Fables of the Reconstruction

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