Wednesday, April 1, 2015

White Seamless

I was a still life photographer. People sought me out and hired me because of my creative vision. If you wanted a photograph of a product - say a shoe - and you needed that shoe to be elevated through use of lush fabrics, rich colors and a keen sense of composition, you would call me. If you wanted to infuse the shoe story with a sense of humor, fun and quirkiness, then you'd also dial my number. You either liked my work, or you didn't.

Notice that I wrote dial and call, not text, email, or Facebook message. This was the late eighties and nineties. You spent a lot of time on the phone back then.

If you wanted something very straightforward, just a really simple, conventionally lit shoe, then you'd dial someone else's number. There were people who did this very well. It would behoove you to call one of them.

The photographers who did this really well had some things in their studio to help them. They had rolls and rolls of white seamless paper. If memory serves me correctly, it came in 9-foot rolls and 5-foot rolls. It would be propped up against the studio walls.

The photographers would unfurl the white seamless and they would have a perfect, clean, anonymous surface for the product shot. They'd employ multiple light sources and these reflector cards.

I might not have been a fan of white seamless at first, but I always loved reflector cards. I like to think of my still life photographs as very beautiful, but what my audience didn't see were the reflector cards, propped up at jaunty angles, sometimes precariously, around the perimeter.

I'd check carefully to make sure that none of them were in the frame. There was nothing more embarrassing than having a gorgeously crafted photo with a reflector card peeking in at the edge. The reflector cards were genius at getting rid of the harsh shadows I hated. If a corner of the photograph were receding into a dull shadow, the reflector card would bring that right up. If I wanted the texture of my crushed velvet or handmade paper backgrounds to come forward, instead of stuck in the murky shade, the reflector cards would fix that situation.

When I was first starting out, I refused any assignment that did not meet with my creative vision. After a while, I realized this was silly. Sometimes an art director needed something straight forward done very quickly and all the other photographers they liked were booked. I'd do the assignment on white seamless. It was fun being so minimalist once in a while. It was fun getting that product to look like it was floating in whiteness. It was fun earning a paycheck while pursuing more high-minded work.

I took ballet lessons for many years. I was not destined to be an elite ballerina. Still, I learned a thing or two. When I enter a room so quietly and gracefully that I startle people, or notice my ears over shoulders over hips carriage in a mirror, I always say the same thing. You can take the girl out of ballet, but you can't take the ballet out of the girl. And so it is with photography.

I haven't done still life photography for clients for a very long time. The pictures I take now are very different. I'm usually outside.

I'm writing this on the heels of a very snowy winter. I think it's over, but I can't be sure.

I was going about my day about a month ago. I was walking outside from one place to the other. I was noticing some lovely things happening with freshly fallen snow. I took a moment or two to examine the flowerbeds near my building.

The light was very calm and even due to the cloudiness of the day. This was very pleasing. I took some photographs.

As I was riding the train, the experience had a sense of the familiar that was hard to put my finger on. Later, it came to me while I was doing something else. The experience I had in the flower beds reminded me of commercial still life photography. The entire winter reminded me of commercial still life photography. It reminded me of white seamless. It reminded me of reflector cards.

I like having fresh snow around for several reasons.

Things that are beautifully shaped might fade into the background of grey and green and brown when there isn't snow. When there is snow, many things get covered up. But the things that are lovely that are not covered up have a white sweep. They get to be the star. They get to be, in the 1970s still life parlance that much preceded me - the hero.

The seamless effect would only be apparent with brand new snow. Even if it didn't get dirty later, older snow takes on a more pebbly and granular texture. This patina has a way of announcing itself. It's great for some pictures. Just not for the ones I'm talking about today.

Soft, new, light, non-reflective, not dampened down - that is hero-making snow.

The diffuse, cloudy light that is so common in the winter is a gift. It's bright enough to agree with the iPhone camera at the same time that it is softened up and forgiving. It's even better than the translucent material called Toughspun that I used to put over my lights in three layers, as a professional.

The Hero

There is less color around outside in the winter. But there is some.  A good, outdoor, colorful subject in the winter is a sight to behold. It can be a good subject for me.

There is a bit of magic that happens along the edges of my photographs with so much snow around. Brand new snow is best, but any old snow will do. If there is enough snow on the ground it will serve as a giant reflector for my subjects. The shadows are filled in. The colors become saturated. There is better color separation. The snow isn't in the photograph. But it contributes.

I work quickly. The same gift of snow that pretties up my subjects brings harsh temperatures and cold fingers. I decide on things fast. Sometimes a strong gust will blow my photography materials around in ways that are hard to anticipate. I'm prepared to get what I need in one take. Variations are a luxury the winter doesn't always allow.

I didn't invent snow. I didn't invent white seamless paper, Toughspun, or reflector cards. I did connect the dots.  Sometimes you go to the photography store to get what you need. Other times it falls from the sky. It's in the recognition. It's in making your move before it’s gone.

The snow outside of the frame served as giant reflectors, intensifying the colors, softly filling the shadows and casting a brilliant glow.

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