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Behind the Scene — Gearing Down From Hot Work

January 28, 2014
Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

Today I’d like to share the first in what hopefully will be a new category of posts. Although, in fairness, they probably will be as irregular as just about everything else here. 🙂 I’m calling these posts “Behind the Scene”. In each one, it’s my plan to crack open a photograph of mine and talk about what went into making it. Where I was, what I was thinking, how I went about taking the photograph, how I developed it, how I came to the concept behind the image or the story I’m trying to tell with it… basically anything that went into my creative process that might be interesting to someone.

Why have I decided to do these? The idea came in part from a series of posts I’ve done on the IRIS blog; IRIS is the non-profit photography organization I co-founded in 2012. That series was called “Story Behind the Scene”. Story-telling through photography is a big part of what IRIS is about, and it seems to be well received from the online and real-world feedback we’ve been getting. My purpose here at the Vivid Aspect Photography blog shares some similar interest in story-telling and building appreciation for photography, but here I can cover more of the creative process. Since most people who view a photograph have no idea of the creative process that went into it, I thought perhaps a few case studies would help illustrate things for those who may be interested. There’s a subset of perception about photography that I’ve encountered, that it’s some kind of magical or heroic thing… where master photographers on solitary quests produce fully-formed, amazing works in flashes of muse-inspired brilliance. Sure, it can be like that. But most often it’s not, it’s just a good mix of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration — creativity and lots of hard work. I want to de-mystify things a bit, while also pointing out the areas where a real artist actually does have to bring something to the table other than lucking out with a chance snapshot.

I recognize that there could be a little risk in doing this. Some people may have some sort of vested interest in the “hero photographer” concept, and might consider it slanderous to talk about the process and how much of it is just working away at something. Some photographers who labour under various “purist” senses of what photography is — and more often, what it isn’t — may not like my description of how I go about things. A few other people who aren’t photographers may have a simple, even idealized expectation of what photography is and likewise may be confused or annoyed if my description doesn’t jive with the way they think things are, or should be. That’s okay. I’m really writing for people who have a combination of curiosity and open-mindedness about photography as an art form, an end-to-end creative process, and who might like to dialogue about it. If you don’t care, or don’t like what you see, I’m cool with that. You’re welcome to your opinion. But since I’m also welcomed to my opinion and this is my art and my blog, I’ll press on and see where it goes. 🙂

My first “behind the scene” post is for a relatively new photograph — “Gearing Down From Hot Work”. (Or “Gearing Down From Some Hot Work”; I haven’t decided yet whether to keep or discard the word “some” in the title.) The raw materials for this were photographed over a year and a half ago, based on experience seeing (but not photographing) the subject matter for a couple of years prior to that. For various reasons I only just recently took the time to develop this finished photo. And here’s an initial lesson — good work may not hit like a flash of lightning. Something interesting may take years of seeing, thinking, shooting, percolating and working before it finally comes about. Of course, the quick lightning bolt experience sounds a lot more appealing in some ways. But lightning rarely strikes out of a clear blue sky. In an interview I watched recently, award-winning radio producer Ira Glass said this: “I wander around in the rain for a long time until lightning strikes.”

The location of the photograph is the Brazeau Collieries, an abandoned mine site in the small town of Nordegg, Alberta. The mine operation was a successful one, but it closed down in 1955. The 1950’s saw quite a bit of change in several industries that originally had been associated with a wave of Western Canadian expansion from Eastern Canadian (European) interests, in particular the rail and commodities companies. Once things began to go heavily away from coal power towards diesel or other fuels, most of the previous century’s coal industry collapsed, aside from heavy coal-fired electricity generation plants that remain today. The Brazeau Collieries has been abandoned for decades but is more or less intact as the industrial operation existed on its final day of operation. Under the oversight of Alberta’s Clearwater County and the Nordegg Historical Society, the mine exists today as a registered historic site, and can be toured with permission, either as a casual visitor or for photography.

I’ve been to the site numerous times, and really enjoy it. It’s a fascinating place for anybody interested in the history of industry in Alberta. And for photographers who work with industrial subjects, it’s a smorgasbord of photographic opportunity. One thing that fascinated me from the beginning was the seemingly infinite source of details in the heavy iron technology used to engineer this site — seemingly low-tech by today’s standards, but nevertheless exactingly designed and operated for its day. Nowhere are those details more evident than in the briquette processing plant, where ground-down coal was heated, mixed with a tar-like binder, cooled again, and then pressed into briquettes. I can only imagine that the workers in this plant would have had to deal with a tremendous amount of heat, noise, vibration, grime and so on.

From those few facts came the idea behind what eventually turned into this photograph. I wanted to show something of the heavy iron of the place, also show the engineering details that went into it, but also somehow tell the story of the “hot work” that would have been going on. And because the site closed down nearly 50 years ago, I wanted a visual style related to the vintage nature of the scene.

Vintage came first, and was a pretty straight forward decision. All my portfolio images from the Brazeau Collieries so far are done as lightly sepia-toned black & white renditions. They’re cropped to a 4×5 aspect ratio which I really like. I take it from large format film; even though I shoot digital and never worked with film, I find the 4×5 / 8×10 aspect ratio has an appealing visual solidity to it that stills allows me to frame a scene either horizontally or vertically. In my B&W style, I often also do some other things such as corner blurring & softening, partly as a compositional device to channel the viewer towards something more important, away from the corners.

Showing heavy iron, engineering details and telling the story of the hot work was a bit more challenging, and it took me awhile to find some elements that I thought could work. The first part I knew I needed was a place where some kind of machinery would be exposed in a way that I could frame it as a close-up, stripping out all of the surrounding details. I found it in sets of gears, wheels and springs of the 4 heavy coal briquette presses. These big iron elements convey, at least to me, a combination of sheer massiveness but also precise design, like might be found in a timepiece. That’s a good visual contrast to work with, so I was set to start framing up the shot. Eventually I chose an angle that emphasized graceful curves of the heavy iron, and also put some repeating patterns in prominent placement.

Right away I had some challenges to work with even to get test shots going, because the particular briquette press I wanted to work with was more towards the centre of this area of the plant floor, and it was very dark there. Hardly any light hit the surfaces, and the shadows were super deep. I photograph with a Pentax 645D for this kind of work, and this is a medium digital format camera that isn’t great at low light / high ISO photography. I needed to get more light on the subject. But even in doing so, I’d still have very deep shadows to contend with. But in fact this was desirable for visual design, because I wanted strong contrast between shadows and highlights to emphasize the geometric shapes of the machinery.

To get the extra light, I set up a couple of small battery-powered LED light panels. I put one closer in, shining almost straight up, to provide strong light and sharp-edged shadows on the bottom surfaces of the machinery. I put a second panel a bit farther away and higher up, to the right of the camera, to provide gentler fill-in light over the surfaces. This gave me a way to reveal the three-dimensional nature of the shapes by playing with light & shadow.

As predicted, the contrast range was very strong, with bright highlights and extremely pitch-black shadows. Because I usually plan on doing a lot of “digital darkroom” development work — even in cases where I don’t end up doing it, I still usually plan for it up front — I captured multiple exposures of the scene, 5 of them in total. Going from dark to middle to bright exposures gave me several digital frames with decent detail everywhere from shadows to highlights. I later blended these frames using a digital technique called High Dynamic Range (HDR). I really think of HDR as “high fidelity” photography; it lets me capture colour and contrast — light, in essence — equally well, everywhere from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows. Then when I’m in my digital darkroom environment, I can decide how to develop the light into the final photograph that I want to create, and not worry that I didn’t capture enough of the original light on the scene.

So let’s recap quickly. At this point I have a concept, which is to show big iron machinery with engineering details, that somehow tells the story of doing hot work in a mine operation that was shut down almost 5 decades before. I addressed most of these goals in what I’d done so far to find, frame and capture my photographic subject material. What I had left to do is tell the story of doing the hot, heavy work. Part of the story comes from the patina of coal/tar grime and rust covering the surfaces, which says we’re not looking at a nice, new, antiseptic office environment for the workers of the day. But I needed something more.

Sometimes I clearly see important supports for my story-telling goals in advance, or in the field while I’m photographing. But in this case I didn’t have it all up front. At the time I made the raw photographs, I wasn’t sure how I was going to communicate things like heat, vibration, noise… the sheer physical din of a heavy industrial site at the peak of its operation. After all, today it’s dark, still and silent. How can I show something in a photograph when it isn’t there in reality? This is where creativity comes in, and where photography can show something more than reality. Fortunately, inspiration can strike at any time in the creative process, in my experience. It’s a myth that artists are struck with every bolt of inspiration in advance, before they’ve ever set finger to shutter, pen to paper, or brush to canvas. I say creativity can come anywhere at any time, and being ready & able to respond to it effectively is the most important thing.

So, in this case, I didn’t twig to a way to show the idea of “hot work” until late in my process of working up this photograph as a B&W scene. It came when I realized that my combination of narrow, strong light from below combined with all the splotches of rust on the aging metal, could be used as I converted the photograph from its original colours into monochrome. By filtering how each range of colour translates into tones of pure grey, the viewer’s impression of the final scene can be guided. In this case, I filtered the B&W conversion such that reddish colours were converted to bright tones which made those parts of the image quite bright; and this could be interpreted as being very hot. Lit from below, it almost looks like this machinery is poised over a glowing cauldron of molten metal which has splashed up onto the gears and springs. True, that’s mixing my metaphors because this is a coal mine rather than a steel mill, but visually I think it works.

There were a number of other details in my finishing work, but I won’t go into them all here, this time. Suffice it to say for those who are interested in the technical stuff, I do a bunch of tonality adjustments that are similar to Tony Kuyper style luminosity mask curves adjustments, plus I do some layer blending to augment the contrast work that my HDR process does for me.

Having gone through the exercise in visual design and development of the image, I came to the final piece — the title of the photograph. I knew “hot work” was involved, but that didn’t seem like enough. Because the large, geared wheel is so prominent in the composition, I was playing around with phrases like “gearing up”, “getting in gear”, “slipping a gear”… but none of those worked. Finally I realized that since the mine was abandoned, what had happened was that the place had “geared down”. There I had it — Gearing Down From Hot Work.

As I said up top, this is a recent work. I’m calling it finished, but is it perfect? It’s hard to say — “perfect” compared to what? Having now tussled around with this particular exercise in visual story-telling, there are some things I wish were different or better about it. To deal with them I’d need to go back, refine my vision of and response to the subject matter at the scene, and re-shoot. Even just taking this particular photograph by itself, is it finished? Maybe. Probably. But maybe not, since I’m sure I could find more things to tweak to make it “better”. However, I’m reminded of this quote — “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” It’s often misattributed to Leonardo da Vinci, but it looks like the real source was probably French author Paul Valéry. So even if this particular piece isn’t done yet, it will have to be abandoned… which will let me go on to the next one. 🙂

If you’re interested in visual story-telling, photographing old industrial sites, learning HDR photo technique, or all of the above, I’ll be a guest instructor at a photography workshop that may interest you. From May 29 – June 1, my good friends and colleagues Samantha Chrysanthou and Darwin Wiggett of oopoomoo are putting on the “Coal Mines, Canyons and Canadian Rockies” workshop. We’ll introduce a small group to the Brazeau Collieries mine site, the surrounding front ranges of the Canadian Rockies in David Thompson Country, and our techniques for working with HDR. Click this link for details on how to join us!

Have you got an opinion on this first “behind the scene” post? What do you think about the creative process as it applies to photography — is everything fair game, should it all be done “in the camera”, or something else? How much technique is too much, and when do you know? Should anyone care about the creative process, or is the final product the only thing that counts? Is this post a case of TMI or tl;dr? 🙂 Comments welcomed…

P.S. To wrap things up, for comparison purposes, I’ll show a before & after example. Here’s a progression of versions of the image starting from a single frame captured in the camera, through several intermediate stages, to the final rendition.

The single darkest frame before anything is done, pretty much “as is” right out of the camera:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The darkest single original frame.

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The darkest single original frame.

After HDR work, cropping and a few very simple things have been done to the colour version:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The basic colour photograph, following HDR work.

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The basic colour photograph, following HDR work.

After some further tonal adjustments to the colour version, to bring a little more contrast and darken the mood:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The colour photograph with baseline tonal adjustments.

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The colour photograph with baseline tonal adjustments.

After the basic conversion from colours to shades of grey:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The initial conversion of colour to monochrome.

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The initial conversion of colour to monochrome.

The finished version, with final tonal adjustments, corner vignetting, sepia toning and other finishing work applied to the B&W conversion:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

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