Blog

11. Patience Needed: 3D Software

film

                                       Film

Deadline Drama

I got an assignment to do an illustration (not the one above) for a financial magazine. The theme had to do with a drug company and its failed products. I built bottles with the names of the drugs on them and, flying pills in the air, had them falling down a set of stairs. The bottles were translucent, which was going to add to the rendering time of a final image. A few lights in the scene would also make things take longer. The illustration had to be 4″ x 5″ at 300 dpi, which was not very big by most standards, but I still figured I would give Alias Sketch software all the time it needed to finish the render. My magazine deadline was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon the next day. With everything ready to go, I hit the Render button at around 5:00 pm and went home to let it render all night.

In the morning I decided to go for a run and got to the studio at around noon. To my horror I saw that the render was only 49% done and realized I was in trouble. I would never make my deadline. Alias Sketch was what the world of 3D called Raytracing software. It was designed to make glass and metal look accurate, but it took a lot longer to render a scene. See the raytraced Spark plug below.

Tech Support to the Rescue 

I had heard about a software program called Electric Image, which was a phong renderer (see above), not a ray tracer. It had a beautiful, lush look. Each rendering engine offers a different result, just as different films do/did. Electric Image had the reputation of being very, very fast. It was used to render the space scenes in the early Star Wars movies and I had just bought it. In fact, it was still in its box when I arrived at my studio the morning of my pill bottle disaster. How would I make this work?

I called Electric Image tech support and asked for their help. I had never used their software, so they guided me over the phone and told me how to export my Alias Sketch pill bottle models into their software. Then they explained how to add lights and move the camera position to capture the angle I wanted. When I hit the “Render” button my scene was done in 15 minutes. I made my deadline and from then on Electric Image became my primary renderer.

The Image Above: “Do Whatever You Want to Do.”

That is what the editors of a camera magazine told me when I asked if they wanted me to include any products in my cover illustration. Na. Nope. Nothing. Just do what you want. So I made my image. It was the one above, but it only had the wavy film and I submitted it.

“Hey, wait. Oh my gosh. You forgot all the other items.” The editors gushed.

“What other items? You told me to do whatever I wanted,” I said.

“Oh, no. We need Polaroid film, an Ektachrome film canister and an A-200 film canister also.”

“You’re kidding, right?”. I didn’t say that, but wanted to.

It took some time to build the models, but with Electric Image there was no overnight render. It took just a few minutes and the colors were gorgeous. They printed beautifully.

sparkplug

                                              Spark Plug

Advertisements

10. Parnassus: 3D Software

gears

                              Gears

Learning 3D Software

I loved and still love Photoshop. Of the many things the software can do, drop shadows are really nice – that is if you are looking down or straight ahead at an object. If you tried to create a box on a table with natural shadows, at least in the early days of the software, the best you could do was fake it. One day a buddy of mine, named David Chalk, came to my studio and told me I should learn 3D. He suggested I start with Alias Sketch, so I got it and began the tutorials.

I had met someone at a Mac Expo who used 3D programs. He told me if I wanted to learn 3D, I had do the tutorials three times. I used that advice for every software program I tried to learn after that. He also said: “the wonderful thing about 3D is that when I wake up in the morning and think of an image I know I can create it. The only problem is whenever I look up at the clock it’s always 3 AM”. He wasn’t kidding.

I worked hard to learn Sketch. You would build shapes, or models, like box primitives or more complex things. Giving them a color was next. The default color was garishly shiny, but you could make the surface matte too. You could also add lights. When things were finally set up you had the software ”render” the image, which was analogous to dropping film off at a lab. Unfortunately, it took that long, or longer, to see a final image. Rendering, not to mention learning 3D software itself, was painfully slow.

One day when I was wrestling with a practice scene, I discovered that you could move lights in the 3D environment. I jumped out of my chair for joy. “This is just like still life! I know this.” I was so excited.  No need to leave the studio. No need to shop for props. Just build your own props and create natural backgrounds, or whatever you want, to make a scene. It was very exciting.

My First 3D Assignment

As my confidence began to build, along with blind courage, I decided to call one of my still life clients at Graphic Arts Monthly Magazine. I asked her if she would hire me to illustrate an article for her. She was very nice and said: “Sure, illustrate the rising cost of paper in the printing industry.”

Uh oh. What have I done? What kind of assignment is that? All my prior still life assignments were simple: here’s the layout, here’s the product, light it and send us the film. Now I had to come up with a visual to match an idea. It seemed like it was something very new, and yet I had done that many times whenever I thought up a still life set for my portfolio.

I left my studio, got home, had dinner and then sat on my bed with colored pencils and a big sketch pad. I had 5 or 6 illustration source books, like American Showcase, The Black Book and others strewn about and in the midst of this mayhem was my constant feline companion Pookie Louise Bear. She found it all very entertaining, even if it meant staying up late, which it did. I looked at many illustrations to get inspiration and ideas and was struck by how good the work of those illustrators was.  I was new at this. They had been making illustrations for years. Was I crazy? Yes, and determined. After a long time I had an idea I felt would work and the next day I sent some roughs to the art director. She picked one, I finished the image and it was published.

The image above was for a different assignment. Someone sent me a photograph of Gears and asked me to come up with a similar look in 3D.

 

9. Digital Art

Teachers

                                    Teachers

 

Photoshop and Digital Beginnings

As I mentioned earlier, on March 8, 1993 my mother passed away. I had a magazine photo shoot to do in the morning and hoped later to take a train out to see my mother one more time. She had been in a coma and off life support for a week, but when I got back to my studio there was a message on my answering machine saying she had died. We were close and loosing her left me feeling like I was floating in space with Earth way below in the distance.

My mother’s last years necessitated a lot of changes for both of us while my photography got secondary status. With my mother gone there was a need to get my bearings and find some direction. The world of photography had been changing too. Some photographers had purchased expensive digital backs for their cameras, which art directors found useful. Everyone seemed to be  learning Photoshop, while I barely knew how to use a mouse.

I decided to take some Photoshop classes at SVA, or The School Of Visual Arts, the college most of my assistants had attended. I also got an Apple computer for which 32 megs of RAM I vaguely remember was something like $2000. Crazy, and still, by today’s standards, the computers were very slow. I got a slide scanner and began cataloging my 35mm slides. I paid my assistant to do that too. When he lost his apartment and needed a place to stay, I let him live in my studio. There was no TV there and to keep busy – no doubt, out of gratitude and boredom too –  he often scanned my slides at night. It was like the elves and the shoemaker. In the morning a whole batch of scans were done.

My First Photoshop Job

I had placed an ad for my photography in the American Showcase source book and one day a woman from the AFT, or the American Federation of Teachers, called me from Washington, DC.

“Are you so-and-so”, she asked? I told her no and gave her my name.

”Oh, I see what I did. I was looking at so-and-so’s ad on the page opposite yours in American Showcase and dialed your number instead.”

That was weird, but we became great friends. I told her I was working with Photoshop and she asked me to illustrate her upcoming AFT annual report.

The first thing they needed was a “Call” invitation, meaning a card which would be mailed to get people to come to a convention where the annual report would be distributed. The idea hashed out with a terrific art director was to take snippets from all the illustrations that would be in the actual annual report and composite them in a single illustration for the invitation. That meant that I had to first make all my illustrations and then work backwards to take portions of each for the Call design. It was one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had.

Each affiliate union the AFT worked with had to be represented. The illustration above was for a Teachers Union and was made with Photoshop, Painter and scanned images. Other illustrations were made for a Bus Drivers’ Union, Higher Ed Teachers, etc. This assignment was one of several which gradually moved me away from photography and into making illustrations full time.

8. A Trip to the Southwest

 

AE7096E8-D75A-4B2C-826C-69A5517287E0

In 1993 my mother died and my chiropractor, who was also a photographer, suggested I get a change of scenery by joining a photography river trip to Utah she and her husband were going on. We would take rafts down the San Juan River and stop to take pictures of Anasazi ruins along the way. I decided I would bring view camera gear and camping stuff and go.

If you’ve never taken a river trip, I recommend it. Southern Utah is beautiful and rafting on the San Juan River we got to look up at 1000 foot rock walls on either side. Our guides brought us to see Indian ruins where most of us took photographs and several people painted or made drawings.

I thought the ruins were interesting, but the terrain and rock formations were what attracted me most. Where the Dunes of Colorado offered bold shapes of dark blacks flowing into various tones of white, what we saw on this trip was much more subtle. I found myself often looking for sandy surfaces of rock, much of it caked with dried mud. At the Dunes I looked for big vistas. In this part of the Southwest I concentrated on things much smaller and closer.

Once again, nature gave me some lessons in lighting, namely cross-lighting. It happens when light grazes a surface to pick up textures.

Pieta

I think of the black and white photograph above as my Pieta.  I see the dark shadow on top as a symbol of the cross and the vertical mud streaks as the Virgin’s tears. It also sums up in visual terms what this Southwest trip meant to me.  It offered a variety of stone and mud textures which allowed me to create abstracts with no real sense of scale. You don’t know how big that wall is. It could be 10 feet tall or 100 feet tall. There is no “duck on the pond” stuff going on here, where 90% of the picture is context for a duck which takes up 10% of the image. Here everything in the image counts.

7. Back to the Dunes

C94EDC13-90A1-4A22-9424-5AC1104A55C2

It finally happened in 1989. I listened to the message my soul was trying to send me, like a drum beat heard from a distance in a jungle. First it was faint and gradually it got louder until the drummer was standing right in front of my nose with his message:

“IT’S TIME TO GO TO THE DUNES AGAIN”                                                                           (Excuse me, do we know each other?)

In the years since my first visit to the Dunes I had shown my black and white print portfolio many times. When I got to my dune pictures I would lie. I would tell people: “Oh yeah. I’m definitely going back there to shoot again”.  I did that for 8 years and started to feel so dishonest I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to finally keep my promise just so I could live with myself.

I made inquiries and fashioned an itinerary. I would fly to Denver, get a flight to Pueblo and rent a van. I’d have them take the back seats out so I would have a place to sleep and then I’d drive the 6 hours it would take to go west to the Dunes. I was going to spend a week taking pictures using the van as my base camp and my “tent”.

The trip was going to cost around $1000 and the thought of it made me squirm. I didn’t want to spend so much money on a trip to take pictures, but the drummer and my inner voice wouldn’t relent.  They kept telling me to go.

It was the Dunes, after all, not just any place.  They were special and I felt a bond with them from the first time I saw them.  Yes, love at first sight.

As Fate would have it, the person sitting next to me on the plane worked at Consumer Reports. We had a nice conversation and I told him where I was going. He then handed me his card and told me to call him when I got back. He had a job for me. It paid $2,000.

The Main Event

The six hour drive across mountain passes was the beginning of what turned out to be an endurance run of sorts. I waited the whole first morning for the sun to move so the places I was looking at would finally have some shadows, some drama. Then it dawned on me that it almost didn’t matter where the sun was. I was the one who had to do the moving. When I figured that out I started to shoot more. I also had to be patient. It took some effort to walk across the sand with my heavy view camera gear, so if the light wasn’t right I just had to wait for the sun.

I wore a cotton jacket with lots of large pockets, put sun tan lotion on my face and was out shooting from dawn until dusk. By the third day my face started to swell and it got pretty bad. Evidently my SPF 8 suntan lotion wasn’t doing its job! I went to the hospital in town where they did what they could for me. Then it was back to shooting more. I would have to deal with my sunburn when I got home (Jonathan Zizmor, board certified dermatologist, whose ads were all over the subway: “wash your face with milk”. It worked).

I got to know the Park Ranger pretty well, because I’d see him every day, and he was kind enough to let me use the Park’s darkroom so I could reload my 4×5 film holders. It was so dry at the Dunes and there was so much static electricity in the darkroom that touching anything in there created a blaze of sparks. I worried that my film would be ruined, so I was forced to do everything in slow motion so as not to generate any static.

Humor

There was a fair amount of wind out on the dunes and I was sometimes forced to put all my weight on my tripod while I also tried to keep my camera’s bellows from moving. Every evening before it got dark my first job was to empty all the sand that had collected in my camera bags during the day. There was a lot of it. It made all the fuss of using delicate anti-static brushes and high pressure dust guns at home seem silly.

One morning, as I was heading out, the ranger told me his wife was away and would I like to come over for dinner with him and his young sons that evening. I told him I would love to and spent the day thinking about how nice it would be to sit down to a real dinner for a change.

When I got over to the ranger’s house my food fantasies had reached extreme proportions. I was psyched. I knocked on the front door and was greeted by the Ranger while his kids were kind of bouncing off the ceiling. He finally got them to sit at the dinner table and plates were passed around. We were going to have pancakes.

Was It Worth It?

When I got home I developed and proofed my film. Kodak had put out a new silver rich paper, with a wonderful tonality, and I decided to make an 11×14 portfolio of the dunes using it. The Dune Series was some of the best work I had ever done. Unlike most of my landscapes up to that point the photographs were abstract from edge to edge.

I began showing the new portfolio around. I took it to ICP, or The International Center of Photography, which was then still on the Upper East Side. Initially I got some resistance from the receptionist, but when I showed the prints to her she told me to wait. She wanted to show the portfolio to the chief curator. I was happy to wait, but she didn’t appear happy when she returned. She told me what had happened:

”You should see this guy’s dune prints”.

Curator: “We already have Weston’s dunes”.

”But, he’s gone way past Weston”.

”Ah, we already have dunes”.  I’m guessing he never saw the work.

Another time I contacted Barbara Millstein, the curator of prints and drawings at The Brooklyn Museum.  She took a car service to visit my studio and looked at my prints with a care and concentration I had never witnessed before. “You have a European eye,” she told me. She loved the work. I asked if the Brooklyn Museum would purchase some prints. She said they had no money.

Eventually I gave the museum three prints, but my biggest regret is that I waited too long. By the time it dawned on me to donate the prints my mother had died. It would have been great for her to know my work was in a museum. Prints of the Dunes are now in corporate environments, like Pfizer and Bloomingdales, and in many other places.

 

6. Landscape Light

0E599FC3-9431-46FD-8EB0-B4F5CABEC27B

The Summer of 1981 was approaching and I told my boss I was thinking of quitting my job.  He told me to wait and give it some more thought. He suggested I take a vacation instead. So I asked him for a month and a half, vacation time I had accrued, and he said yes.

A friend from Jackson Hole, WY, had invited me to visit and that seemed a good destination to aim for. The plan was to drive out with camera gear, camping gear and a 12 string guitar with two truss rods, which I got because I felt it would handle the weather changes I knew I would encounter. In Jackson Hole it could be like summer one day and snow a foot the next. I loaded up on cassette tapes, food and lots of film for my 35mm and 4×5 cameras. I took a sturdy tripod and my tent was a 2 Man Draw-tight, supposedly used on Everest. It was dependable, able to handle strong winds and I was used to it.

My route was laid out on a AAA Triptik and in short shrift I made it to Wyoming, where I took pictures around the Tetons and in Yellowstone. Somewhere on the trip I heard about a place called Great Sand Dunes National Monument, in Colorado.  I had never shot dunes before and decided I would drive to Zion Canyon in Utah first and then to the Great Sand Dunes on my way home.

The Dunes were like nothing I had ever seen before. It felt as though I was in photographic heaven. With the sun low in the sky in the morning and late afternoon, deep shadows formed behind the dunes creating beautiful patterns.  Unfortunately I  only took a few photographs, because I had been on the road for over a month and was out of film.

The Dunes made a powerful impression on me and I saw great possibilities to do some good work there if I ever got to go back. However, when I returned to New York I quit my job to become a full time photographer. There would be no opportunity to take a month off now. I had to find and equip a studio to do my work in .

I thought about the Dunes a great deal as the years passed and one day I decided to replicate similar lighting in a studio setting. It seemed to me that the shapes closest to dunes would be nudes. I had never shot nudes before and decided that they would best be done in black and white, like my dune photographs, and without showing anyone’s face. I felt that including faces was more of a Playboy Magazine approach and I wanted to avoid that. The image below is one of the photographs from the series I made.

B5B0A58B-2BA0-4310-9F03-B867B29988FB

5. Art Needs Heart

BD378A1A-C1A3-46DF-9F4C-FB0F6A261870

Before the internet there were several ways a photographer could advertise his work. He or she could have cards, or in some cases a brochure, printed up to be mailed to art directors at ad agencies and magazines. There were “source books”, such as The Black Book and American Showcase that allowed you to design a page or a spread with samples of your photographs. Those books were then sent to art directors all over the country. You were also given 1000 copies of your page to use as leave behinds or you could mail them to people. In either case, printing cards to mail or buying pages in source books was a calculated investment. If the right client saw your work and gave you an order you could make a great return on your investment.

As one of my assistants once put it: “Instead of buying equipment, I’d rather rent it and put my money into advertising”. No matter how you approached it, you had to advertise. The most direct way was to make appointments with art directors and meet them face to face.

There came a time when I felt ready to invest in a source book page with a company I hadn’t tried before. Their rep came over to my studio and asked to see my portfolio. I had some of my black and white landscape prints hanging on the wall and after looking at my still life book she said: ”You know, I think you should wait. When your still lifes start to look like your landscapes you will be ready to advertise with us.”

What?

When I got over the initial shock of (and anger over) what she said I tried to figure out what she meant. There was heart in my landscapes. I shot them for myself and I always looked for scenes which moved me. I realized that my still life work was done to please and impress some unknown art director “out there” in the world of ad agencies, someone who I hoped would give me jobs. That work was one step removed from my heart. I was always trying to guess what others might want to see.

It was a scary transition to cast my fate to the wind and forget “the market” in order to remember my heart. I had to find it within a still life setting, but I wasn’t sure where to look. How was I going to forget the world of clients, when I so desperately needed them?

Start Playing

That’s what I gave myself licence to do. Like Captain Horatio Hornblower I walked the deck. I thought about I what I really wanted to shoot. It began a period of forgetting about commercial concepts to shoot whatever I wanted, only I still wasn’t sure what that was. I made sketches of still life sets I had in mind. I bought a small notebook for the subway and began jotting down ideas whenever they came up.

Gradually the thought of hand made papers surfaced in the 8 Ball of my mind. I would use them as backgrounds, shoot flat and straight down on my sets. I shopped. I looked for the most interesting and beautiful hand made papers I could find. I looked for crazy props to put on top of them and started to have fun.

Marbles: Tiny Set, Big Camera

I decided the theme for one of the first photographs in my new series was going to be marbles on a handmade paper. Light going through the marbles would add another dimension to the photograph. I’d also add props found in my search around the city.

The “live” area of the photograph was perhaps 11” x 14” and my paper background was on top of a board, which was on top of a metal milk box turned upside down. I had to keep the set low because I was shooting straight down and didn’t want the camera (or my head) to hit the ceiling.

The camera of choice was an 8” x 10” supported by 9 foot studio stand. The stand was a giant tripod in theory, but in reality it was just a tall column with a heavy base. Imagine a big tree right in the middle of my studio.

To shoot a close up with a view camera was tricky. The closer you got to the object you were photographing, the farther the lens had to be from the film plane. The bellows of my camera in this case was racked out to 30”. That was a long way for light to travel from the lens to the film (reciprocity) so I would need more light than usual to get a correct exposure.

I began by arranging the bird, car, plane, flag and flowers where I wanted them, and had the cyclist head toward the light as a symbol of aspiration. Then I walked up the steps of my 7ft ladder and put my head under a focusing cloth to check the composition. The image was upside down, because that’s the way view cameras are. Some people think it helps you to compose your image and they may be right, but you don’t have much choice. With view cameras the image is upside down no matter what.

I made this particular image by myself. I had no assistants, which meant if I made a change on the set I would have to go back up the ladder to see if I liked what I did. I made a lot of trips up and down that ladder.

Then there was lighting. I think I had one main light on the set behind a large picture frame with diffusion material stapled to it. There were fill cards and tiny mirrors stuck to wood blocks with Funtak. I took polaroids to check exposure and most probably underexposed slightly so I could push the film development for more contrast and pop.

Taking the Picture

It was after sunset and my studio was pitch dark. I used strobes to light my set and when I felt all the objects were in their right places I climbed my ladder and pulled the slide covering the film in the film holder. I then went down to sit on a chair next to the powerpack generator of my strobes, turned off the modeling lights, grabbed the cable release of my camera lens and opened the shutter. I then pressed the button on the powerpack to “pop” the strobes. When a buzzer sounded I knew the strobe generator had recharged and I popped it again. I did this 30 times in the dark with my eyes closed. The strobe light was blindingly bright so you had to keep your eyes shut. The trick for me was keeping count of the number of times I did this. There was a great tendency to space out in the dark with your eyes closed. When I finished I closed the shutter with the cable release, turned the modeling lights on and went up the ladder to prepare the next sheet of film.

I then went into my darkroom to put the exposed film in a box and walked over to my lab to drop the film off. From there I went home. The next day I got the film to check exposure and the placement of my props. At one point I moved everything on my set, shot more film and realized I liked the first arrangement better. I put everything back the way it was the first time -as best I could- and shot it all over again…30 pops of the strobe in the dark for each exposure. The set and lights were left in place for several days.

That was the way I began to find my still life heart and a style which had more meaning for me.