we got some really good stuff out of the shoot, including a little series based on the Victorian Death Photos. This shoot was expensive, costume rentals. This is another growing problem, the expense of doing shoots that require period piece costuming. In addition to the expense of the rentals, they are really hard to find, but I've written about that too.
 
 
Now that I had two shoots done with Ed and two shoots with two different females, as well as a few self-portraits, I had a more varied portolio, and the one type missing overall was a younger male. Now, I think I have also discussed this in a previous entry to this blog, but it bears repeating - finding male models willing to pose nude is not at all easy. Especially a younger one, with no tattoos. But I did find one, on Craigslist, and while our talks via email were good prior to the shoot, I think there was some awkwardness between the model and me, and maybe it was that he was a newbie, but whatever the case, it was a little strained, and I think it shows. I do like some of the shots from the shoot, a couple of them in particular, but there has been no communication since our session, and I don't think there will be another session with him. Definitely not as easy as the previous shoots.
 
 
Before my session with Keith, I had a bit of a post production epiphany - I was overdoing my images with the texture layers, and something made me step back and look it all the work thus far and I thought some of it needed to be re-worked and toned down. I ended up doing a month of it, and reworked at least twelve of them. I think they were greatly improved, and from that point on, I  toned down the textures significantly, and my post production work was now very much approaching a cohesive, defined style.
 
 
Compared to the ridiculous purchase of the disintegrating butterfly, my next unwise (in terms of finances) purchase was a far better outcome: my dream camera. Look, the Canon Rebel series are decent, and they were my only choice, both decidedly and in terms of price, since I went DSLR. But everyone who is into photography wants a full frame camera. I had my eye on the Canon 5D mk II for years, it was my dream camera, and I finally just charged it, interest payments be damned, and it came. After snapping a few casual shots for a couple days, I wasn't entirely sure I saw a big difference to the images I was getting with my Rebel, but when the next shoot happened, using my now familiar setup and lights, I saw it. Wow did I see it!
 
I wanted to work with Ed again, but I was unsure I had any new ideas for us. I was increasingly focusing my shoots on concepts, big ones, big themes, and I didn't know what we'd be doing, but I went out the morning of the shoot and scrambled for some props. I decided to get a large empty picture frame, because I had seen them used in some work from other artists, and I liked what I saw. I wasn't sure what I'd be doing with it, but between that and the fact that Ed was bringing his best suit with a top hat, I started focusing on Jekyll and Hyde, having just watched a BBC series that cleverly updated the classic tale. I decided the theme would be about duality, about ego and alter ego, and what better place to start than with the split personality progenitor of all?
 
August, 2012 - My third shoot with Ed and my fist with my brand new camera, and I must say, I did struggle with the camera at first - the controls were a little different, added weight, all that, but we got through it, and I went to work on what would be come my most popular images yet. Being eager to get new work out, and insecure about the premise and concept of the shoot, I nevertheless started producing them, and one of the first out the gate was "The Strange Self Portrait of Dr. Henry Jekyll." This was a bit of tongue in cheek one, where the good doctor would sit for his portrait, and in order to capture all of him, the mild mannered doctor and the venerable badass Mr. Hyde, he sits with a large portrait of his other half. I liked it, didn't love it, but I thought it did what it was supposed to do, and the post processing came out nicely.
 
I put it out there, and one of Ed's friends immediately trashes it on Facebook, saying it has no magic, no reinvention, a total misfire. I was devastated, as I was insecure to begin with, and having someone be so blunt about the first image from this session was unsettling. It doesn't take much to shake my confidence, and this one hurt. But, others liked it, and it got a lot of views (for me) and it was accepted into the gallery of 1x.com, a site that is curated, so you submit but not everything you submit gets in. That site became a source of pride and also an immense source of frustration this year, and I think it may even be the topic of its own blog post, so I will leave it at that. The point is, it got in, and I felt better, even a little vindicated. I generated three  images using that picture frame, and they all did really well for me. Again, my audience and numbers are small, but they were growing and that was good - they were growing quite a bit - as Ed has a lot of fans out there, and it seems that he became something of a DeNiro to my Scorsese this year - all my work with Ed does better than any other work I do with other models. The startling resolution with the 5D was amazing, and despite the fact that I will be paying it off for the next three years, I have no regrets about that purchase. The work from that session did in fact grow into a bit of a theme of duality, and I saw a through line in it, and this is where I started accepting the fact that I work in broad strokes and fog and slowly focus it in after the shoot is over. Hard to live with, but it seems to be my process. I discussed this in detail in my previous post called "Best Laid Plans."
 
 
As it always happens, the well of usable shots from the session began to run dry, and I started looking for a new model once again, and had a very specific concept in mind. I needed to find the right looking model, I really wanted to cast to type. I decided to search for models on acting sites, and thought I would hire an actor to play my priest role, and it was a long and fruitless search that yielded a lot of response, but no one quite right. I will not go into detail about the concept, as I still hope to do it someday, but this was going to be expensive, in terms of costuming, in terms of actors, and I really wanted to use two models for the next shoot - something I have yet to do. I got a response from the friend of a guy who was PERFECT for it - exactly the look I was going for. The trouble is, he did not want to do it. She worked him, and he decided he MIGHT want to do it after all. He had me on the line for two weeks, and finally asked if we could meet first, obviously to suss me out and see if this was okay to him. So, after a busy and long day at my day job, I met him, and we chatted for a bit, in a parking lot, and he left saying he would let me know either way the next day. Never heard from him again. Good luck with your future endeavors pal, if this is how you conduct yourself. I wasted three weeks searching for someone to shoot this with. In the end, I decided to ask Ed. Ed was older that what I had envisioned, but I know him, I work well with him, and I thought it would work. The trouble is, he was not available. Not for weeks. I did not want to wait that long, as I had not shot at all since our session in August.

So I scrambled for a plan B. The trouble is, I had no plan B. I contacted one of the models who expressed interest in the priest role, and though I had passed on him as he was way too young, I liked his look, and I liked how respectful and prompt he was in our communications. I had earmarked him as someone I would work with in the future, so I contacted him, asking him to come to shoot, and though I had no ideas for the shoot, it was finally scheduled, and my October shoot was on. October is my favorite month, and traditionally, it has always been a month of creative high energy for me. This one would prove no different, it was indeed a creative high.
 
My frantic and troubled preparation for this shoot is documented in my entry called "Chasing Balloons" so I will spare you the blow by blow, but Gilberto came, and we worked well together. He was polite, professional, and up for anything, and we did a lot of shots inspired by Rene Magritte, who is certainly an influence on my work. After he left, I went to work on the shots, and the "Red Balloons" series was born, and I really loved the series. I believed in it, I had a firm grip on what I was trying to say with it, and it all exceeded my expectations. My numbers on sites like Flickr and Ephotozine all jumped up again, and by and large, this was becoming my most successful run of images. As I write this, on November 30th, 2012, I am still getting some finished pieces from my session with Gilberto, now almost two months ago.
 
 
Before my shoot with Gilberto, I bought a Wacom Tablet, and it was a game changer, perfectly suited to my type of editing. I don't know how I did it without it all this time. I strongly encourage anyone  who does Photoshop work to get one - you will love it.
The unsettling disaster of my next shoot is covered in the previous three entries, "The Complicated Birth of an Idea," "the Death of an Idea," and "Dark Matter," so I will spare you and me the gory details, but this one did a lot of damage. It was very high on concept and the most thought out shoot to date, not to mention somewhat ambitious, and it utterly crashed and burned. I still feel terrible for the model I hired, and Ed, who was also to be in it, for the fact that nothing came of it. But it was a miserable day for me, and I am still unnerved by it. Again, I am not exactly resilient to failures.
 
The only thing that made the last two months creatively bearable was the fact that I became a winner of Canon's Project Imagination, with the "Dr. Jekyll" shot, and then one of the celebrity directors chose it as one of her 10 images to inspire the film she will be creating. It felt great to get some recognition, and to get my name out there. That, and also some other write-ups and features started to come my way. A blog about style and design did a piece on me, a men's site focusing on male issues and nudity did a lovely feature on my work with male nudes, and I did three interviews for the Canon Project Imagination win. One of the sites I am on, Ephotozine.com, did a feature called "Top 8 Digital Artists" and I was on that list with a short interview piece. Two peers from two different sites featured me on their websites. In November, I started to address the need to generate prints of my work, as I have started to submit to galleries. I found a fine art printer not far from my town who does wonderful work, and I went to see a proof of one of my pieces as a 16 x 16 canvas. I looked wonderful, and I feel I will soon have the ability to generate and sell quality prints of my stuff.
 
 
If I could only shake the damage of the last shoot, I might actually approach a state of temporary satisfaction!
 
I do not think it is terminal, I think there will be many more shoots to come, and I am even as I write this planning on shooting with a new model next week - with no ideas of what I will be shooting or what the concept will be, if there is going to be one at all. It's a hard way to work, but it does work, and I must get past this failed attempt. It is almost two months now since I produced anything behind the camera, and I am eager to get back on the proverbial horse and see what comes of it. Symbolically, I would love to end this, my Year One of Fine Art Photography, on a good note, and produce some great images. I love working on stuff - the putting it all together makes it all worth it. It is calming to sit there and try things, put things together, and find some symbolism in it, to imbue it with meaning, or die trying. At some point I would love to make the shooting aspect less of a panic, and something I look forward to, but maybe that will come next year. For now, I am focusing on getting a new model to shoot, and producing another string of images to add to the portfolio, the journey.
 
And so, even though there is a month to go in 2012, even though I need to look forward and create new work, I think there is a value to looking back on this heady first year, and try to feel satisfied with the roots I have planted and the strides that were made. I shot with 5 models, and did seven sessions with them, I created about 125 images, 50 of which I am proud of, and I have a presence on five websites that show my work, and I even got some press this year. Not bad for a first year, for a 40-something newbie.
 
I have to thank, of course, the models that contributed their talent, their looks, and their time to my endeavor, I have to thank my loving partner who is always supportive, even when I was crying in my beer, and all the Facebook, Flickr, Blue Canvas, 1x.com, and Ephotozine friends that have encouraged me along the way, took the time to comment on my work, and tell their friends about it. I have made some valuable friends online, a little circle of peers with which to commiserate with, to relate to, and to talk shop with.
 
There are a lot of things to work out and improve in the coming year: shooting with less stress and more confidence, finding access to 19th and early 20th century clothing that I seem to favor, keeping the cost of the shoots down, finding more models, and broadening my palette and process. But there is time for all that. Next year I hope to keep the momentum up, and get a showing at a gallery. That is the prize my eye is fixed upon. Oh, and if the cosmic wish granters are out there and listening, I think putting to rest the tedious day job should happen next year as well, but if not next year, then Year Three for sure. I mean come on now, enough is enough!
 
Thank you for reading, for taking the time. I am amazed that you do, that you would. I intend this to be the last blog entry of 2012, but hell, there is likely going to be another shoot to write about soon, so whether it soars into the stratosphere or smashes onto the cold ground, broken and dying, I will likely chime in about it before 2012 is gone and all the panicky fools that misinterpret the Mayan calendar are embarrassed on the first morning of 2013. I certainly hope that I have good news to regale you with when it's over. And of course, some shiny new images!
 
Be Well and be Better.
 
Michael
 

 
I woke up today in a bad mood. Sundays are always a little dark for me; a lifetime of the day before the school week/church in the mornings/early bed time/weekend is over cannot be easily shaken off, even if those things are 20 years or more in the past. But this morning was a little more than the usual. I am a week past the debacle of last Saturday's disastrous and expensive photo shoot that yielded nothing, and though I am over the intense feelings of failure and embarrassment, there is a lingering sense of futility about the whole endeavor - the whole pursuit of art seems pointless at the moment. My own personal history tells me that this is temporary and expected, but nonetheless, I feel it is all over. Waking up to mornings like this one does not help.
 
Let me explain…
 
While I certainly don't object to the concept of self-help, I do find the whole "self-help movement" laughable and worthy of derision. A whole section in a book store, motivational speakers, life coaches? Come on!  Only the very weak-minded could buy into this snake oil salesman routine and find something to believe in. No, I do believe in the concept of believing in and helping yourself, but reading the pablum of Tony Robbins is not going to help, and chanting mantras is about as effective as a placebo. All this to say, there needs to be some call and response here, a little back and forth. If I am to be the broadcaster of my life, there needs to be an audience, and an audience reaction, else I am nothing but drifting messages with no recipient. The universe and I are having a conversation, but the universe is not doing any of the work, it seems. I am supposed to supply the questions as well as my own answers? This of course is some grand hyperbole - I do speak in hyperbole, always have. But the kernel of truth here is this: I am butting my head against a wall, and not making a dent. Classic plight of the artist, and cliche, I suppose. Don't care. It's true enough to me.
 
This morning I awoke to: an acquaintance of mine sold something on FineArtAmerica.com. An acquaintance of mine sold an image to a book publisher and said image is now on a novel, through ArcAngel Images. An acquaintance of mine on Flickr was sent a message by someone asking if they could use her image in a magazine. I am on all these sites, I have been trying on all these sites for longer than these acquaintances. I have made less progress, it seems, than they have, in terms of getting exposure. Case in point: my photography page on Facebook. After one year, I am not even at 200 "fans." Despite being a finalist and winner in Canon's Project Imagination recently, despite recent press I've gotten, I am presently at 197. A fellow winner started his Facebook photography page in the last week or so, and has already bested me in terms of fans. And this is after I started a daily paid promotion on Facebook last week.
 
My local hometown newspaper, which contacted me and did a little interview piece with me two weeks ago about the Canon win, never bothered to run the piece. I got three pieces of press from that competition, and the results of all of it are a resounding NOTHING.  Not one new LIKE to the Facebook page, no increase in visibility. And adding to the news of all the small successes of my contemporaries, I wake up to my Facebook fans count down by one - someone actually defected overnight! With numbers as low as mine, that one is very noticeable. I have sent my samples to two galleries and two magazines recently and have gotten no response, not even a form letter rejection.
 
You could look at all this complaining as counter-productive. I can see how you could. But I disagree. This is a form of purging, or self-help. It is also honesty - free of positive-speak slogans and mantras of sugary earnestness. I do not believe that if you put positive out into the world it comes back to you. Honestly, if you know anything of human history, how can anyone believe that? But I am putting something out into the void; that's the rub. I am putting myself out there as much as I can, and no one is terribly interested in it. When you have beaten yourself up for a week after a failed concept shoot, and agonize over keeping your work fresh and meaningful, this kind of galactic indifference is really a backhand to the head.
 
I know the value of persistence. Of not giving up, and plugging away. I also know that if I give it all up, I would essentially be dead. The pursuit of art is something that's been central to my identity since I was very young. There has never been a time when I wasn't expressing myself in drawing, music, or now, photography. But after witnessing some forty years, I am no further along in terms of success, recognition, or even having an audience to speak of. Yes, the numbers are growing a little, but they are small in contrast to others, they are meaningless in terms of an audience, and there seems to be nothing I can do to expand it. I have tried everything I can think of.
 
It may just be, finally, that the universe is telling me I am just not good enough.
 
Is that a cosmic joke? To doggedly pursue something for all these years, apparently from a place of self-confidence or hubris, only to find your snake oil is not wanted by the general public?  Or the online community? Or the art world? Or half your friends on Facebook?
 
I can lift myself up over and over, and convince myself again and again that I am worthy, that I do good work, that I believe in myself. But there has to be some back and forth here, universe. I cannot keep putting coins in the existential vending machine and keep pulling the lever, and not get my candy bar. I am not weatherproof. Is anyone, really?
 
This spiral, this widening gyre of negativity, as counter-productive and off-putting as it may seem to some, is not for its own sake. Or even coming from a place of self-pitying angst. If anything, I am angry. I am not crying, I am spitting. You see, I did try to find something constructive to do in the wake of last week's failure, I did try to channel some energy elsewhere and reboot. I focused on self-promotion, of expanding my previous work and getting it noticed. And it really is being met with indifference and disinterest. So, when plan A fails, and plan B fails, is there any juice left in the tank to go a few more miles? I hate to end this year on a sour note, and maybe I can pull the nose up before I crash and burn, but the net result of all this apathy and futility is a crippling sense of defeat. I have nothing planned on the horizon, no new images to work on, and nothing to chase after. I am drained of motivation and ideas. The very idea of picking up a camera again is terrifying.
 
There are a lot of blogs out there from people who do what I do that only speak of "inspiration" and "imagination" and actually claim to be in existence for the benefit of others - to inspire and help others. This to me is another form of what i like to call "posi-speak." It's all flowers and sunshine and good will towards man. It seems they are afraid of confronting the dark lest they be branded a pessimist or be perceived as anything other than celestial light. Honestly, is that really helping anyone? What are you selling? Why are you trying so hard to be a force of "goodness" and light? Do you think if you deviate into despair that the universe will punish you somehow? Trust me, the universe on the whole does not give one shit about which way your wind blows, and on the off chance my little broadcasts get picked up by someone out there, I would at least like to be branded as someone who is honest about his experiences, who is not afraid of the dark matter, and recognizes that pain and misery are valid emotions too, and need not be left on the cutting room floor in favor of your high-maintenance public persona. Artifice is not what I am selling. If it is too hard to look at, then please, look away.
 
Incidentally, last week's dark chapter in my blog was my most-viewed to date. Interesting.

 
So, this is the day of the shoot, the night has come, the models and help have come and gone, and there will be nothing seen of this effort, this day that took a month to make happen. In short, it was a disaster.

There are a lot of platitudes coming my way, and I appreciate the sentiment behind them, but none of them will reach me, none of them will lift the very dark mood this day has produced in me. This was my first utter failure in my work as a photographer. If you read the previous blog entry, you might think this was destined to be a failure, but that's not true, the stress depicted in that entry visits me every time I do a shoot, and every previous shoot has produced some work I am really happy with, even proud of. The only thing that would have made all the angst leading up to this shoot worth it all was the realization of my idea, the execution of something from nothing, or, at the very least, a few decent shots. None of that was achieved.

I rented a large studio with some wonderful, distressed rooms. A massive warehouse attic with cool debris strewn throughout, rooms of vintage furniture, hallways and staircases. To some, it's a photographic paradise, but for me, and this is the only lesson I have learned from all this, it was a nightmare, and a big part of the outcome that yielded nothing. Over the past year, I have been shooting in a very specific way, with the same lights, the same neutral gray background, and in a very tight space, which often frustrates me. But, see, it works, somehow, and it has led to a success rate of output, where I know at the very least I will have a well lit basic shot from which to build, After several shoots using this approach, I thought it would be good to go to a real location, to shoot somewhere new, with some mood built in.

This was the first and biggest mistake.
I am pretty bad at shooting architecture, shooting landscapes, shooting the world, really, I shoot people well. I am a portrait artist first and foremost. I make the focus of the images the people in them, and all else is there to support that. With an environment as big and detailed and busy as this space was, it was only ever going to compete for attention, and force me to pay attention to it. And also, the real thing about it is: I LIKE building my images from nothing, I LIKE deciding the background environments. Plus, not knowing the space well, I had to explore and decide on where to shoot at the same time, and there are problems in doing that, since your time is better spent lighting and working with the model. All this and the fact that I was renting a space per hour, and had only four hours, really put the pressure on.

The Comfort Zone should not be discarded for being comfortable…
Having my stuff all set up all the time in my home means I can go down there and in a few minutes be ready to shoot. It's not an easy place to shoot in; the ceiling is really low, but it works, or has so far. With the lights and background there at the ready, the only things to overcome have been acquiring props and costumes and models. With today's debacle, I had to take everything out of that space, dismantle standing lights, bring the 9 foot roll of paper and stands all to a new space. As a musician and now as a photographer, the grunt work of hauling gear was always the worst way to kill the mood, to sap the energy better spent on the performance, so to speak. And it eats up time, and by the time you are done, you are already tired, before you even shoot.

There are a lot of other things that contributed to this shoot failing, but the worst part of it is, I have nothing to work on. Bringing these things to life in editing is the main reason I do what I do, I love that part, I feel excited doing it, and it makes the difficulties of shooting worth it. This took me a month to bring together. I have exhausted my supply of prior shoots to edit, so this was to be a new food supply of images to add to the canon, to keep me engaged and challenged. To spend money on costumes, rented space, and eating time away from everyone's Saturday is heartbreaking and embarrassing.  Even if it were a nightmare shoot, if the results exceeded the expectations, if the results became something emotional or artful, it would have been worth it, but none of that happened.

I know myself well, and I think this shoot will do more damage than ultimate good, at least in the short term. This is not a case of an arrogant, cocky photographer getting knocked down a peg for the sake of deflating an insufferable ego. I have a lot of doubt at the best of times. I never enter the room as the master lenser, the elder statesman of pixels. I am always worried I will fail, and amazed that, until now, I have managed to sidestep failure on each shoot. This one just played on my constant fears, and it will take a lot for me to get past it, to not let it cripple the next attempt. I am not someone who lives by optimism for optimism's sake, to engage in platitudes, to "learn from failure" and make lemonade out of lemons. I am a realist, and very much in touch with how I operate. Yes, I will have no choice but to regroup; what other choice is there but that or give up? But it will take a little longer than I want, and this idea, this concept shoot that I put a lot of thought into, is essentially dead now, and will likely not happen again. It feels doomed, rife with bad memories of a day I'd like to forget.

Tomorrow i have to return a costume i rented for this shoot. I will drive 50 miles each way to return it, and it was a waste of money and time. I don't enjoy driving. The only thing that would have made that costume rental and the drives to get it and return it was the time I would be spending afterwards generating the series of images it was rented for. There will be none of that. Just a drive while I mull on the failure of the day before, and the month of planning that all went nowhere.

 

On the eve of my next shoot, large in scope than all the other ones so far, I thougt it might be a good insight into the planning phases of a concept, and the difficulties in realizing it...

 

Mid October: I wrap up working on the final images of the last shoot, pleased with how they came out. I start to turn my attention to what’s next and decide a few things: no more cloudy skies for a while, as much as I love them – gotta keep it fresh by doing something else. I need to use a female for the next model, too many men all in a row. I want to shoot in another location: my home studio is small and limited.

Late October: After deciding on a concept, which is always slow to form and develop and in fact is still developing, I start a model search, knowing what type I am looking for. I get responses, I decide on one. Then starts the process of picking a date for the shoot. Schedules coordinated between me, the model, and the rented location. Okay, done. I decide what’s needed for the shoot in terms of props and wardrobe. I need to go period for this shoot – the 1920s, and wardrobe and props become a big headache, as you really can’t just pop into a store and buy a frock from 90 years ago.

Early November: Studio paid for, model in mind, I start looking for films and books based on the time period to inspire me. I want to look at some works by Rene Magritte, Anne Sexton, Richard Yates, Virginia Woolf. Every item I am looking for is out of print, not available for Kindle, and not in bookstores. FUCK. After a couple attempts at procuring props (I needed an umbrella and the costumes) I see the clock ticking towards the shoot, and break down and compromise and buy an umbrella from Amazon.com. Is it accurate to the period? No. Impossible or near impossible to find an umbrella that is not modern nowadays. Compromise. I resign myself to a $100 costume rental from Boston Costume, which has a limited and slightly too fancy selection of Victorian/Edwardian women’s fashions. I reserve a costume online, but never hear back from them for confirmation.

Last Week: I decide, after some more planning and conceptualizing, that I will need a second model to make the concept work, and also, this is something I have been meaning to do for a while. Using two models gives more variety, composition options, and more interaction and potentially more story to it. I call Ed, the model I have used the most, and hurrah, he is willing and able to do it. I decide I need a costume for him too, for one of the shots, a priest costume, and again, Boston Costume has a few in stock. I decide to bite the bullet and rent one for the ONE shot I need it for. Ouch. You cannot buy priestly vestments cheaply otherwise. Believe me, I have checked. Just the shirt with the collar will cost over $60. I start modifying my planned shots to include Ed, and send both models a very long, detailed description of what is planned, what is the concept, etc.

Monday: I plan a call with my new model, to discuss the wardrobe woes and discuss options, and also to talk and break the ice. I call, get voicemail, and then don’t hear back from her. The descriptive email also does not get a reply. Damn. Oh No. I send an ultimatum email asking to please just tell me if you are still in or not. She does reply to this. Nerves frazzled at the prospect of looking for a last minute replacement, getting new sizes, looking for another costume, or worse, coming up with a new idea without her at all. But, it’s back on.

Tuesday: Still have not heard from Boston Costume. I call them. They say they are super backed up, and the best thing to do is to come in with the model. That’s not possible. I live 50 miles from this place in one direction, and the model lives 50 in the other direction. I give them the sizes and they tell me the one I chose will be too big, but there MAY BE some others that might work. I tell them I will be in on Thursday, thinking Wednesday I will be too tired to drive there after working 8 hours at my day job and driving for 3. I was right, after two days of almost no sleep, I am dead Wednesday and go home and get sleep. Shoots give me insomnia.

Yesterday (Thursday): I plan on going to the costume rental place after work, using my trusty GPS app to guide me to it, as I have no sense of direction otherwise. I leave work at 3:30 and go to my car, launch the GPS app, and it tells me my 30 days of voice guidance has expired and I need to buy more time. I do, as I always have done, but it fails to purchase. I try again and again, nothing. So I decide to forego the voice and just glance down at it now and again and deal with it. Except, without the voice, this thing is not giving me step by step directions at all. After driving several miles, I realize it is telling me nothing, and I pull off the road and try to figure this out. I have no idea where I am, even what town I am in. There is nothing to do without the GPS working, no one to call, because I can’t tell them where I am coming from, so I drive, hoping for a meaningful sign somewhere that points to something I know of. I wind up on the dreaded 95South, at rush hour, in bumper to bumper traffic, going 100% the wrong way. I call my partner and he tells me to get off anywhere and find 95North, and go back. At this point, I have been in the car for almost one and a half hours, trying to get to a costume store that is 8 miles from work. I finally navigate to this costume store – two and a half hours in the car, and get out and go get my rentals. Except no one has processed my request, and nothing is pulled, and as a bonus, it’s not available because it needs to be dry-cleaned. I tell them I need SOMETHING, and the tattooed, pierced, alterna-chick nightmare behind the counter is clearly annoyed and full of attitude, grumpily goes down to fetch the costumes that might work. Nothing is right, nothing will fit, nothing like what I wanted. I compromise on the one dress that might fit, and it’s not at all what I wanted, but I have no more time or options. $95. I ask them to pull the priest costume for me, which looked great in the photo on the website. It is a shiny, piece of shit, polyester nightmare, and even the priestly collar is fake. No good. Can’t use it. I go with nothing for my male model. I arrive home at 7:30 on a night that was supposed to be: get costumes/get additional props and materials for shoot. I have done nothing towards the second task. I am fried.

Today: the shoot is in 24 hours. Due to the need to sit in an office for 8 hours and then an appointment after work, I will not be home until 8:30pm. I then have to break down all my equipment in my home studio to get ready to move it to the location tomorrow. I want to sketch tonight, to pre-visualize what I can for tomorrow – maybe this will give me some ideas on how to solve the problems of not having enough models and props and costumes to realize my concept. Since there are still some items needed for the shoot: miscellany like black cardboard, hair product, rope, etc, I will now need to get up early and get to a store first thing in the morning, come back, load up the car, and then go off to the studio, which will only allow me to come 20 minutes before my time slot to look around, set up, et al. I will have perhaps 3 hours to get everything done I want to do. My concept has the word “eleven” in it: I need to come away with eleven shots at least, all pertaining to the theme and the sub-theme of each planned shot. If I fail to do so, the shoot’s concept will break down, and I will have an incomplete realization of something I have been planning for a month. I will have spent money on a failed project. One shot has to be a play on a family portrait. I have no family of models to do it. One has a theme of religion. I have no priest costume for it. One has a theme of a marriage: I have no wedding dress for it. I have a sense of what the place looks like, but would really love to have an hour to scout around and see it through a lens. I am using a helper for the first time to help me with lights.

I am usually faced with creating something out of virtually nothing. But once, just once, I would like to be able to plan things and have them realized as intended. It seems that I have done what money and time will allow to make that happen, yet here I am, a few hours to go, and the panic of HOW is pulsing through my head. It is for these reasons that I have come to dread the shoots a bit, and savor all the more the editing process afterwards. But, I would need something to edit, so the shoots have to happen!

I just wish they weren’t such a nightmare! In a few days, the results, good or bad, will be seen.

Thanks for reading,

A very frazzled Michael

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
 

There are planners in this world, people who arrange things on a fine detail level, in every facet of their life. Some of us cannot even conceive of going on a vacation, or get through their work week, without knowing what the plan is, who is going to be there, what we will will do when we get there, and how long we will spend there. It's easy to see the appeal of the orderly mind; the steadfast refusal to allow chaos to rule over order, to maximize our potential, or wring every last drop of useful out of a period of time allotted. All these things are very human, very common, and even noble aspirations as we get on with our increasingly bewildering and frenetic lives.

This is where you would expect this line to drop: "I am NOT one of those people!" But no, that would be disingenuous. The line, more honestly, would be: "I wish I were more like one of those people."

I do try to plan, to stick to a blueprint, to call ahead, whatever one does to be a "planner." I do in fact get very uneasy when I don't know where I am going, or how long I will be there. So it seems that planning is in my heart, if not exactly manifest in my daily life. To quote Yeats, who I grow more and more fond of, "things fall apart, the center cannot hold." It seems destiny or fate, neither of which I really believe in, have different, er, plans for me.

I met a successful fine art photographer recently who said she plans all of her shots out, and storyboards them. She keeps a notebook of ideas. She goes to a location with a model with a plan, with the wardrobe and props needed, and takes only the amount of shots needed. The shoot may last all of 30 minutes or less, with 5-10 shots taken. The longest part of the process seems to be the journey to the location itself. I imagine it must make it very easy to communicate to the model with that idea notebook in hand, and be able to show them what they will be doing. Perhaps the success of this approach over and over again makes the photographer confident in her shooting, and allay any doubt or fear, over time. I WANT to do things this way - I see the logic in it, the ease of it, and the benefits of it. The trouble is, I simply cannot do it. I have tried, and still try now, but I simply cannot.

Now, I am not saying I am a slave to chaos, to randomness, to the blank canvas, but if I look at my body of work up to this point, and take my favorites out of it and move them into a pile, almost none of them will be of the planned variety. They were all happy accidents. Not accidents really - there is some plan, however fetal and vague, that informs them.

Let me give you an example: On my last session with Ed Barron, the only concrete idea I had going in was Jekyll and Hyde. I had just seen a BBC series from a few years back that sparked my interest in it. I had never given the Stevenson novel and characters much thought before, but upon seeing this version, I saw the metaphors at play beneath the fiction - the duality, the repressed id, the man behind the facade. It is timeless and rich - from that classic novel all the way to Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, the theme is relevant to our psychology and societal constraints. Okay, so bam, a light sprinkle of inspirations hits the exposed wire of my creative mind, and a little feeble spark ignites. So then, the mind starts turning and musing for days about what to do with it for my shoot and with my one model, who certainly can look both parts, and is a far better actor than he probably realizes. I discuss it with him a little, and we decide on him bringing a suit and top hat, which mercifully, he had in his possession, otherwise I would have had to shell out more money I don't have for a costume rental. Okay so, theme is in mind, and so is wardrobe and model. Great! But still, no ideas as to what specifically I will be actually doing with the shots, the actual compositions are not visions in my head, waiting to be born. They are more like a whisper that you can almost hear, but then the tv ads drown it out, like they do everything else. Fast forward to the morning of the shoot - full panic has set in, because a model is coming in 3 hours and I have the room ready, the lights are charged, the camera battery is charged, and the compact flash cards have been cleaned out. all is ready, but I am not excited, or eager, or even calm. I am in performance anxiety panic mode driving to Target and Michael's arts and crafts looking for something, some THING, anything, that might be purchased for the shoot in the way of a prop that will assist me in doing Jekyll and Hyde. Earlier in the week, I saw a photo from someone on 1x.com using an empty portrait frame as a prop. In the shot, a person's body was coming out of it, but not on the other end - it was like a dimensional portal. Neat idea, and not mine at all.

I buy the frame and head back home.

Ed arrives, and I discuss a little about what we are doing - this is delivered in a nervous barrage of vagaries, because, well, that's all I have. I spend a ton of time trying to get a shallow depth of field shot happening, for the other feeble idea I had, which was sort of an amalgam of the eye monster from Pan's Labyrinth and the classic book cover from Stephen King's "Nightshift." This image became "Nightshift."

Michael Bilotta NightShift

After that, I stalled for time even more, by having Ed do some nude poses, some in a chair, some not. Ed is a professional figure model, and has no issue whatsoever with nudity, and I am grateful for this because, if all else fails, I will at least be able to add to my "Fine Art Nude" gallery. So now that is over, and I have Ed don his suit. But before he gets anything on but his tuxedo shirt, I stop him - there is Mr. Hyde. Edward Hyde, free of the social constraints of Henry Jekyll, I imagine, would be a rabid anarchist, not caring about being dressed or proper in any way. I see Ed, with Tuxedo shirt on, unbuttoned, and wearing nothing else, as Mr. Hyde suddenly. I shoot some shots of this, telling Ed to improv up a snarling Hyde, hair mussed. We pose him with a dagger - Hyde did murder someone, so why not? This is where the portrait frame clicked in. I thought that I would pose Dr Jekyll as if he was in a portrait sitting, holding onto the frame, which contains an image of his alter ego within. The image of the stately doctor rigid in posture, holding a portrait of a disheveled Hyde, shirt open and glaring at the viewer, was born. Not exactly by plan, and not in any notebook. This became "The Strange Self Portrait of Dr. Henry Jekyll."

 

Now while I am appreciative of this image, and happy enough with it, it is by no means my favorite thing I have ever done.
And this is where the planning and the notebook fall apart for me.

See, I had Ed for four hours, which I pay him for, and I bought a frame that cost over $60, so I wanted to make sure I got as much coverage with model and prop as I could. So Dr. Jekyll was holding that frame sitting, standing, shaking it, whatever I could think of, in every angle i could do with my tiny studio in the basement. During editing, after the shoot was over, I immediately put the Jekyll and Hyde shot together, and well, that was that. Was there any reason to do more of them? Did the Stevenson novel need more coverage or artwork dedicated to it? Not really, no. But I had all these nicely lit shots of Ed looking dapper in his suit and hat, holding that damned, overpriced prop. So, I start to ponder on what else I can do with those basic elements. I did NOT want to copy the photo of the portrait frame as portal I had seen earlier, that type of online copycat plagiarism is enraging and ultimately empty. This is where the some of the best shots from the session came from: "That Was Another Country" in which the negative space of the portrait frame showed the warmer landscapes and memories of an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land of dark, forbidding cities. The more whimsical "Weather With You" which used the portrait as a vessel to take the inner climate, your weather, along with you. Lastly, and much later, after three frame shots had been born, I used it one last time for "The Shape of Things to Come" where the frame shows a preview of better days ahead.

 

There is a lesson in all this for me, and though I see the lesson, it still is a hard one to accept. My best stuff comes from an improvised sketch, done during shooting, and pulled together later, when the anxiety and stress of the shoot is over. It is almost pointless for me to plan shoots, and I am learning to let go of that desire to storyboard and plan, and let the process unfold as it wants to. This is why I shoot indoors, against a backdrop of gray seamless paper, with a model and a pose, and maybe a prop or two. It gives me a sketch, with a lot of room to fill in the blanks. I therefore shoot this way all the time now. I accept it, but it still makes shooting a panic for me, and a measure of trust is needed from the model, that I won't do something tasteless, awful, or silly with their like

ness. Where the well-known photographer shoots 5 to 10 shots, has a plan, and spends maybe 30 minutes getting her image, I spend upwards of 4 hours doing a marathon shoot with a model, taking upwards of 400 shots, a few planned, and most of them blank and bereft of ideas until I put them together later. Perhaps the pondering of the "concept" is a slow cooker in my head, taking time to stew and complete. If I look at the collection of images I got from my last shoot with Ed, I see a though-line, a continuity of theme, of duality. Jekyll and Hyde, seeing the world differently through the frame shots, the literal duality of "An Unwilling Duel," where Ed is fused together in two poses as if at war with himself. Even the latter two, a couplet or at least aesthetic brothers, "Lazarus Heart" and "I Dreamed my Genesis" both have elements of duality or juxtaposition in them - of reaching up but being pulled down, of devastating scars but an expression of hope.

So I think the concept was there, and perhaps informed the shoot, but certainly drove the editing process, albeit subconsciously. I should know by now that I will get something from the shoots, and that things will come together somehow. Maybe a few more successes and I will start to accept the process and go with it. Maybe someday I may enjoy the shoot even! But at the moment, I am shooting a new model in a week, have very few ideas, if any, and am starting to feel that panic rising in me. Something to do with ladders, and youth, and…well, no point in foreshadowing, as I have no notebook to show you! You'll know the plan shortly after I do, when the shoot is over, the model has left, and I am staring at the sketched image on the screen trying to figure out what it all means.

Thanks for spending time with a would-be planner!

September 29th, 2012

I think I joined Flickr in 2008 or so, and posted vacation pics, pics of my dog, and later, some portraits i was doing for the occasional clients, some high speed fruit drops, macros of bugs, things like that. I was not that invested in it, and neither was anyone else, given my views and comments on the site. About a year ago, I stopped trying to be a photographer in the traditional sense and started to reassert the artist, and I started caring more who was looking at my photos, and how many.

In this last year, I have created a portfolio that I consider, despite shooting with a camera for over 12 years, my first real body of work. There are about 100 images I consider portfolio worthy, and about 50 that I am really proud of. I have made this medium that I have dabbled in work for my artistic expression, much the way music and songwriting did before it. So naturally, like my music, I want an audience, I want the feedback, I want the sense that it matters to others more than just me, the creator of it. Any artist seeks these external channels, and if they say they don't, they are kidding themselves and you.

I started on Flickr, like I said, and then found a few more sites: Fotocommunity.com, 1x.com, Bluecanvas.com, RedBubble.com, and most recently, 500px.com and ephotozine.com. That's a lot of sites to maintain, in addition to the expected Facebook and Twitter and StumbleUpon and Pinterest, and…well, you get the idea. It becomes quite an undertaking to maintain your profiles on these sites, and develop a few relationships and contacts on them, and "feed the meter" constantly. After all, there is the other stuff, the important stuff, like coming up with ideas, procuring models, props, wardrobe, etc. Suffice to say, you have to wear a lot of hats doing conceptual/fine art photography - you are essentially a director, a prop master, a researcher, a photographer, an editor, again, you get the idea. But you also have to be a press agent, a marketer of your work, to beef those numbers up to respectable and build some momentum and audience. Yes, your stuff has to be good, and get some attention on its own, but in the history of any medium of art, the quality of the work has never EVER been enough to carry it along into notoriety. You need to work it.

In seeking this exposure, in this past year, I have learned a lot. My thin skin has hardened a little, but not quite enough. Things get to me still. Things like apathy, indifference, or outright hostility. I don't get a lot - basically people are kind on these sites, and some are downright wonderful and endearing. There are a handful on every site that I have to thank over and over again, because they absolutely deserve it, if for nothing else, sending me a supportive or positive comment when I was feeling down about the image they commented on. Some I could imagine having a drink and a great conversation with, if only oceans and continents did not divide us. I think most of them have been more generous with their time than I have with mine, and I fret about not giving as much as I get all the time.

But now we come to the savages…

These are the alphas, the aggressive go-getters, almost unbefitting the art community,  who chase accolades and numbers with all the brute force of a cheetah bearing down on a tiring gazelle. Often, this ferocity is a product of the young, and it's part of the cycle, but some of us cringed from this linebacker personality in grade school, and it's just as unappealing in our adult lives as it was when you gave us beatings in the schoolyard.

Let me give some examples, without naming names…

The popular, established one, who dances in the same artistic ballroom you do, who will send out a garish fishnet of friend requests and get several hundred, but will never accept yours.

The popular, established one, who will silently accept any comment or vote, but will never deign to comment on yours, thank you for anything you've said, or even look at your portfolio on the most cursory level.

The wannabes, who glom onto the coattails of the aforementioned established one, and gracelessly copy and siphon the work of his/her blueprint-cum-role model until their "work" is nothing but a skin suit in Jamie Gumb's basement of terror.

The popular, established one, who will always back and support and promote the wannabes copying him/her so blatantly, that the only explanation of their support of this outright plagiarism of their work is it must somehow stroke their ego, while they offer no support to you when you, again, dance in the same ballroom, but chose to wear your own clothes, and not the same, redundant flowing gown they are wearing.

And then of course their are the hacks, the underdeveloped "artists" that relate success and merit ONLY by their following and number of views.


I have met them all, and lately, I have to add the local photographers in my town to the list of savages. Savage in their silence, in their indifference, in their sending a "like my page" only to never "like" my page when I send one back to them. Savage in gathering you in under the guise of "community" but only as long as they are the local celebrity. The thin skin is showing here, but you know what? I am not that worried about burning any bridges or offending anyone because these people will NEVER READ THIS! For all the reasons I have explained already. 

Their indifference is profound, predictable, and complete.

Though this may sound like a rant, there is some empathy too; I used to make it a point to reply with a thank you to each and every comment I got, and make sure to look at the work of the commenter, and find some time to comment in the spirit of genial reciprocity. I do know that this can snowball if you are lucky enough to grow some numbers. It is now sort of impossible for me to do this, what with my 40 plus hour "real job" and the all-consuming pursuit of my craft and passions. I get it. But then, not to the extent that I exonerate the actions of the savages. You are not off the hook. I may never be able to help you along in your trajectory, but surely, if I ever was in a position to do so, that kind of turn the other cheek is not something I can do. Not when i see shining examples of how you might be a better inhabitant of the virtual jungle.

And so, to end on a positive note, here is a list of wonderful people I have met this year, who have been a supporting presence on whatever site we are on together, who probably have encouraged me more that I have them, and deserve at least another round of thanks and mention. I feel I have found my voice and direction this year, and your words, presence, and support have been essential to it!

Thank you Misty Fugate, who dances in the same ballroom I do, but never ever withholds or loses connection with me. I have never met her, but she is one of my favorite people. She also is positively a bad ass behind the camera and photoshop.

Ruby Walker del Angel and Paul Long, friends on more than one site, and whose work I greatly admire.

Jim McKinniss, whose work I just found and is already inspiring me to do some more self portraits. Jim is a very generous person, I can tell that from 3000 miles away.

RodeoRose, Linda Morgan, Jethro61, lianne, carlunruh, happyhead64, frederiqueroy70,  charliebeck, valerie rosen and ramonfernandez  on BlueCanvas.com - gotta be the friendliest bunch of people ever assembled on one site. BlueCanvas is my favorite site because of people like them, and there are MANY that I am forgetting I know, and I am sorry if I did!

Mel Brakstone and Carol Brandt, Deborah Zaragoza, AnnaCuypers, RosaCobos, Carol and Mike Werner on RedBubble.com - this site and I are often out of sync, as I believe it is based out of or primarily Australian, so people are sleeping when I am up, and vice versa, but nevertheless, several artists there have lodged in my memory, and are on my watch list! I hope you know i am watching! LOL

The list is long, and I will never have it complete, but the point is, there are supportive people out there, and it need not be dog eat dog. We are all in it for our own needs and reasons, but we have that in common. I have never been very community-minded, but this is the closest I have come to feeling a common bond, and I have never met one of them!

Thank you all.



I am always looking for models, always. I have worked with four, and one of those I have booked three times. He's great to work with, does it professionally, and is willing to do anything I throw at him. Given all these admirable qualities, I would use him all the time, except that I want to populate my visual world with more than one face, and sometimes a fresh injection of blood is a good thing, not just for the imagery, but also to keep me on my toes. More and more, I am searching for male models, not because of any objection to female models, but as I continue to find my voice in the conceptual/fine art photography world, I am pushing a male point of view because, well, I am male, and it is my point of view as well. There is also the point that there are so many surreal/conceptual/fine art photographers out there convinced that a girl in a prairie dress in a field looking either enraptured, troubled, or levitating for no apparent reason is compelling. Maybe it is in the right hands, or maybe it once was, but there has to be more to say than that! At least I feel that way. And before I get off the soap box, there is also a perception in the art photography world, or art world in general, that women equal beauty and muse, and men, well, do not. Give me a conceit like that and I will rail against it every time!

Back to the matter at hand…

My shoots are infrequent. More and more, as I try to develop a theme, they become mini events in how to convey the concept. The risk is expensive if it fails - money spent on costume, props, fabrics, etc. So the concept has to work, or else I have nothing. For the last few shoots, I have settled into a methodology that seems to work well for me, where I shoot a segment of the session focused on the concept, and then we do a segment of improvised pose and movement - all against a blank seamless backdrop. It's a bit like a special effect shoot on a sic fi film - where actors strut in front of a green screen, reacting at nothing and giving some vague tips on where and how to react. Almost always, my concept works but comes off a little flat, and the improvised session is where I get the most bang for the buck, giving me shapes and poses and a body that, depending on what I inject or add into the scene, can be raw material for anything, in any environment I decide upon. This is where I tend to ask my models to pose nude; I am looking for some emotion, some human thread, something fundamental and basic and timeless, and a blank canvas to build from, and the nude form is timeless. A suit, or pair of genes, or a trendy haircut puts you squarely in a time period and limits my potential scope.

It is a haphazard way to work - I'd much rather go in knowing exactly what each shot will be and what I need to do, but it's just not in my process to do so, no matter how much I may want it to be. I have accepted it as the way I work though, and for now, it is doing just fine by me.

The trouble is, no one wants to be naked, it seems.

Part of me understands this, and part of me is amazed at how much of a big deal this is to models. If I had a body that I deemed average or passable enough to do that, I would, no problem. But for one, I do not feel I am "everyman" enough, and the other is self portraits are a logistical pain in the neck to execute. Some of the models I have seen on modeling sites, who flat out state they WILL NOT do nude, have shots of them in thongs, or skimpy briefs. With that little covered, really, what is the difference of going, excuse the pun, whole hog? Again, if I had some of these bodies, I would be naked all the time!

A look at my past work would indicate I am not doing erotica, or anything overtly sexual - I have explained my reasoning for working with the nude form. There are two other concerns that a nude model alleviates for me: one is the aforementioned flexibility to make the image into almost anything I decide on later, and the other, practically speaking, is it is less expensive for me. I do not have to obtain costuming for this segment of the shoot, and when you are paying your models, buying props, renting costumes, this all becomes a rather expensive venture. I also happen to think that the nude form is compelling.

I am currently looking for models that are not what many would consider to be the model type - I am not looking for overt glamour, or abs of steel, or size 2 females with D cup breasts, or a man who plucks every body hair away. I am looking for a strong presence of humanity, in the face, in the demeanor, and at this stage in my life, it is hard to inject any personal truth when using an 18-25 year old perfect specimen. I am exploring the other side of mortality lately, the darker side, the weightier years, and I look for models that can express that for me.

But again, no one wants to be naked.

I frequently do searches for models on a website called ModelMayhem and search for males and females in a 50 mile radius from my home that accept nude assignments. The search results are scant, and the models tend to be not at all what I am looking for. Many of them seem to be posing for the cover of Hustler, or Honcho, or any porn rag you can think of, and again, that is not my vibe. Sometimes I reach out on Craigslist. I make a case for it, emphatically stating that this is a fine art photo shoot, and not sexual in any way. Often the replies are odd, novices, or people with motives that are anything but artistic. Often someone reports my ad and I get deleted. It's depressing that someone out there considers me some predatory pervert. Sometimes "applicants" will ask what my gender is. Why would that matter to a model? Why is one answer the right one there, and my answer results in someone reporting me as a pervert?

When I work with a model, I never touch them, even to adjust a pose slightly, unless I ask them first. I am respectful and I treat it professionally and even a little bit matter-of-factly. Nudity is not shocking to me, I have seen a lot of naked people. When one is exposed to it or used to it, it is not innately a sexual energy unless you switch to that mode or mental state. And really, isn't all this a lot to go through for me to lure a naked person into my trap?

So what does one do? Where do you find the willing model comfortable enough with him or herself to pose nude? What does it take to convince them that no trash or scandal will come from our working together? I pay all my models, try to make them as comfortable as I can, and never cross any lines. All but one of the models I have worked with in the past have expressed an interest in working with me again. Why is a bikini brief or thong acceptable to some but the removal of that one ounce of flimsy fabric a deal breaker? Are we really that afraid or ashamed of a vagina or penis?

Currently I am planning a rather ambitious shoot with a concept involving a character of a priest. I have a very specific type or look I am trying to cast. I have had several responses to my ads, and one was absolutely spot-on what or who I was looking for. After carefully stating my methodology or intent to them as I have in this blog, I stop hearing from them and they are apparently no longer interested. It's frustrating and time consuming. I didn't think men would be hard to coax out their exhibitionist streak, especially those blessed with a good body or a decent one at the least.

Does anyone know how I can tap into a more willing resource for my modeling needs? Am I doing this wrong?

Arrgh I say! Arrgh!