“Not Alone”: Probing Nature Digitally
Soho Photo Gallery, a small cooperative showcase of art photographs in Manhattan’s TriBeCa, this week opened a show by the Belgium photographers Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy entitled “Not Alone.”
The exhibition consists of seven large prints of wildlife.1 To call these nature photographs, however, does not do them justice. They are highly rendered exercises in digital art photography which portray a large landscape containing, and usually almost hidden, one animal. But rather than try to explain the first impression of these works, let me simply direct you to a short video prepared by the artists (evidently about another installation last year) and posted to Vimeo:
You can see the size of these works, but the video does not show their unique composition qualities. The photographs are not simply an enlarged print of a single photograph. Each one is a composition of between 100 and 150 separate photos taken in a grid-like manner and then digitally stitched together in a computer lab. The product is a file made up of literally billions of pixels. The 100-150 individual shots are all taken with the same focus and metering, based on the initial photograph of the “subject,” the animal nearly hidden in an otherwise seemingly dense array of patterns and blended colors. The effect from a distance is like a field of vision when one “spots” an interesting animal, with the rest of the surroundings not immediately a mater of attention. But because this moment is frozen, it’s possible to see the many details that would otherwise go unnoticed by our concentration on the subject.
While I was at the gallery yesterday, by chance I met Ghislain David de Lossy, a charming man who graciously took time to explain the technique he and his wife employed in these works. Led to likely locations by a guide, they would set up blinds several miles apart to await the arrival of the “game.” If a subject arrived, they would await until the animal accustomed itself to the structure which was new to its environment. Once the subject assumed a desired pose, it was photographed in sharp focus at an appropriate metering. The photographer then proceeded to swivel the camera on its mount to take the framing photographs one by one in a grid-like fashion, all the while attempting to maintain a perfect horizontal so that the individual photos could be sewn together in the lab. Mr. David de Lossy said that often this proved difficult, especially when the camera mount was set on permafrost, which sometimes slightly gave way and subtly affected the horizontal of the tripod. In those cases the grid-like pattern for the 100-150 photographs could not be maintained and when the efforts were reviewed in the lab, sometimes large segments of the total landscape was missing and the effort was for naught. In addition to the intense concentration required over long periods simply to locate the subject, the incredibly precise clarity of the portraits required state of the art equipment. The artists told Ragzine.cc that they used a 600 mm :4 super telephoto lens (at full aperture) on a 24 mpx Nikon D3X. The result is the effect of looking out of a very large picture window into a European forest or tundra.
All of this is of course background to the real interest of the works. The idea that animates all them is a sense that the natural world has hidden features that escape our notice. This is expressly demonstrated by portraying a subject that is often barely noticeable except for careful study of the large work. Natural camouflage, dense vegetation or a combination often make animals invisible in the wild. Finding the animal in these works is often the first task. Once the animal is located, one can’t help but marvel at how it remains hidden in the open. But once one discovers the “subject,” its possible to see it simply as an element of a larger composition.
The work Snipe (Ytry Tunga, Iceland. 2012) is a good example. The print is about 8 feet long and 3 feet high.2 A stream runs from mid ground, mid picture and comes into focus as to runs to the bottom right. In the foreground there are soft white and yellow flowers which form what initially appear to be an arching band in sharp focus (surrounded by softly out of focus tall grasses). The band of flowers in focus are minutely rendered. Up close (and the pictures demand very close inspection) one can see the individual seeds on the grasses that surround the flowers. As the eye follows this band it sees a thin shape that is horizontal in contrast to the vertical orientation of the grasses and flower stems. It is the long beak of the snipe. The beak is in perfect focus as is the head of the bird (the only part visible above the grasses hiding it). The sharp focus together with the crisp color renderings molds the black eye of the bird into a three dimensional sphere. Stepping back from close inspection makes plain that the band of focus was not really an arch (which seemed to follow in the foreground the flow of the stream) but rather was an artifact of the focal depth chosen to photograph the bird’s head. But nothing about the focus or metering especially highlighted the bird. In fact, one the subject is spotted, it’s something of a marvel what a small part of the composition it is. The length of the beak is only about 6 inches on the print, which is 16 times as wide. The relative smallness of the subject allows for closer inspection of the environment of the animal, which in itself offers numerous interesting details in a vast panorama. (You can see a “zoomable” file of this work at the de Lossy website here.)
I’ll have to make use of a rendering of one or two of these works, just so you can see what I am talking about. Bear in mind, however, that a reproduction here cannot begin to show the incredible detail of prints. All they can show is how relatively small the animal subject is to the entire landscape. It is a little ironic that a digital photograph is really not best seen on a personal computer (because the screen is not large enough). I’ll give you a link at the end to the de Lossy website which allows for zooming in on several works. Even that, however, is not nearly the same as being able to walk up and see the images a point blank range. Perhaps this shows that even digital technology cannot dispense with tangible works themselves.
Sisso (Montgai, Spain. 2012) is panoramic landscape of a meadow under a light blue sky. The subject is called in English a Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) and is a breeding male in full dramatic neck plumage.
Even if you click on the photo to see the file in full size you won’t begin to feel the details of this large landscape. You can barely see the bird on the right midground of the picture. He is along a band of in-focus read flowers. These flowers dissolve into the foreground. Behind the flowers is an out of focus field of tall grass and shrubs. When he bird is examined, it’s clear that he is at extreme attention. His neck is fully extended. The black hood feathers are apparent. But most arresting is the intricate pattern of short dark and light brown strips on his back side which contrast with the white and black feathers of his front. Aside from the white breast, the colors are perfectly harmonious with the vegetation. Once again the “subject” is only about 6 inches and in this case is set considerably off center to the right. (You can see a “zoomable” file of this photo on the de Lossy site here.)
Another example I’ll show is Palokärki (Korouoma, Finland. 2011), the subject of which is what is called the Black Woodpeck in English (Dryocopus martius).
As you can see the composition is defined by the vertical lines of the trunks of the conifers (Norway spruce?). There are few branches with sparse leaves and the background is a wintry sky. On one of the trunks to the right is the bird in its typical hunting pose. On close inspection individual barbs of the feathers can be seen as well as tufts of afterfeathers. The one visible eye is a black dot within a perfectly white orb. The beak is rendered in such perfect clarity that it seems (to me) that a recently captured insect is visible at the tip. It is impossible to overstate the precision of the focus. (The “zoomable” version is found here.)
Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy appear to have come upon this genre relatively recently. Their career seems to have largely involved (human) portraiture, and they have worked for both Corbis and Getty (and still do). (This probably accounts for the decision to focus on a single subject in the landscape.) Mr. David de Lossy tells me, however, that he has had a lifetime of birding experience in Europe behind him and that when he turned to this type of nature photography he was motivated by two considerations: to add some creative technique to the genre and to avoid doing easy shots. These considerations undoubtedly formed the basis of an unstated aesthetic. In this regard I can’t help but compare a photo from the show with an acknowledged European masterpiece.
I don’t have a file of the photo and it is not on the de Lossy website (although another shot of the same kind of bird is found here), so you will have to take my description (or better yet see the show) of Mochuelo M (Bellmunt d’Urgell, Spain, 2013). The subject is the Little Owl (Athene noctua). The landscape is a rocky outcrop surrounded by new growth of various grasses. The spotted brown owl looks out from behind the grass, with one eye in full view, its right eye just barely. The little bird is perfectly secure in its environ. Of course, when the most famous rendering of this bird was done by Albrecht Dürer more than 600 years ago, the purpose was entirely different. Dürer’s version illustrates the time (and technique of the times) perfectly. The bird is examined in artificial surroundings, but the wild nature is emphasized by the talons, which clearly show its predatory nature. The bird looks down, almost as if in a sullen mood (perhaps for being out of its element). Dürer renders the portrait with intricate brushstrokes to simulate the texture of the feathers. It is a perfect representation of the Renaissance urge to examine nature as “types,” to separate it from the whole and to catalog it. The aesthetic of this show (and perhaps our time), however, is quite the opposite. The animals are not highlighted (except by focus). They are seen in situ, despite how difficult that makes it for the artist and the viewer. It no longer is something for our edification, but rather for our wonder. Our job is not to classify and learn but to marvel.
The show is on view until February 1 and the prints are listed for sale. If you are in the city it is well worth your effort to see for yourself. Those unable can view a considerable number of the photos at the de Lossy “Not Alone” website. But I have to warn you that while it gives a sense of the prints, only physical inspection will do.
1In this exhibit the works were printed (by inkjet (?)) on Hahnemülle photo rag over dibond. [Return to text.]
2All the prints at the Soho Photo Gallery were 96.06 inches long and ranged from 25.29 to 39.37 inches tall. de Lossy told me that the prints were constrained by the size of the exhibition space and that at the last European show the prints were twice the size, without loss of resolution or deterioration of color. (The Vimeo video shows larger prints, but not ones in the Soho exhibition.) [Return to text.]