January 26, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

                                                                  EMPIRE STATE AGLOW

This week I would like to make another foray into my disorganized archives in search of images that I can resurrect through the power of more recent photo processing tools and my improvements in my own technique. I have found that it is well worth the effort to see if I can make something out of an image I have previously ignored or forgotten.

These three images date from 2012, a mere twelve years ago - but which increasingly seems a long, long, time ago. I was an established artist but also unemployed, with all the angst that that implies. Today I am still an established an unknown artist, but I am retired, and in some ways in a lot better economic shape. Amazingly, I am also a grandpa. It is the wider world of course that has seen much more troubling changes, including a worldwide pandemic. Twelve years ago only New Yorker's and reality television fans were aware of an absolute asshole named Donald Trump. In some ways the world seemed a lot simpler in retrospect, and certainly less depressing.

                                                                  EMPIRE STATE, 2012

This first image is a take on the Empire State Building, certainly an iconic image of New York.  I have tried to place it in context, looming above the typical landscape of Manhattan. This shows how the skyscraper can suddenly appear on an ordinary street, similar to the way that Mt. Hood can appear in a quiet Portland moment and cause us all to gasp in wonderment. My snapshot is well composed, in my opinion, but suffers from a way too wide exposure range and an exceedingly boring sky. Even if the Empire State Building is actually kind of brown, we certainly don't think of it that way. Something must be done.

                                                                  EMPIRE STATE, 2024

We are not in Kansas anymore, but this image somehow seems much more realistic even though we know that no matter how dirty New York air can be, the sky is certainly not black during the day. Converting to black and white allows for exposure variants that a color photograph would not support. New advances in Lightroom masking algorithms allow for much easier selections of portions of an image. Thus the program can now easily select the sky, allowing me to underexpose it two stops. Better noise control also enables such a drastic move. The program also recognizes that a certain skyscraper is obviously the "subject" and it's clean selection than allows me to raise it's exposure one stop - now that the building is three stops brighter than the sky, and wonderfully silver instead of brown, it positively glows above the city. Using the good old-fashioned brush tool I raised the shadows in the buildings in the foreground, revealing a little more detail. But that selection also allowed me to cut back on the highlights in that area so that the reflections of the sky in the lower windows would not distract from the skyscraper above. All in all, I am very pleased with the result.

                                                                  DIRECTOR PARK, 2012

This next image also shows the power of exposure in interpreting an image. Twelve years ago I looked down upon a new square in Downtown Portland. Director Park saved us from yet another parking structure, and sported both a fountain to illegally splash in and and a glass pergola to protect us from the rain above.  I took this snapshot from the exterior stair of a neighboring parking garage, taking advantage of a few stories of height to gain a different perspective. But the image was very sloppily composed, dull, and probably seriously underexposed as well. Upon looking through the archives, the only thing that intrigued me was that patio table seemingly caught in a spotlight. Could I make something out of that?

I leapt to a few of my usual strategies. Since I was really only interested in the central table, everything else was easily jettisoned, especially the other two tables that could compete for attention. The upper third of the photograph didn't seem to be making much of a contribution, so it was easy to crop to a square starting from the bottom. Since the color in this color photograph was nearly non-existent, it was also an easy decision to convert to black and white. Black and white allowed for a wider exposure range which enabled me to lower the blacks even further while raising the whites to highlight the table. I felt like my son the scenic designer, manipulating the spotlight to really make sure sure that the audience knew where to look, and the park was now clearly a stage set, with a lone mysterious actor shuffling in from stage left.

                                      ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE, 2024

We leave the city for this last image. In 2012 Fran an I took a hike in the Columbia Gorge to Wachella Falls. This became one of our favorite hikes, and not only because it was beautiful. It is one of the few hikes in the Gorge with very little elevation gain, so you can saunter through the woods without having to climb a mountain disguised with switchbacks. Never take anything for granted, since this trail was one of several sections of the Gorge that was wiped out by a forest fire several years later. It is only a few years now that you can walk this way again.

                                                                 WACHELLA FALLS, 2012

I liked my composition, which highlighted one of the rather large rocks that fell over the decades from the sides of the gorge that the stream created after it plunged down the double waterfall. I felt the image only needed a few tweaks to really make it better. My first move was to subtly crop the image to remove the small portion of sky at the top edge. Woodland scenes, even those with a waterfall, work better if you eliminate or at least curb the sky, which is always much brighter than the woods and only distracts from the subject at hand. While I had been successful in not blowing out the waterfall, I then lowered it's exposure further to reveal more detail in the water.

                                                                  SUBTLE CHANGES CAN ADD UP IN 2024

I also subtly changed the white balance to warm up the scene. It's very easy in an environment like the Gorge to end up with a greenish tint to everything, so a little shift to a warmer white balance can bring out the earth tones beneath the overall green environment.

                                                                  BLACK AND WHITE CAN REVEAL DETAIL

Of course if you really want to get away from those overwhelming greens you can convert to black and white. The Gorge is part of geologic time, but this image now brings us back to the first photographs of the Gorge in the Nineteenth Century. Of course those first photographers probably couldn't get to this spot since their wasn't a recreational trail here. Native American trails were used mainly for trade or hunting, not gaze at falling water. More than nostalgia, black and white conversion as usual allows for further strengthening of exposure variations without rendering the scene in unrealistic colors. I could darken the waterfall even further without muddying the scene. And I could dodge and burn like back in the darkroom, very subtly darkening the dark areas and lightening the bright ones. This involves brushing in masks at such a low strength, around 10%, that you can't even see any changes while you are brushing them in. It is only when you look at the overall before and after that you can see what a real positive change that you have made in the image. It is almost like the image has finally popped.

I hope this might inspire you to see what you can make out of your own forgotten images. Sometimes a return to the recent past can lower the present's high blood pressure.