Creating the composite 'Mariabronn'

As well as being a keen photographer, I have also more recently taken an interest in creating photo composites. I won't repeat what I've already written about this art form, but would recommend anyone interested to have a look at my reference post on this subject. I hope you find the background and links to resources interesting.

What I wanted to do in this post is talk a little more about he process I went through in creating my latest composite which I have entitled 'Mariabronn' (the name of the monastery in the book upon which I based my work).

As mentioned in my previous post about compositing, one of the most important principles is to be clear about the story you want to tell, and in this case I was. One of my favourite books is Hermann Hesse's "Narziss and Goldmund," a story set in the Middle Ages that tells the relationship between two men (it's better than it sounds), and I have always been attracted by the opening description of an old chestnut tree "isolated here in the North, planted long ago by a Roman pilgrim" that shadowed the entrance of the cloister, a tree that "generations of school boys" walked past, some to stay, grow old and die, others to have a short stay at the monastery before going back into the world

The novel is set at a time when the Black Death was sweeping Europe, and I wanted my composite to reflect what the tree and the monastery might look like today, while still giving some impression of the original setting.

This is where the freedom of photo compositing comes into play, and after deciding on what I wanted to create, I went through the following steps:

  1. Do an outline drawing of my idea.
  2. Find images from my photographic library I could use to create the elements in the image (to be honest I already had an idea of what they would be).
  3. Combine the elements in Photoshop to try and reproduce the image I had in my 'Mind's Eye'.

Below you can see my final composite:

Photo Composite 'Mariabronn' by Simon Jones

It is made up of the following elements:

  • The sky For this I used some clouds I had previously photographed on a walk when I was attracted to them.
  • The tree. When I started the piece I remembered an old black and white photograph I had taken of a dead tree some years ago. I don't know what originally compelled me to take the photograph but I thought it might work well in this work. That proved to me the case I think, but not before I tried different alternatives!
  • The monastery. Not far from where I live are the ruins of an old Monastery which was left abandoned shortly after the Reformation, I had a number of photographs of the ruin and chose one for the composite.
  • The land. For this I used a moorland scene in which I exaggerated the hills.
  • The birds. In the upper right hand corner of the image there are a couple of birds (rather fancifully I suppose meant to represent the souls of Narziss and Goldmund" escaping into the light). I cut out a couple of birds from a larger picture I had previously photographed.
  • The background texture. I find the background texture an important unifying element in my composites and this particular one (possibly too rough) was a photograph of the back of a gravestone in the local cemetery. I felt the 'providence' was right and ultimately gave the final image the 'feel' I was looking for.

After choosing the different elements, the hard part is combining them to bring together the image you were seeking. Expect to resize, cut out elements and change contrast. Although far from perfect, and a million miles away from the work of advanced artists, I felt the final image held something of my original vision.

Should you be interested in learning more about photo compositing in general, and links to resources to help you learn the process, please refer to my reference post on the subject, Photographic Compositing - An introduction.

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Photographic Compositing - An introduction

Any reader of this blog will be aware of my interest in the photo composite as an art form, and it is certainly an area I wish to develop personally and write about more. This post is intended both as my "central reference" about photo compositing, and an account of my journey in trying to employ the technique in my own creative expression. I hope that it will be both interesting and useful for others. I'll talk about what draws me to this art form, my own approach to it, and signpost further resources. I claim no particular talent other than my interest and enthusiasm! Please let me know if you would like anything included, or if you know about a particular resource or example you would like me to include. Unlike my usual posts, I intend this article to be a starting point that will be regularly added to and updated.

What is a photo composite?

In essence a photo composite is an image formed by superimposing a number of separate photographs together. It should be remembered that the photograph can be of a texture (often used to bind elements of the composite together) as well as the subjects normally associated with photography. Photo composites are famously used to create "impossible" pictures, for example where the same person appears on the photograph a number of times, and have also be used to deceive. One of the most famous early examples of the latter was the "The Cottingley Fairies," a series of pictures taken in the early 20th Century and supposedly capturing fairies in a photograph. Nowadays photo composites are usually created using Adobe Photoshop, and are sometimes called "Photoshop Composites" due to the wide use of the software.

The Cottingley 'Fairies'

The Cottingley 'Fairies'

A fascinating (if a little sinister) sidenote to photo compositing was work conducted by Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s to create the "average" face of "different types". For further information on this area there is an interesting online collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why I work with on photo composites as well as normal photographs

I have had a long fascination with photography, and love the visual arts in a wide variety of ways; as a historical photographic record, as breathtaking moments of grace when "the present" is caught and held, in abstraction, and in the wondrous beauty of a wide variety of images that, however unexpectedly, resonate with that which ennobles us. In short, I'm enthralled with the message an image gives or feeling it evokes, over and above the actual medium used to create that image.

Taking into account the above, and with a passion for photography and painting, I am naturally drawn to the idea of the photo composite, not to create clever illusions or to "cheat", but to liberate me to express more readily my own ideas. I particularly love the freedom of expression that the composite provides.

I do sometimes worry that a combining images is somehow a compromise (goodness knows where I've got that from), but my steps so far have helped reassure me that it's not.

Tree and Birds, A photo composite by Simon Jones.

Tree and Birds, A photo composite by Simon Jones.

Principles for photo compositing

I've decided to record a set of principles to help be keep focussed on what I want for my own photo composites, not because they are unique in any way (in fact they have been derived for my research into the area) but to serve as a anchor for me when creating my own work. I imagine I will add to them as I become more experienced.

Principle one - the story

The first principle is also the most important one, start with the story you want to tell. The biggest excitement to me in photo compositing is that you can combine elements to make up the image you want, and bring in different aspects of the external world (which you have photographed) to make up the landscape of your internal one. There seems to be a real parallel here between the process of compositing and dreaming - both seem to be made up of elements that have somehow evoked an emotional or intellectual response in you, for the photographer it gives the new experience of add your own elements into an image rather than relying on that which presents itself - although I know it's not as simple as that I hope you understand my meaning.

It's important to relise that your theme or story need not be your own, but can be a response to what you might have read, heard or experienced. For example, my latest composite, "Mariabronn," is based on one of my favourite novels, "Narciss and Goldmund" by Hermann Hesse. Please see my post about creating "Mariabronn" for further details.

After saying all that, rules are made to be broken, and if the mood takes you and you feel the urge to simply experiment - go for it!

Principle Two - use your own materials

I like to do this to ensure that the finished work is unique to me and also because it somehow confers a sense of integrity. Use only your own photographs - places that move you, textures you like, beautiful clouds - anything that has compelled you to photograph them. You respond to things for a reason, and there is nothing wrong (and everything right) with including them in your work.

Principle Three - master your craft

It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that photo compositing of the type I'm talking about does not require some knowledge of digital software techniques. Learn as much as possible about your tools and don't apologise for them. An artist gets to know his paints and canvas and you must master your camera and software. In the end, it all comes back to creating a piece of art. Never assume that some of the greatest artists whoever lived wouldn't be using digital medium if they were born today.

Practise and experiment, and don't give up!

If you are anything like me, you will discover the image you were hoping to produce, the one you saw in your 'mind's eye' has no resemblance to the one you produce. Persevere, and have faith in your work, like any endeavour you will find it improves.

Posts realting to photo compositing on this site

Further resources

I will update these resources regularly, there is much out there, these are only the one's I've found and like.

Julieanne Kost

I put Ms. Kost as my primary resource (and have mentioned her elsewhere on this site) because she was (and remains) the inspiration for my own work in this area and what little I know of it has largely come from the wealth of material she has created relating to the creation of photo compositing. Ms. Kost works for Adobe, and although her advice on the use of Adobe's software is excellent, it is her inspiration and advice on the creative endeavour I find even more useful. Ms. Kost's resources (both free and paid) have helped me enormously to understand the process and art involved in photo compositing, and I am a great admirer of her work.

The Creative Composite - Isotacy

The Creative Composite - "Drifting"

The Creative Composite - Hindsight

The Creative Composite "Twilight"

The Creative Composite - Layering Elements

Lynda.com

As mentioned, there is a wealth of freely available material on the Internet on how to create a photo composite (including the excellent work above), but I have recently signed up to Lynda.com to go through their paid courses on Photo compositing (there is an Introduction to Photo compositing and a tutorial on the 'Art of Photo Compositing' by the aforementioned Ms. Kost for example) and the use of software such as Adobe Photoshop. I have subscribed to them myself, and recommend them whole heartedly.

Artist websites

  • Erik Johansson - Stunning images put together with great skill and imagination. A modern day Dali!

Resources relating to photo compositing techniques and general information

The power of the Triptych

The creation of visual art is widely varied, not only in terms of the medium used, be in a digital sensor or oil paint, but also in the final form in which the artist presents their work. Although the single painting, photograph or composite has always been my favourite, I have also been drawn to works of art made up of different images arranged together, in particular the triptych.

The triptych (traditionally a painting made up of three sections) originated from early Christian art, and was primarily associated with altarpieces, although over time the form was used by artists in a range of contexts, including sculpture and paintings with non-religious themes, such as 'Carnival' by Max Beckmann.

"Carnival" by Max Beckman, Oil on Canvas, 1943.

"Carnival" by Max Beckman, Oil on Canvas, 1943.

Hieronymus Bosch is a painter associated most strongly with the Triptych form (having apparently produced at least sixteen), his most famous being "The Garden of Earthly Delights," an utterly astonishing (and in many ways alarming) work of art which I would suggest deserves closer scrutiny. To me the painting is reminiscent of Salvador Dali's work, and the reader may be interested in this article by Anthony Christian that suggests Bosch was in fact the first Surrealist. Apart from the incredible imagery in the painting, the biggest surprise to me is that it was completed some time between 1490 and 1510. A very detailed image of the triptych can be downloaded from Wikipedia.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, oil on oak panels, 220 x 389 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, oil on oak panels, 220 x 389 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Works like The Garden of Earthly Delight are obviously created to tell a story, and this is a theme of many triptychs, including more modern examples like that of "The Pioneer," a painting completed in 1904 by Frederick McCubbin, which tells the rather melancholic story of a family's life in the Australian bush.

Frederick McCubbin - The pioneer - Google Art Project

Frederick McCubbin - The pioneer - Google Art Project

The Triptych in Photography

Triptychs are used frequently in photography, and can be vertically as well as horizontally aligned, usually with plain borders. Although in my own work I tend to use separate images, photographers also divide a larger image into three.

As in paintings, photographic triptychs can be used to tell a story, even a humorous one as the image below shows!

Indifference, by Simon Jones

Indifference, by Simon Jones

More often however, photographic triptychs are used to group photographs of similar types together. For the digital photographer this can be done readily, and I would recommend another tutorial by Julieanne Kost (one of Adobe's Principle Evangelists), for help on how to create such works. This is a well put together resource provided free to creative artists, and I used the techniques included in the tutorial myself when combining the images below.

Shake, Photograph by Simon Jones

Ice, PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON JONES

Ice, PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON JONES

Should you wish to support this blog

Some of my readers have asked me how they might support this blog. One of the best ways to do this would be to let others know about what you've read. You can obviously do this by word of mouth or, if you are on a social media site such as Twitter or Google+, please click on the Share button below. You might also 'follow' me on Twitter by clicking the link in the left side bar.

Finally, should you wish to be notified when a new post goes online please add your email address to the box on the right or subscribe to the Blog's RSS feed. Thank you!

Flat, Soulless and Stupid?

In November last year, writing for The Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Jones wrote an interesting article entitled "Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries." His main point was that while photographs are many things, they are not suitable for hanging in art galleries in the way paintings are. It is hard not to reach the conclusion (although never directly stated) that Mr. Jones might even consider that photographs aren't actually art at all.

Paintings are made with time and difficulty, material complexity, textural depth, talent and craft, imagination and “mindfulness”. A good painting is a rich and vigorous thing. A photograph, however well lit, however cleverly set it up, only has one layer of content. It is all there on the surface. You see it, you’ve got it. It is absurd to claim this quick fix of light has the same depth, soul, or repays as much looking as a painting by Caravaggio – to take a painter so many photographers emulate.

It's certainly an interesting view, and obviously a provocative one, but it's most useful function is in calling us back to the question (so often referred to in this blog), of what makes a great photograph. To me, justification for hanging in a gallery should not be based on whether or not the work is a photograph or a painting, but on it's inherent quality.

There is also the difficulty of definition. So often, particularly recently, photographs are not simply an accurate representation of what was photographed, but are altered both during (using blur or long exposures for example) and after exposure (the most obvious example being photographic compositions). Likewise, artists whose medium is primary paint, have been experimenting with photo collages and other approaches to express themselves, perhaps most notably David Hockney whose latest exhibition was actually entitled Painting and Photography, and who believes that technology has always been used alter pictures, including those of the great masters. This has been to widely suggested of Johannes Vermeer, and an interesting article on the subject and his possible use of the Camera Obscura can be found at the Essential Vermeer website.

One of my favourite works by Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is an interesting painting in the context of this discussion - is it possible for a photograph to have the same impact? Perhaps, but one of the advantages the painter has long enjoyed is the ability to concentrate on the essential detail in their work. In Vermeer's painting below for example, he can concentrate on the beauty of light and colour by using shading rather than the precise replication of the photograph. This allows greater artistic expression than the photographer normally has, although this is being challenged, particularly in the digital world, where composites and digital techniques can emulate some of these advantages.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

The meeting place between photography and painting - the photographic composite

The use of photographic compositing is a fascinating area and one which can allow the photographer greater freedom of expression. I consider photographic compositing as similar to the movement in painting away from realism towards abstraction. A photograph can record in astonishing detail that which is found in the world, but by combining a range of photographs an artist can create new work that represents what is in their mind's eye in the same way as impressionist or abstract artists might represent their own imaginings.

Works such as "Isostacy" by Julianne Kost are great examples of this, and for those interested, in the video below Ms. Kost talks through the process of creating the image.

In my own early and basic composite below, I was able to give expression to a simple seaside image by combining different images and textures in a way I couldn't achieve in my traditional photography. Although very unsophisticated, the scene represents what I felt about the image rather than simply representing what was seen through the lense of the camera.

Basic composite of beach scene at lytham St. Annes

Basic composite of beach scene at lytham St. Annes

The advantage the camera - capturing the moment

Finally, Mr. Jones's article makes a particular point of comparison between photography such as that by David Titlow that won the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize, and great works of art such as Rembrandt's late work, an example of which can be seen below. What this neglects to take into account however is the "decisive moment" in photography, something that provides a unique advantage to the photographer. It is work such of that of Sergio Larrain, captured in one "moment of grace", that requires us to consider not just what is on the surface of the image, but what is present at that particular, never to be repeated moment. As Henri Cartier-Bresson says:

For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously.
From "In the Minds Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers."

CHILE. Valparaiso. 1963. photograph by SERGIO Larrain, Magnum Photos.

CHILE. Valparaiso. 1963. photograph by SERGIO Larrain, Magnum Photos.

Should you wish to support this blog

Some of my readers have asked me how they might support this blog. One of the best ways to do this would be to let others know about what you've read. You can obviously do this by word of mouth or, if you are on a social media site such as Twitter or Google+, please click on the Share button below. You might also 'follow' me on Twitter by clicking the link in the left side bar.

Finally, should you wish to be notified when a new post goes online please add your email address to the box on the right or subscribe to the Blog's RSS feed. Thank you!

The Snowball, Simon Jones.

The Snowball, Simon Jones.

Dark cloud over Jubilee Tower

Dark cloud over Jubilee Tower

One of the most satisfying things in photography is being at the 'right place at the right time', and for me this photograph represents that.

I took the photograph when returning home from work, and it has long been one of my favourites. The tower you can see on the hill is the Jubilee Tower, a landmark photographed often in these parts!

I must confess that it is the theme of light overcoming the darkness that attracts me most to the photograph, and the sense of wonder that those shafts of light evoke.

One of the joys of photography is that, although it can document the most terrible things in life, it can also remind us of it's beauty.

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