The shit I get up to

So let me tell you a little story, which will not only illustrate what it takes to compose a specific photo, but presents the question of how much of this is creativity with attention to detail, and how much is pointless obsession ;-)

The previous post was a book review that had been started, as I said, many years ago and I somehow didn’t get around to finishing it – it just kept getting pushed aside, and I usually find enough to post about in the photographically productive months. So as winter rolled in this year, I decided to finalize it (the bulk had been written long ago,) and get it out to help flesh out the lack of photo subjects. This meant I needed the cover illustration, and it certainly deserved a staged, thematic one. What to do, what to do…?

I had a couple of ideas that required sand, for the desert climate depicted therein, but there are not a lot of choices for sand nearby, and right about the time I was thinking of this, we were in the midst of repeated, torrential rains; this meant that those sandy areas, all waterside, were actually submerged and would remain so for a few days, whereupon the rains took up again and resubmerged them. Fine.

Then I settled on the rock and bullroarer props. Now, a bullroarer isn’t a hard thing to depict, but it does take a shaped plank of some kind, and we have no such things ready at hand here; scrap wood is very limited. I kept it in the back of my mind for days, even looking for one when I was out collecting some driftwood (at one of those submerged-sand locations,) to no avail. Nertz.

Eventually, I recalled some thin laminate wood sheathing scraps and unearthed one. Too thin for the real thing, but a lot more realistic than a piece of cardboard, and I did some rough shaping with a saw to give it a ‘raw’ outline, then sanded the edges with a palm sander to take away any idea of it being a wood sheet. But it was still white pine in color, not at all like an old and weathered bullroarer, so I first tried staining it with tea, but that was very weak. Then it got a wash of the local red clay and allowed to sit for an hour, but that gave it only a hint of deeper color, so I finally mixed a little acrylic paint, thinned well with water, and stained it that way. Much better.

I attempted, twice, to emboss/etch a simplistic rendition of The Luggage (look it up if you need to) onto the surface, but the first one vanished under the absorbed teawater, and the second, done after the paint stain, was at the wrong light angle to show up. More on that in a bit.

The rock. Finding one with a reasonably flat side in our very own backyard, I set it aside to have the graphic painted on it, and while I’m here I have to excuse that; if you’ve read the book, you might find it a reasonable representation, but if you haven’t, it’s going to look like a childish doodle, because it was. Unless you know the passage, don’t judge my artistic skills. Yet before I made it even that far, we got into the rainy season, and painting the rock had to wait. Multiple times.

Eventually (yesterday, actually,) I lugged it up to my desk for this little adornment, discovering in the process that it weighed 25 kilograms! Sheesh. I did the graphic, found it to be a bit too distinct, and roughed it over with a brass brush. Much better. Lugged it back outside, now with the bullroarer, book, and camera in hand (okay, it took multiple trips.)

Now I needed a raw earth spot for the outback conditions. I raked out a few likely areas, finding most of them too damp (see the bits above about rain,) but settled on a spot under the overhanging porch that was mostly dry and in the right sun angle. Setting the rock down, I found that one of the flat sides (actually, I think it’s a chunk of concrete from an old foundation) tipped it too far forward for best effect, so I then got out the spade and created a hollow for it to lean backwards into. Some of the dirt was used around the base to fill in the gaps and make it look properly buried, but eventually the book and bullroarer covered these anyway. By the way, I also had to pat down the entire area by hand to eradicate the rake marks – tried simply stepping on it but that left footprints. One of my original ideas had involved bare footprints, but it’s not the weather to be tripping around barefoot.

Took the book and propped it on a dead leaf to keep it out of the dampness, adjusting the angle on the rock until it looked right. Set the bullroarer and string (had to unearth a bit of raw twine too, because it needed to look native) in photogenic positions. We had bright sunlight yesterday, which was also crucial of course – I’d had to wait for that too – but naturally my shadow couldn’t be in the shot. Neither could the trunk of a tree in the backyard, so I waited for the sun to track across the sky enough to move the shadow out of the way, and had lunch in that time.

The book is, naturally, slick and shiny, so the bright sunlight produced very bright reflections from the cover, and I had to shift angles a couple of times to not obscure the actual writing thereon in those highlights – you can see that they’re still there, but at an acceptable level. I point these out because shadows and reflections are often the things that people miss when photographing, and if you’re doing any kind of professional or promo work, you have to be acutely aware of them. I tried a few different contrast and saturation settings while this was all set up, then came in to unload the card.

Two frames made it into the final options, and I settled on the one you see because the composition just seemed stronger – it may be hard to consider that there’s any composition at work here, but the angle of the rock and book, and how the book, bullroarer, and graphic all fit together is subtle but present nonetheless. I boosted saturation slightly on my final choice, and dubbed out a few stray green leaves that had made it into the frame – thankfully, I caught nothing of the porch supports and collected objects that sat within a meter of my setting. If you look hard, there’s one stray bit of the ubiquitous pinestraw in the frame (I had obsessively raked and picked it out, mostly because it didn’t belong in the setting, but also because I hate it,) yet it’s subtle enough that no one would place it as an anachronism.

Yes, I was aware, the entire time, of putting a lot of effort into a simple illustration, solely for a book review, on an obscure blog that you’re not even reading. And now I’m writing about it in detail. But here’s the thing: illustrations, the visual aspect, stick with people, forming impressions and establishing conditions, and if you choose to illustrate something, doing it right is almost paramount. There was a certain challenge in not just realizing my ‘vision,’ as it were, but it attempting to produce a photo that would match the conditions in the book as accurately as possible (but yes, I probably should have gone with the sand.) It was as much proof to myself that I could illustrate the book as it was intended for the readers here. While bullroarers were/are ceremonial in the culture referenced and thus frequently painted or adorned, the one in the book was blank and unmarked (though I attempted the etching of The Luggage that never got the necessary sun angle to be seen, but that was subtle enough to slip past as artistic license, in my opinion.) And even as I finished that little figure on the rock, I asked The Girlfriend what it looked like and she immediately gave the correct answer, so I feel vindicated by that to a small extent. This is what I wanted it all to look like, so in that, I was successful; whether it’s a good representation or impression of the book is up to someone more objective than I to determine.

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I have to throw this down here, because if not here, then where? But many, many years ago I tossed out a quick, impulsive joke, with the necessary voices, entitled “Crocodile Dundee meets Mad Max:

Dundee: That’s not a knife…

Max: You’re right – it’s a shotgun.

And I only point this out because, in the book, Pratchett did the exact same joke! Well, okay, with a small cultural change.

Also, for giggles I tried out my bullroarer and it really does work, a little, but needs to be much heavier for best results. No, the ladies didn’t hear it.