Survivor i, Elemental
Contrast / Contour Mask 2001
This one is pushed right to the ragged edge. The difference between the amount of light in the shadows and the amount of light in the highlights would have challenged any film. I knew I’d have to work hard to open up those shadows; I’d rather have a rich black with no detail than lose detail in the highlights almost any day. And I knew that would require a mask that was no easy mask to make. I was also fairly confident it could be done. The very thing that made holding detail in the shadows was the very thing that would make making the mask easy – contrast. This mask would be pushed so far that it would actually become a contour mask, a mask with no gray values or an outline.
I didn’t expect that another contour would become as significant. It was only when I began to work on the image that I realized the image would be better if it were simplified by recontouring the horizon. I masked out a second peak. That clarified the entire composition.
I needed one more contour; the outline of the cloud. I tried several clouds. This heart won. Holding the diaphanous atmosphere that surrounds a cloud can be very difficult. You can’t treat an edge like this with a hard outline, you need shades of gray – lots of them and the precise values. A contrast mask for the cloud was easy to generate; it was white on blue. But getting the values in the mask to the precise density so that the blue sky dropped out and the white cloud was left behind took some finesse. It’s almost impossible not to lose a little in the process, the question is how little do you have to sacrifice.
That’s the question with all of this. How much do you sacrifice? What’s best left included? What’s better left out? That sums up the whole photographic process for me. It’s about what survives and what doesn’t.
This image is like a poem. There’s a lyrical quality to it. There are echoes and rhymes within it. Though one is dark and one is light, the shape of the cloud is similar to the shape of the tree. The darkest and lightest values are linked through shape. The eye travels back and forth between the two. The common language found in their contours sets up a visual dialogue between the two. The image is bathed in a warm light, almost red, an appropriate color for both the earth and a heart. The limbs of the tree branch out contained within the body of stone, like veins. The image breathes. While there may be only a few visible signs at first, still, life persists, even in wastelands.