SILHOUETTES

March 05, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

                            BLUE OAK - FINAL IMAGE

This week I'd like to devote a little time to the graphic impact of using silhouettes in your imagery  by investigating several of my images. I could have chosen several more because I frequently use this strategy, either by noticing it in the field, or by later manipulating exposure in post-processing.

Silhouette is defined as an image represented as a single color, usually black, set against a uniform background, usually white - what would be called a two-bit image in digital speak, just undifferentiated black and white. The only detail is the definition of the boundary. Originally silhouettes were simple portraits, whose contours could represent a subject without detail, and were first cut out of black paper. They traditionally differed from a line drawing of the contour of an object by focusing on it's mass, with no attention to it's inner makeup. As photography developed as an art form, the silhouette broadened in definition to any image that was backlit, with varying degrees of detail in the  parts of the subject in shadow. Also accommodation with the real world allowed for different colored backgrounds for silhouettes as well as white. The emphasis remained on the graphic description of a subject. Amateurs frequently encountered silhouettes due to messing up their exposures because they forgot the "rule" of making sure the sun was to their back; it was left to artists to decide they sometimes actually liked these mistakes.

This first image happened on a walk near Portland's Central Library. It's an example of "Portlandia" in that the subject is what we call a "Century Tree", cited and protected as an honored citizen because it's been here for at least one hundred years. That's not bad since the entire city was an old-growth forest when it was founded 172 years ago in 1849. So trees like this have been here since almost the beginning, and thus get a small plaque somewhere if you take the time to look. There are also "Century Farms" and loads of unacknowledged Century Houses like the one I'm sitting in, which is part of Portland's charm, in that a very young city has a large stock of houses older than ones found back East in older cities.

I was struck by the incredible intricacy of the Oak, characteristic of natural design and only simulated by something an artist would conceive because they feared it would seem too contrived. I also loved the characteristic Portland sky, blue and white, with maybe a bit more blue than usual. My exposure more or less deliberately concentrated on this sky, rendering the tree mostly without detail.

More or less? I didn't realize how correct, or incorrect my exposure actually was at the time. In order to get any detail in the tree, with the sun to my back, I have had to overexpose by four full stops to get this pretty pathetic rendering here. Yes, the tree has texture, and a lot of ivy that probably should be cleared, but who really cares? The image has lost everything that made it special.

Here I've converted it to monochrome, and as usual it is a matter of taste. There is still no detail in the tree, but without the color even more emphasis on the convoluted shapes, and you might convince yourself you can pick out the pesky ivy. It also seems obvious that you could replace the real sky with almost any color you wanted, depending on your placement on the realistic/graphic continuum.

                            THE THIRD MAN - FINAL VERSION

Another example of a silhouette shows that some detail in the subject is allowable, given the overall power of a recognizable shape. One evening my camera club was allowed to stay after closing at Oaks Park, an historic Portland amusement park. I discovered several things that night , including the fact that there are a few houses still there that have only the river and the park as their neighbors, making for a very quiet neighborhood, at least at night. My favorite scene was this view of the old Ferris wheel; the shape is so recognizable that it is immediatly decipherable, no matter how much detail is present or how much of the wheel I've left out. The small amount of detail left does not detract from the overall graphic image. I swear the sunset gold is reality, even though you might be forgiven if you thought this was a black and white image with a sepia tone.

                            VENICE SILHOUETTE - FINAL IMAGE

Here is another silhouette, whose weird color range and chromatic abberation - notice those weird outlines at the edges - can only be the fault of the camera operator. I have no idea where those colors came from, and realize the amount of noise is unconscionable, but I still like the image. It says more about Venice to me than most of my other images - this is my interpretation of the Doges Palace, which is featured on most visits to Venice, and it's very graphic quality appeals to my love of the mysterious.

I think we can all admit that the massively underexposed image, the final version, is vastly superior to the merely underexposed original. The murky details of the facade add nothing - it is just a reject, even though the square crop, already applied is a vast improvement on the real original!

Well I've no eliminated the colors, that weird orange/pink gradient; again a matter of taste. The chromatic aberration is gone of course in a black and white photo - it now seems to just be a little out of focus.r

                                     COASTAL SHADOWS - FINAL VERSION

Here we have a characteristic view of my wife, forging ahead on a coastal hike due to her husband's insatiable need to take yet another shot of Haystack Rock. Taking a "proper" exposure of the backlit scene renders her in silhouette. Of course only she, me, and maybe her son and a few of our friends know that is Fran, which makes it pretty useless as a portrait - but I've sold numerous copies of this image as an Oregon Coast poster, because that generic silhouette and its shadow can represent every visitor's walk on the coast. Any details would just destroy the illusion.

Would you like to purchase a bridge? This original is one of my attempts to take a "different" image of the Brooklyn Bridge, something we can all aspire to even if we know it's pretty impossible. Now the amount of detail in this image immediatly made me wonder how I can so consistently "blow" an exposure, and what might happen if I would use that to my advantage.

eNow I am lying here, because if you pay strict attention to the clouds you can see that this is somehow a different image, although it is really the same one. I've converted to black and white, and all detail in the silhouette is gone - but somehow the image seems very realistic, and now timeless, since it could have been taken on pretty much every day since 1883.

BROOKLYN BRIDGE 1                                                                BROOKLYN BRIDGE - FINAL VERSION

I have lightened the exposure to brighten the image and make it even more graphic while still not revealing any unwanted detail in the tower. Again, every New Yorker or anyone who has ever had the pleasure to walk across the bridge knows exactly what they are looking at.

Finally, I would like to propose the concept of the "reverse silhouette." Not a negative per se, but the placing of a light object against a dark background. This is very popular with portraits, and your new iPhone can even do it on its own in "portrait" mode. But it can even happen in landscapes.

                                      INTO THE WOODS - FINAL VERSION

My rendering of the St. Johns Bridge is yet another attempt to try something different, although how different is subject to interpretation. I am such a bad businessman that it took me three years before I put this image in my booth - I would just send customers to the colleague at the market who I thought had the best current version. Finally I gave in and sold 38 coasters in three weeks. It's different for only a few reasons, and not very important ones. Most photographers seem to  take the shot facing North against the sky, or include both towers. Young, intrepid, and foolish photographers achieve symmetry by standing in the middle lane, risking death from both directions by passing semis - I've been told you can certainly time it, but one lane was good enough for me. Finally, and don't hate me, I just don't like the beloved bridge's shade of green! So black and white it was, and is, and if you want a color shot, there are usually half a dozen other photographers at the Market who will be happy to help you. But it is not my stubbornness, no matter how legendary, that makes me love this image - it is the way that it shows that how well reverse silhouette, with lots of detail, can still pop out of a dark background. The documentary shot, with it's bridge green against the forest green, would lose all of the punch.

I would encourage all of you to give silhouettes a try as a way of creating unique images that your eyes and brain, with their ability to perceive far more tonal gradients than our sophisticated cameras, just do not see. Let your camera create those "bad" exposures.

 

 


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