Many of my photographs just happen. I see something that intrigues me, I make some quick decisions about how to record it on film or digitally, and later I do a little magic in the darkroom or at the computer.
But my most satisfying photographs are planned. These come from the chilly mornings waiting for the sun to rise in order to catch just the right light, or the trips to the coast specifically to capture the predicted high waves crashing over the rocks, or the search for circles or closed businesses - the two typologies I completed over the last several years - or arrows and open signs - the ones I’m stalled on right now.
Retirement and now shelter-in-place have given me new opportunities for planned photographs (even while restricting or eliminating the waiting, the trips, and the searches). Here’s the story of my most recent planned photo.
Most people are familiar with what is sometimes referred to as “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” . . .
A little research revealed that it was shot in 1932, most likely by Charles Ebbets, although it has also been attributed to several others. It was taken on the 69th floor of the under-construction Rockefeller Center in New York City and was posed, not found.
A couple of years ago I replicated the photo with Legos for a photography class at Mendocino College (I’m sure I’m not the first one to do this). I tried to position the figures to align with the men in the photo, I made sure the right ones were wearing hats, and I set the arms within the limits imposed by their lack of elbows, but that’s as far as I went with the details. I used a Fuji X100F with its 35mm equivalent lens, on a tripod, set at ISO 400, f2, 1/10 sec. Light was from two relatively dim desk lamps, with a piece of black mat board behind the figures. My oldest daughter saw the photo and wanted a print (these were Legos left over from her childhood) . . .
When I went back to the photo I realized it had some issues. There were a lot of other details I could have included, the focus was soft on the right, and the background needed a lot work. So I decided to reshoot.
I rebuilt the girder and positioned the workers, paying a lot more attention to the details. The hats are closer in appearance to the originals, the two hatless workers have hair, the clothing is a better match, the shirtless guy’s body is the same yellow as his face, the guy on the left is holding a cigarette, several have their lunches in their laps (one lunch is hanging down), and the fourth man from the right has what could be a coffee mug. I didn’t have a bottle for the far right so I went with a goblet. I even added the parrot (who’s to say there wasn’t one). I decided to go with a straight-across girder rather than the perceived diagonal of the original because of the impossibility of altering the focus plane (at least with my skillset) without view camera movements. I also decided to ignore the cable that cuts across the right side . . .
Next I searched the internet for an image of the New York skyline in the 1930’s. My original plan was to place a print behind the figures, but my printer wasn’t behaving. Just as I was getting discouraged I realized that the skyline could fill the computer screen and I could set the Legos in front of it, keeping the very recognizable Chrysler Building out of view. As long as the lights didn’t reflect off the computer this would give me a better look . . .
This time I shot with a Fuji X-Pro 2 with a 135mm equivalent lens, on a tripod, set at ISO 100, f11, 1/2 sec. I was careful to aim straight on, which would, in conjunction with the small aperture, ensure that I kept the entire subject plane in focus. I expected that I would need to experiment with the distance between the figures and the screen to throw the skyline just slightly out of focus and to obscure the pixels, but I nailed it on the first attempt (I think it was about three inches). I used two fairly bright modeling lights set to either side. This was going to be all black & white . . .
. . . but keeping the brightly-colored figures, tweaked in Apple Photos (crop, contrast, and saturation), seemed to increase the sense of depth that was established by the out-of-focus buildings. That 3D effect is even more evident in the 15x20 inch print.
My version of “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” was as much about the process as the product. I’ve already found a couple of things I could have done differently, so maybe the process will continue.