Years ago I joined a group called Utata – a group of photographers, writers, and like-minded folks who enjoy lively discussion and creating and promoting art. Utata has several ongoing projects as well as two big annual projects. At the time I joined I was almost exclusively doing aerial photography from a kite, so I found myself unable – or to be truthful, unwilling – to participate in many of the projects. One in particular, the Iron Photographer, routinely kicked my butt.
The Iron Photographer project is modeled along the same lines as Iron Chef: All of the participants are given the same three elements to work with – two compositional and one artistic or calling for a specific technique – and are asked to create new, original works. On the face of it it’s a welcome challenge for any photographer. But if you’re limiting yourself to creating only aerial landscapes it’s less of a challenge and more of an impossibility. Take, for example Iron Photographer 211. The elements were: 1 – a bowl; 2 – something broken; 3 – photographed simply. You can make an aerial photograph that would qualify, but it would be a mighty tall order. I quickly became frustrated and stopped participating.
The lesson I didn’t learn back then was this: bend a little. The whole idea of Iron Photographer is to knock people out of their comfort zone and get them to put their thinking caps on. I staunchly refused and missed out on a lot of opportunities to have fun with a camera.
After a three year dry-ish spell I’m finally starting to get back into photography. This time not all of it is aerial. I figured I’d give Iron Photographer another try. I started with IP 212. The elements are: 1 – the photographer’s hand resting on a flat surface; 2 – an object resting in the palm of the hand; 3 – holga-fied. The only element I needed clarification on was that third one. The idea is to make it look as if the photograph came out of a Holga camera. I don’t own one, so I downloaded Holgarizer – a Photoshop action that would produce a similar result.
The Iron Photographer projects make you think. Yeah, I could’ve done a set of photos of my hand on a table with various objects in it. But where’s the fun in that? Better to ask why my hand is lying on a flat surface. Which flat surface is it lying on? What is sitting in my palm? And who chose to make the photograph? Of course for the requirements of the project it must be the owner of the hand. But from the standpoint of the narrative all of these are open-ended questions.
The first idea that sprang to mind felt cliché even before I made the photograph, but I made it anyway.
It’s not a happy picture. I wanted it to look like a crime scene: a dingy floor, the weak greenish glow of fluorescent lights, a pallid cast to the skin, and stark shadows outlining someone’s final act. In fact I’d just scrubbed the floor clean so I wouldn’t contaminate my prescription medication. The lighting was all provided by daylight-balanced strobes. And I’m actually pretty tan at the moment. But who’s keeping tabs? The only really stressful moment came when I started to clean up and realized I’d misplaced one of my pills. As tiny as these things are, they’d be lethal to my cats. I spent the time to track down every single one.
Then, of course, I saw that another participant in IP212 had come up with the same idea. Darn!
That’s when I started to wonder: Did the owner of the hand have to be the one who put the object in it? When I figured out the answer was “no” the idea for the next photograph came to mind. I opened the door to my daughter’s room and said, “Wanna be a totalitarian? Grab your boots!”
Of all of the events that mark the passing from childhood to adulthood, one my daughter celebrated with no small amount of gusto was the successful completion of her last high school PE class. She proudly announced that her only reason for wearing tennis shoes to school was null and void, and that she wanted combat boots. She and Rydra picked out a pair that would make any real princess proud.
“Ok,” I told her. “I’m gonna lie down on the ground outside, and you’re going to stand on me.”
Stunned silence. “What?!”
Even I had to admit she had a point. But once I described the photo to her she got into the swing of things.
It took a while to work out the balance of the lights. Then it took a while to work out the best angle for my arm. Then it took a while for us to work out how she had to stand so it looked like she was bringing all her weight to bear on me without actually crushing my hand under her heel. In the end she wound up with one boot on and one boot off, standing en pointe on one sock-covered foot while squishing my hand with her booted heel. Early on she was tripping the shutter, but the contortions she was having to go through were more painful than what she was doing to my hand. We switched to a self-timer for the final few frames.
Though the Iron Photographer project lets you tag up to six photos for submission, you’re only really supposed to post one to the discussion forum. I chose this one. This becomes important later.
I had a couple of other ideas I wanted to try, but by this time I realized my first two photos were real downers. Despite the smiles and the laughter and the fun my daughter and I had making The Regime, I knew that no one looking at it would feel anywhere near as upbeat as we did. So I set morbid aside and went after something different.
The challenge called for something to be in the palm of the hand. It didn’t say that it had to be a physical object, just that something had to be there. I thought it would be neat to put something less tangible than a physical object in my hand. “I know!” I thought, “Light!”
I went through a couple of iterations on this one: I could have a beam of light coming out of my hand. (I might still try that one at some point, but not as part of this IP.) I could make the palm of my hand glow. The idea I finally settled on was to have an object in my hand influence light rather than generate it: a prism.
Years ago I worked in a lab that etched diffraction gratings into silicon using MEMS techniques. It was kind of a one man show, so I was responsible for the photolithography, the anisotropic etching setup, maintaining the safety and materials in the lab, characterizing the gratings we were making, etc. I also photographed the bejeebers out of everything we did on color transparency film. To see how much power went into each order of the gratings we were making we aimed lasers at them and measured the power in each of the return beams. It was an important step in characterizing the gratings. But it made for an even better photograph.
Each photograph was done as a single long-exposure frame. I’d turn off all the lights in the room, open the shutter, “paint” out the beams using a business card or some other flat white object (my hand stood in a couple of times), then turn on the lights for the prescribed amount of time and close the shutter. As painstaking as it sounds, once you got into a routine it went pretty quickly.
I used the same technique with the prism.
Even having used the technique, it took awhile to work out the details for this photo. Initially I illuminated the prism from the side. But the human palm isn’t all that flat. The prism kept rolling toward my fingers, directing the outgoing beam into the table or some other part of my hand. And painting a beam that’s going toward the camera is tough if you’re using a business card. The camera’s looking at the back side of the card! Eventually I figured out I should place the laser under the camera, and aim it back toward my hand. This gave me a way to see how well aligned the prism was to the beam: put the reflected light back into the laser’s aperture. It also made painting the foreground beam a lot easier since the camera could see the illuminated side of the card.
The difficulty was the outgoing beam. No matter what I did, the prism moved around in time with my heartbeat. You can see it as tiny wiggles in the painted beam. I could’ve Photoshopped that out, but where’s the fun in that?
Since that’s my own hand there on the table, I really didn’t have the option of turning on the room lights at the requisite time. Instead I set up a single strobe and a shoot-through umbrella up and to camera right. I kept the wireless transmitter handy on the table. Once I’d painted the beam I triggered the strobe and closed the shutter. It worked like a charm.
For my last IP212 photo I wanted to make something of a visual pun. The two compositional elements were a hand resting on a flat surface and an object resting in the hand. What if the object in the hand was a flat surface? In keeping with the whole optics theme I considered using a mirror, but honestly that’s kind of a boring photo. Besides, I’d already touched on the optics side of what I do for a living. I wanted to touch on the mechanical side, too. What if the flat object in the hand was being made into a flat object? Milling machine!
Before getting into the hows and whys of this I need to point out that I take shop safety very seriously. At no point did I do anything that put my hand or my tooling at risk. The only way to pull that off was to do this as two separate frames – one with the spindle moving and one with it stopped – and combine them.
I milled five of the six sides of this block using the 1″ cutter shown chucked in the mill. I milled the last side halfway, then stopped. Lighting was pretty straightforward: an umbrella in front and to the right, and a stofen bounced off the white wall behind the mill to provide speculars on the block and vise. I brought the spindle down until it was pressing the block into my hand, and made the first exposure. I wanted some motion blur out of the cutter, so I made a second exposure using ambient light, rotating the spindle by hand from above. Once I’d balanced the light between the two in Lightroom, I brought both frames into Photoshop for layering.
While going through the lighting for this a number of other photographs came to mind that didn’t fit into the IP212 requirements, but that nonetheless would make for pleasing photographs of machine work in progress. And that, to me, is the real benefit of taking on Utata projects like the Iron Photographer: The final result isn’t the photographs made for the project. It’s the ideas that the process of thinking through those photographs leaves you with. That’s what I missed out when I joined Utata years ago. I don’t plan on missing out on it again.
To my utter delight, Greg, the moderator who sets up the Iron Photographer challenges, favorited The Regime and wrote a really thoughtful comment on it. This is the first time one of the Utata moderators commented on one of my photos. Even more delightful, Debra Broughton wrote a short piece about it for the front page of the Utata web site and wrote a comment of her own. I admit I banged my forehead on my desk a little at my obtuseness for taking this long to jump into Utata projects with both feet. But thanks to Greg and Debra I did it with a smile.