“Photography As ART” script shows how James creates his art using only light, camera, and optics, in addition to considerable logistical planning, technical experimentation, patience and dedication.
Image 39 shows the SCULPTURE GARDEN illusion in pans, tilts, zooms, and in full.
A place you can’t miss on the Vineyard is the Field Gallery in West Tisbury. The galleries garden is the home for the whimsical sculptures by Thomas Maley. These playful dancing figures are a joy and James decided to add his own whimsy into the scene, called the SCULPTURE GARDEN.
The sculptures are all white and James thought all the green seasonal vegetation would only be a distraction. It’s also a seasonally busy attraction off the West Tisbury Road. A more tranquil peaceful setting… burrrrr… a white out of a winter snow he felt would be ideal.
Taking the living Muse, au natural, among Maley’s white statues during a cold snowfall meant this shot had to be taken fast. Ann and I stopped by the garden in the fall. We set the composition and details were planned.
When winter brought the snow, we set out to the location. One assistant for this shoot would hold a flash that would be remotely triggered to highlight the muse. Another assistant was hiding in the background bushes with a coat at the ready to keep the Muse from freezing. My most important directorial input in setting up the rest of this whimsical scene was ‘go way around!’ I couldn’t have the fresh blanket of snow trampled on!
Image 40 shows the drawings with technical notes1 for CHANGING AT EAST CHOP.
As mentioned at the beginning of this exploration of “photography as art” it begins with a blank black canvas onto which James paints with light. If the environment and subject is in the darkness of night, preferably one that is moonless, artificial lighting will be needed to do the painting.
PHOTOGRAPHY AS ART” – The ILLUSION Series
The diagram for CHANGING AT EAST CHOP indicates creating this photograph took a bit of technical wizardry. The environment was the old East Chop Beach Club. The diagram shows the center corridor about 100 feet long to which on either side are doors to twenty or more small changing rooms kitty-corner from each other. James enjoyed the depth of perspective on seeing this every time he visited for paying assignments, and wanted to visually play with it.
I thought it would be fun if a Muse could appear from each of the 10 kitty corner locations in different poses.
James shows putting forward to the camera the diagram from the ‘90’s.
Here’s a drawn diagram of my idea. To add accent to the poses I figured to give a different hue to each pose. Just like the painting with different colors in the Aurora series as I did later, let me note that colors transmit at different nanometers. Some take more; others take less light-time to transmit, and this determines the number of flashes, as noted on my diagram. Being less than perfect my exposure of the Muse using the green gel barely shows…
Image 41 shows the drawings with technical notes2 for CHANGING AT EAST CHOP.
James rented a 90mm wide angle Rodenstock lens for his View Camera. It was placed at a low angle and secured with heavy tape to keep it from moving.
The progression of multiple exposures on one piece of film started at the rear, with the muse at a door on left side, and the exposing flash, with a specific color gel, placed diagonally across one changing room closer to the camera. Each of the subsequent exposures following this process bringing the muse closer, from one side to the other, to the final 10th shot close to the camera’s position.
Image 42 shows the CHANGING AT EAST CHOP illusion in pans, tilts, zooms, and in full.
Not shown in my notes is the 11th exposure. Getting to the 10th exposure took all evening. After, I camped out in the sleeping bag under a clear starry night out, rising early to expose for a dawn sky. Now it was completed.
Was it that easy? No, this photograph took 4 tries over years, as three preceding attempts failed, once due to a malfunctioning rented lens and twice it didn’t come out as it should have. Remember there was no LCD screen back then for immediate results. This shot was being made on Private Property, and each failure left me with anxiety of ever having the opportunity of doing it again. You might ask why not repeated immediate tries…well, could only do it off-season, on moonless nights, with a rented lens, there were time constraints, and each effort was significant.
Image 43 shows the GHOST OF CHILMARK WOODS illusion in pans, tilts, zooms, and in full.
Whenever James is asked or has the opportunity to talk about his work the GHOST OF CHILMARK WOODS has always been among the top Illusions of interest. Its creation involved a high level of all the facets needed to make it; logistics, staging, and technical applications.
The inspiration for this photograph is the Vineyard’s reputation as being a most haunted island. Especially during the fall months when the leaves have turned to yellow, red and brown, the air is chilly air, everything is damp, and the sky is a bleak grey overcast. During this season, James would drive along the back roads and pass less travelled unpaved pathways to wonder; “Where do they lead; who might live down there?” It’s so quiet you can hear the dew drops fall, somewhat spooky, and yes, a ghostly time of year.
Image 44 shows the dirt pathway with a mysterious patch of thick ground fog (dry ice) emanating at its center.
The spooky feeling is all around the area, but a photograph needs a specific spot that best conveys it. James pre-visualized a ghost Muse shrouded in tulle and levitating across a dirt pathway to who knows where. It would be on a dreary damp fall day with trees displaying their fall colors, with a heavy layer of fallen leaves on the ground.
Image 45 shows a close full-length view of the ghost draped in tulle. Image 46 shows a diagram of the camera position in the scene.
The important thing was to find a location offering a perfect view, while at the same time a place just off a crossroad unlikely to be disturbed by a passerby. In time found the spot.
The plan was to make two exposures on one piece of 4X5 film, one during the daytime to capture the woods and fog covered pathway, and a night exposure to capture the ghost. To make it work the camera had to remain fixed in one spot, undisturbed for many hours, for both exposures. The only haphazard that could be left to chance would be if a deer happened upon it, and that would simply be bad luck.
Image 47 shows the list of materials needed for this photograph.
Now it was time to check off preparations from the list. Among other things it included bringing a 12X2 foot section of a wooden dock to the location with his truck. It would-be put-on cinder blocks. It would be set up for the night exposure and be the platform on which the ghost would seem and seen to levitate across the wide pathway. James explains
Anything black in photography does not expose. I brought black cloth to drape the platform so it would not expose. This allows the details from the daylight exposure to show through. That large platform on cinder blocks is in the photograph, you just don’t see it through the magic of photography!
To get the effect of ground fog I had originally planned to hock up a rented smoke machine to a generator. This this was scratched in favor of using dry ice, which tends to cling to the ground surface. This exchange did not make things easier – there was no dry ice to be found on Island! I had to go to Boston to pick that up.
Timing was now based on having the dry ice. A well-sealed Styrofoam container of dry ice will only hold up for maybe three days before evaporating, so scheduling its pick up from Boston was critical. That in itself took ferry trips and the better part of a day. Then all the other preparations, equipment, and Muse had to be ready to go within a three-day window when the weather, that had been awful, might cooperate.
Repeat Image 48 shows another cropped version of the GHOST OF CHILMARK WOODS illusion in pans, tilts, zooms, and in full.
His notes indicate that October 21, 1993 was the day of the shoot, which was preceded by that trip to Boston 3 days earlier to get the dry ice. Dismal dreary wet weather that had persisted during that time finally had a lull.
The View Camera, wonderfully suited for creative photography, was placed in the woods by the edge of the selected cross road in the Chilmark woods and fixed in place with a clear view of the scene to be staged. Then a small hole was dug out in the middle foreground of the pathway, into which dry ice was placed. After it was activated with hot water, he took his first daylight exposures onto several sheets of Kodak Ektachrome film in holders that had been prepared in advance of the shoot.
The first phase was completed. James camouflaged the camera and left to pick up the dock and other materials. He would return hours later at dusk to set up for the second exposure. This phase would be far more complicated, and to help he brought an assistant, Kenny Sullivan.
Sully, as Kenny was known, worked at the Post Office. Nice fellow with an occasional affliction for a drink. Drinking is common on Islands, but he was always reliable with his help. We shared harrowing experiences when I shot the MAGICAL GAY HEAD CLIFFS illusion. Poor fellow left us early I’ve heard.
James, with Sully’s help set the heavy dock on cinder blocks and draped it in black. After nightfall the Muse arrived and made her last preparations to walk the plank.
Image 49 shows notes with exposure specifications (as well as dry ice usage instructions
While she did that, James showed Sully how to work the shutter cable release attached to the View Camera, being very careful not to jar its position. This would leave him free to handle the final tricky aspects of this shoot, exposing the ghosting; creating three faint images of the ghost, followed by the final full exposure of the ghost.
Image 50 (a repeat of 43) shows the GHOST OF CHILMARK WOODS illusion in pans, tilts, zooms, and in full.
In order to pull this off I had a Metz 60 CT1 flash with battery pack on each shoulder. One was set to underexpose, while the other was set to properly expose. I kneeled on the camera side close to the platform and ahead of the direction of the ghost’s movement. I aimed both flash units in the direction the ghost would be walking. Oh. you don’t see me either in this shot, do you, but I’m the invisible super ghost you don’t see…
Ready! I let the action begin. “Sully, open the camera shutter. Ann, begin walking down the plank.” James pressed three times to set off the under exposing flashes coming off of one shoulder and then set-off the full exposure from the unit on his other shoulder. Abracadabra and it’s done! Just in time before a cloudburst of pouring rain.
These are a few gems from the Illusion series, which numbered 37 in total when the last was taken around 1997. James believes his photographs in any series should be looked at like songs on CD, some you like better than others, and some become known as the hits. We each have our favorites for luckily, he’s not a one hit wonder.
THE END of Scene Seven
Image 51 shows James with V&A Curator, James Bettley. Image 52 shows letter from V&A.
James concluded years of work of the Illusion series and published a book “Illusions of Martha’s Vineyard.” He flew to London in 1997 to thank the curator at the renowned Victoria & Albert Museum. It was the first museum to accept photography in the mid-eighteen hundreds, and they included his work as part of their collection.
THE END of Scene Seven