Several years ago, I hopped into the Silver Bullet (my old, trusty car) and headed down to northwest New Mexico to the badlands where Georgia O’Keeffe got the inspiration for her “Black Place” paintings. Oil prices were skyrocketing at the time, and the Black Place, which is some 20 miles north of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, was in the drillers’ crosshairs. I wanted to see the place and write about the threats in hopes that it might help get it some protection. And if not, at least I’d get some photos before the bulldozers and rigs came rolling in.
It wasn’t difficult to find the area that O’Keeffe described like this: “… as you come to it over a hill, it looks like a mile of elephants—grey hills all about the same size with almost white sand at their feet.” I pulled over in a place that seemed safe from the oil trucks barreling by, and that hopefully wouldn’t arouse too much suspicion from the oil company rent-a-cops, and walked across the landscape.
Already, my mission was somewhat stifled. I had hoped to find the exact place that O’Keefe had painted most often, and reproduce her paintings in photographs, but I forgot the book with the picture of the painting in it. No matter, the whole landscape — surreal looking dunes the color of charcoal, ash, the white feet tinted with purple — is striking, almost erotic, and certainly photogenic, so I just started shooting away.
When I got home and downloaded the photos, I was disappointed. The photos not only didn’t capture what I had seen and felt, but they were also no match for O’Keeffe’s paintings. It would be difficult to convince viewers that I had actually gone to the Black Place at all.
Fast forward to the last month or so, when I started creating “art” by the fictional characters in my novel “Behind the Slickrock Curtain.” I’m no artist, so in order to make the paintings, I’d have to manipulate my own photographs digitally. I tinkered for hours on these “artworks.” I dialed up the saturation, messed around with contrast, tried some HDR filters. I applied filters that are designed to make the photo look like a painting — paint daubs, watercolor, pastel, etc. etc. None of these worked; they simply ended up looking like photos with filters applied, and tended to emphasize the very things about the photographs that were inadequate. I tried the “blur” filter. My photos started looking a little bit like Gerhard Richter knockoffs, which is better than nothing, I guess.
Still, it was clear that filters alone were not the answer. I delved a little deeper into the Photoshop toolbox, playing with layers, clone stamps, different digital paintbrushes. I found that I needed to do more than just manipulate the photograph. I had to actually go in and paint the photograph using a variety of very targeted techniques. Finally I started to get results that I liked.
Meanwhile, a question nagged at me: What’s the point? Since I enjoyed the process, and the finished product, I ignored the questions.
Then I went into my files and dug up some of those Black Place photos and started “painting” them. The photos were flat, sharp, even harsh. Yet what I had seen and experienced was quite the opposite. The painting that emerged after my digital manipulation was softer, deeper, even more elemental. It was as though I had washed away some of the matter in order to give a glimpse at the underlying form of the place. Oddly enough, the “paintings” look more “real” than the photos from which they were derived.
Most professional photographers I know don’t “take” photographs, they “make” them. That is, they are not capturing an image, but, with their framing, composition, depth of field, etc., are creating it. This “painting” is simply adding another layer of creation to the photo, or removing it another step away from mere capture.