Two years ago I saw the 2006 work by Jeff Wall entitled “In Front of a Nightclub”. It made a strong impression on me, even more so when I learned that Jeff’s images are entirely staged, right down to the litter on the street. (This image is huge: 226 x 361 cm — about 7.5 x 12 feet — so the people are nearly half life-size.)
While I don’t have the resources (or the skill!) to create images like this, I’m fascinated by how Wall’s images tell stories in tableau. There’s alway so much to study. So many mysteries and opportunities for speculation. You can look at them over and over again and always find something new. (Who would charge 93 cents for a slice of pizza?)
Jeff’s images capture single moments in time, but moments that are rich with complexity. I got the idea of simulating this richness by capturing live scenes over a period of time via multiple exposures and merging/compressing the time to synthesize what appears (at first glance) to have been recorded in a single moment.
There’s nothing new about multiple-exposure photography, but you rarely see it applied to street scenes. Since “street” has been my primary emphasis for the past two years, it seemed like an interesting opportunity for exploration.
I like that while the images initially appear to be realistic, one soon discovers “something’s not quite right” about them. I try to preserve some of these inconsistencies to make the images more interesting. In many cases, people are just too close to one another or juxtaposed in positions that aren’t physically possible, like the Penrose stairs. Sometimes people appear more than once in the final image. (Sometimes I don’t know this until I discover them myself after the image is completed.) Occasionally I tweak something in post-processing to alter the images in a way that gives the viewer something to discover or at least question.
A few people have asked me how I create these images, so I thought I’d share some of the process here.
First of all, the photographs are all taken handheld with manual exposure and focus. I typically take about 30 images to record a scene, paying particular attention to where people are positioned relative to one another (at different points in time) and to the background (for the sake of composition). I then select the most interesting and compatible images, usually 10-12 for a complex work, and import them as separate layers into Photoshop. I use Photoshop’s Auto Align Layers feature to correct for my handheld camera movements. I then proceed to use masks to isolate the elements I want to include from each layer/image. Below is a gallery of the 11 layers I used to build YOU. The first image shows all the original images at less than full opacity. The second image is the one I used as the background. The remaining ten images are shown with translucent masks so you can get an idea of how they were combined and what was included/excluded from each one. (Click on the first image, then scroll through them.)
I was recently asked what’s the most difficult aspect of making these images. The answer: shadows. Consider what happens when one person’s shadow falls onto the pavement. Suppose I place another person where the first person’s shadow should appear. Now part of that shadow should fall onto the second person. Shadows with hard edges (ie, on a sunny day) are usually easier to deal with than soft shadows on an overcast day.
It gets really tricky when the light and shadows from buildings move over time. For example, the images used for this composite were taken over nearly ten minutes, during which time the line delineating light and shadow moved quite a bit, requiring a fair amount of effort to correct so that it appears as if all the people were lit with the same light at the same time.
I hope you enjoy these images as much as I enjoy creating them. Let me know!