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.

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.

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.

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 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 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