Unreal Nature

December 31, 2007

Cloud Dynamics

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:37 am

In the previous post, I stated my belief that compositional dynamics in the image frame make great pictures, not the objective, or literal content of what is shown.

I want to post an example of the difference that background or non-foreground content plays in a composition. Because my pictures are composites, I can swap out a background to show you how this alters the interaction of the foreground content.

So, first, here is one of my bird groups as I made it:


When I make one of these, I start with the background. Then I choose one or two rocks that ‘suit’ that background. Last, I choose birds that suit the rocks and the sky. In this case, the fairly dramatic colors of the clouds and the strong diagonal (lower left to upper right) configuration made me choose the particular type of (bigger, heavier) birds with a rising line that matched the clouds, but circling down to the female cardinal and then back to the red male in a circular track.

Below, I have swapped out my chosen sky for one of similar color but very different dynamics. Consider how this affects or interacts with the type, style and arrangement of the birds.


In both the Winter Birds and the Summer Birds series, I have massive areas of out-of-focus background. Those backgrounds were very carefully made with color, form and texture of the out-of-focus stuff being deliberately created to be as you see them. (And they are quite hard to make.)


The Decisive Composition

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:08 am

With due respect to Henri Cartier-Bresson, I think he got it wrong. It’s not the moment that is decisive, it’s the arrangement. When the arrangement only lasts for a moment, then the two are one, but the fact that it exists only briefly is only an accident of that particular composition. The thing that is sought is the configuration, not the ‘frame’ out of time.

Why does this matter? Because the word ‘moment’ in Cartier-Bresson’s famous phrase has led generations of photographers to look for and therefore to see the interaction of ‘actors’ in an image as that which will make a picture great. They see the players in the frame without seeing the entire frame. The entire content of the frame is the picture, not the players in it.

This focus on the interaction of objects rather than on the visual dynamics of all that is included in the frame results in pictures in which there is ‘stuff’ that viewers are apparently supposed to just ignore. It’s not a player so it doesn’t matter. Things like sky, clouds, out-of-focus  or semi-out-of-focus background colors and shapes, the ground (grass, dirt, whatever), or random ‘furniture’ which are as much a part of the total frame as are the active players.

This is not only wrong, it makes for bad photography. Everything in the rectangular frame of the image matters. Everything has to work together to make a dynamic composition that will attract, and hold the viewer’s attention. If there is any stuff — large, small, in focus or out of focus — in the frame that is ugly, unsupportive of the arrangement, distracting or nonsensical, the picture won’t work,  no matter how ‘decisive’ the moment was reference the animate players in the frame.

To wait for the decisive moment implies standing patiently before time’s window, like patrons in a theater watching a play. Cartier-Bresson did no such thing. Quoting from an article found here :

“In an old film clip included in a 1994 documentary by director Sarah Moon, Cartier-Bresson can be seen, camera in hand, at a parade, bobbing and dipping, darting and weaving, focusing and refocusing, balancing on one reed-thin leg like some stork with a beret and a Leica, hurriedly trying to view all perspectives before the perfect one passes.”

He was not waiting for a moment, he was looking for arrangements. Look at his photographs; look at what is behind, under, above and around his players. It’s wonderfully composed. You won’t find stuff anywhere in the frame of his pictures that does not contribute to the entirety of the composition.

This applies to every great photographer. When looking through a view camera, moving it an inch this way or that, then standing for many minutes studying the ground glass, and finally, waiting for just the right clouds, just the right light … followed by a five minute exposure. It’s not about catching a moment in passing time, it’s about seeing, recognizing, choosing arrangements in the pictorial frame. Lest you think that ‘just the right clouds’ suggests a decisive moment; not at all. There are many configurations of cloud and scene that will work (and many more that won’t). It’s the arrangement that matters.


December 30, 2007

Desire and Despair

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:44 am

Sounds, heard in total darkness, find form in the mind. At two AM last night, I was wakened by the distant cries of a hunting dog, high on the black mountains behind my house.

Hunters use dogs to stir up the deer. They use small, slow Beagle-hound crossbreeds because they want the deer to move around, but not be in full flight. Because they follow the deer, and the deer try to avoid being seen, while you will hear the dogs, you will rarely see them. Because he is small and slow, the dog will never catch the deer. A good deer dog will hunt, steadily, for as long as he can stand on his feet. If you do happen to see one, and you stand directly in the path he is tracking, he will either pause, looking sorrowful and apologetic, until you get out of the way, or he will simply go around you without any change in his slow, determined pace.

The voice of such crossbreeds is a strange mix between the short squall of a Beagle and the long, deep baying of a big hound. By the end of December, the end of hunting season, after hunting since November, after hunting all day on a Saturday and now, half the cold night, it’s a raw expression of both desire and despair, wailing, wailing across the invisible mountain after the invisible deer, now wailing inside my mind as I try to go back to sleep.

If this dog has had his collar removed, as is often the case at the very end of the hunting season, you will know that the hunter has abandoned the dog. It’s easier and cheaper to buy new ones next season than it is to feed and care for them from now until next November.


[shown below you can see the mountainous terrain where I live]


December 29, 2007

Color for Its Own Sake in Photography

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 am

Every day when you get dressed, you have to deal with color combinations (or not; some of you just don’t care…). But do you actively consider and use color, for its own sake in your photography?

When I think of photos where the color was noticeably, attention-grabbingly fine, I think of Meyerowitz, and Shore, but most of all, I think of Harry Callahan’s color work. I think he makes color the primary interest in his (color) pictures — ahead of object, line and subject matter — more than other photographer that I have seen. Unfortunately, the examples of his color stuff that I can find on the Internet don’t demonstrate this; if you have seen it, or can get it, I highly recommend “Harry Callahan: Color 1941-1980”.*

The most elementary color theory is well and simply stated by Johannes Itten’s works such as “The Elements of Color”. He goes over the basics of the different appearance of colors according to what they are next to.


Complementary colors boost each other when placed in the same picture. The most commonly used complementary colors are blue/orange. Think of TV and magazine commercials where this color boost (with its added contrast of hot/cold) is used to death.


When complementary colors are out of balance, the smaller one will appear to gain brilliance (even though it is still the same color as in the previous).


I believe most photographers simply deal with color as they find it rather than actively or consciously building an image around color theory. One of the cool things about making composite images is that you have the option of making deliberate color choices about what you include. Because my background is in black and white photography — and I am not exactly a fashion wizard in how I dress — my efforts with using color in my composites are mostly negative. I know what I don’t like, such as the orange-brown wren and the red-orange cardinal shown below. The multiple bird series that I do force me to think about and deal with color. I’m learning to like it, but it’s new ground for me.

[Edited to note: now that I’m looking at the cardinal and the wren, I kind of like them together. Sigh. I have so much stuff to figure out.]



*A nice quote Callahan quote from the Color book: “There are some guys who don’t think I understand what I’ve done. The odd thing is, I’ve done it. If you know what you’re searching and looking for, you know what you’re doing.”

December 28, 2007

Where’s My Centerfold?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:33 am

It’s an old joke that guys justify buying Playboy magazine by saying they buy it for the articles (which are good, but not *that* good), not so they could ogle and be stimulated by the pictures of naked ladies.

I am prepared to admit that theory, philosophy, explanation, definition, and categorization of photography are not why I “buy the magazine.” I buy it for the pictures. I buy it to get my visual jollies; because it turns me on. After the fact, I get into justifying what I have done, what I have made, but all that blah, blah, blah, all that text, those big, intellectual arguments aren’t on my mind at any time when I am actually making photographs or creating digital composites. It’s all after-the-fact justification.


December 27, 2007


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:41 am

I currently have two computers on which I make my composite images. One is older and is full. It has six drives, about 1.25 terabytes of disk space and it is stuffed. The second is fairly new (bought last February) and has about 1.75 tb of space. It’s about a quarter full.

Today, it occurred to me that the DVD backups of the stuff on computer number one are getting old (some are about four years old) so I should make fresh ones. So, I turn on that machine, and then realize that I am talking about burning almost 80+ DVDs if I do just the completed composites, never mind all the RAW source files.

I don’t like external drives, but I may have to go that route. The problem is only going to get worse, at the rate I am making new pictures. This is ridiculous.

What to Leave In: What to Leave Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:33 am

I have four quotes for you, all taken from an essay called “Where the Rabbit Warms Its Belly: On the Relationship between Photography and Painting in the Digital Age” by Thomas Wagner that is in the book “How You Look at It: Photographs of the 20th Century” (which I got for $2.50 (!) from Daedalus books many years ago).

The first quote introduces the two that follow. The second and third quotes stand in opposition, and I will give them without comment for you to consider:

1) “Wolfgang Kemp has identified two conflicting attitudes to the problem. Did that wealth of detail — which was no less than the saturation of the images with particles of reality — conform to the criteria for a work of art which were valid at the time [19th century], or did photography’s capacity for faithful detail discredit the medium in artistic terms?”

2) “The painter Eugene Delacroix could state definitively: “Great artists concentrate our interest by excluding extraneous or  senseless detail.” He sees photography’s infinite capacity for detail as unartistic. He understands the unity of a picture to be the product of the artist’s  selection and transformation of his material. Art only comes into being when the viewer’s eye is guided and ceases to wander aimlessly from detail to detail, for this concentration and blurring corresponds to the way we perceive nature.”

3) [now referring to John Ruskin*] “… Ruskin thus calls true details “talkative details,” which communicate something about the history of the objects and are therefore significant signs and not random, trivial marks. Ruskin also subscribed to the thesis that nature disposes of an endlessly detailed and at the same time informative language, which the artist must recapture, “if necessary, against the demands of the picture.”
        It is such “talkative details” that structure the space of redundancy, and not the artist’s arbitrary interpretative intrusion in his material. The detail is therefore what is attractive in a mostly uniform picture space, a charming and inevitable fact that eludes the viewer’s control. Detail, Roland Barthes stresses, is “something” that rings a bell, that produces “a tiny shock” in the beholder.”

*Mr. Ruskin apparently was not quite prepared for *all* details. Scroll down this page to find out what caused him more than “a tiny shock”.



One last quote from Mr. Wagner’s essay (somewhat unrelated to the above), near the end where he is rounding up his discussion of manipulated photographic images, “It is not what is depicted that strikes terror, but that it is possible to depict it.”

December 26, 2007

Subjective Realities

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:49 am

In previous postings, I have been sniping, obliquely, at the photographers shown on the DVD series “Contacts” which purports to show the “world’s greatest contemporary photographers”. Yesterday, I remembered that I own a book (purchased at deep discount from Daedelus books) that includes most of these same photographers, and to which I had the same negative reaction when I got the book a few years ago.

The book is called “Subjective Realities: Works from the Refco Collection of Contemporary Photography”. You may remember that this collection was sold after Refco went into bankruptcy. If you do a Google search, you’ll find that the art community didn’t think much of the quality of the photographs that it included, though, as I’ve said, it has works by almost all of those shown on the DVD series of “great” photographers.

The introduction or forward to this book was written by Dave Hickey. You may be familiar with him as he is a fairly well-known writer on modern art as well as being a professor of art and a curator of art exhibitions. I find his writings interesting and I think I agree with much of what he has to say. Which leaves me confused in finding him writing an introduction to a collection of what I think is the worst kind of current photography. On the other hand, he does avoid direct reference to pictures in the collection, so maybe he just enjoyed the opportunity to be published.

Which finally gets me to the point of this posting. I want to quote rather extensively from what he says in his introduction to “Subjective Realities” because what he says is thought provoking.

“At any given moment, we can identify objects that are not“aesthetic” without really defining what “aesthetic” is. As a consequence, the simplest way of describing such objects (without defining them) is to characterize them as objects in search of  a function — as propositional objects sent into the world, which, should they be fortunate enough to find a function or to find people for whom they have a function, will almost certainly survive whatever importance we might attribute to their subject matter. In this sense, such aesthetic objects function like “wild cards” in the hand that culture deals us. They do what we need them to do in the moment that it needs doing. They make us happy, correct mistakes, right perceived wrongs, remember that which has been forgotten, notice the unnoticed, redirect misguided practices, and fill voids in the contemporary cultural repertoire — blank spaces in the hand that culture deals us that need to be filled.”

[He then goes on to quote Leonard Meyer’s statement or contention that art history is not necessarily linear; that various styles and schools continue to exist simultaneously, rather than one after another.]

“We are describing a delta effect in which a relatively coherent tradition, at a critical moment, splinters; it begins dividing and subdividing, fanning out into a spreading delta of simultaneous tributaries and sub-tributaries, making increasingly delicate distinctions, all moving forward simultaneously along broad historical fronts.”

“… let me suggest that the splintering of photographic practice in the wake of its Modernist apotheosis and the splintering of painting idioms in the mid-nineteenth century derive from similar crises of function. Up until the 1950s photography was regarded as the classic bourgeois medium. It told the truth and was presumed to. One picture was worth a thousand words. Then, after 1950, what we now call “chemical” photography came under pressure from electronic and then digital media. These new technologies demonstrated photography’s artificiality and gradually undermined its claims to telling the “truth.” ”

“This is the moment in which we discovered that the formal virtues of a photograph by Walker Evans were somehow dependent upon our belief that Evans was endowing the truth with elegance. This was the moment, analogous to the moment of Impressionism, at which we stopped trusting photographs and started loving them.”

December 25, 2007

Light Defines Form

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 2:56 pm

I’ve been thinking about this topic for about a week now, and I can’t seem to wrap it up into a neat package. So I’m going to just sketch out the issue and then plan on revisiting it in later postings.

For photographers trying to learn how to make realistic composite images, the single most difficult challenge, the skill that they most totally lack, is how to manually apply light to a scene. I separate lighting into two categories; cast shadows and on-object or self-shadowing. In fact, a shadow is a shadow is a shadow. It’s simply a light deficit relative to the rest of the scene regardless of where it happens to be.

However, when you go about creating lighting, manually, the two categories are profoundly different in technique, importance and in difficulty. Especially in difficulty.

Because the viewer of your pictures usually can’t see the light sources, and can’t see the figures in the round, you have a tremendous amount of creative leeway in how you make your cast shadows. In addition, even an obviously wrong cast shadow doesn’t necessarily wreck a picture.

On the other hand, self-shadowing makes the form on which it is applied (tonally, by you). By that I mean that in a two dimensional picture, the on-object shadowing is, quite literally, the ‘material’ of that shape. Change the shading and your change the form.

Given that one of the rules of compositing (one of my rules, anyway) is that you don’t make composites of anything that could just as easily be done in a ‘straight’ photograph, how does one know what the on-object shadows should be for an invented scene? It’s a conundrum.

You have to start really looking — and really seeing — what light looks like on everything around you. Study all kinds of forms in all kinds of light. This is something that photographers probably think they do all the time when in fact, they never really look at the light or the form. They respond to the light and the form; they don’t understand or know it — because they don’t need to. Photography is emphatically not about ‘making’ anything. It’s about choosing. Even when one works in a studio setting I believe the lighting is usually done by a combination of rote placement and reactive response as opposed to knowing, before the lights are even turned on, what will happen with given light/object combinations.

In addition to really looking at form and light, I would suggest hands-on modeling. You don’t have to make anything, just get some clay and play with form and deformation under different types of light.

Also, if you are (very) comfortable with computers, and have the time and desire, 3D modeling applications can be instructive in the same way as hands-on modeling. Please note that these are absolutely not for computer novices. They make Photoshop look like kindergarten. And most of them are very expensive.

I have experience with Lightwave (don’t particularly like it), Poser (easier but limited to pre-made models), and Rhinoceros (which I love, but have not kept up with). The latter is a NURBS modeler, which means you can make freeform models. It requires the associated Flamingo app for raytrace and radiosity rendering.

Such 3D applications are useful because you can make, light and render imaginary shapes or you can light and render human, (other) animal, or inanimate models in whatever configuration you like. They are also instructive in what fail to do. They never look really real.

If you visit the photorealistic Poser gallery page, notice how even the best human models look fake. Again, this is because the smallest details of self-shadowing make a tremendous difference. Those models don’t have living, changing, responding muscles in their ‘bodies’ and you can tell this by the rigidity of the on-object shading. This is true even of what I believe are the best human model/texture combinations —  which are found at Daz.

For further negative proof of the importance of on-object shading, look at the sample gallery from the Retouch Shoppe which was linked from The Online Photographer, not too long ago. In the After images, notice how ‘homogenous’ the body shading is. They didn’t know how to manually apply lighting according to the anatomy of the reformed image.

Small differences in on-object shadowing make big changes in that objects appearance, and they are changes that are of critical importance to the success of the image.



On a tangent to the above, back (many years ago) when I was really into using Rhino, I used to read their forums (which are excellent). One person posting there was a woman named Bathsheba Grossman who makes sculptures using Rhino. I ended up buying one of her small chrystal sculptures and I really enjoy her stuff. Who else has made a sculpture of the entire universe, or of various protein molecules or of the  “Schwartz’ D Surface (triply periodic minimal surface) truncated to a rhombic dodecahadron”  — ummmmm… yeah, like I know what that is — but it’s very beautiful.

Shadow Test 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:35 am

Time for another test of your understanding of shadows. In the image shown below, think about why the shadow breaks at the point indicated by the blue arrow. Then consider why the shadow crosses over behind its casting object  (red arrow). First it falls to the left of the cord, then it falls to the right. Why? Also consider the shape of the shadow at that point. Why doesn’t its curve match that of the electrical cord?


For extra credit, tell me why there is so little fade in the different shadows throughout the image. Hints: the light source is a single ceiling fixture. The picture was made before dawn, so that was the only light-emitting source. Therefore the great majority of the bounce light is coming from the off-white ceiling around that light fixture. Fade in shadows is a factor of two things; the relative brightness of the secondary light sources and the angular increase in exposure of receiving surfaces to those secondary sources.

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