Landscape of Humanity

by Martha Blanchfield

All Photos © Jim Graham

April 28, 2013

Photographer Jim Graham took a chance when he embarked on a ten-day trip to Cuba last year. Seeking colorful immersion and a chance to explore, he found a country that remains much as it was 50 years ago.

Predominantly an editorial and commercial shooter, Graham has long been focusing on landscape for personal projects. “I’d avoided photographing people for the longest time, but while in Cuba I found the citizens to be inextricably intertwined with the visual landscape,” says the Pulitzer Prize-nominated artist. In this extended RF Cookbook, we present four of Graham’s images and reveal what went into creating each one.

The Portrait

“In Cuba the government owns most everything—including the land,” Graham says. Citing Richard Avedon’s notion that the one thing a person truly owns is his or her face, Graham began cautiously peering at facial details. “I decided to look for faces that evoked the landscape. I searched for ways to allow portraits to be a metaphor for the landscape, culture and soul of Cuba.”

Setting out on foot one day, the photographer encountered a man pushing a cobbled-together wheelbarrow, slowly making his way down the street as he sold vegetables.

“I walked up to him and in my horrible Spanish said, ‘permiso photo.’ ” The man nodded in agreement, and Graham took his Nikon D700 (with a Nikkor 105 macro lens) from his shoulder. He photographed with minimal depth-of-field, seeking to emphasize the man’s eyes and allow the sharpness to drop off quickly.

“I really wanted the viewer to be caught by the eyes and to be drawn in...” says Graham. “But I also wished landscape to be reflected in his face.”   

The following day, Graham imported photo files into a MacBook Pro via PhotoMechanic and pulled up the portrait. He opened Photoshop CS6 with Camera RAW and used Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 to initiate a black-and-white conversion.

“Once I had a conversion that felt right, I was able to continue refining the image with a curves layer to gain proper contrast,” he notes. “So much of my process is a throwback to the wet darkroom. I’m not really retouching the image, I’m refining it just as I would had I been working with film and silver chloride paper.”

Graham feels it’s important to see an image through from visualization, to capture, to print. “Simply looking at a photograph on the screen isn’t enough; I really want to see a print.” For printing, he chose Moab Lasal Photo because it yielded the most photorealistic image with a punchier contrast and overall tone.

The Angel

“I was walking through Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana and came across a monument. The light just washed across [this] angel, with the monument behind in partial shade,” Graham says of another favored image. Drawn to light and shape in a subject, Graham recounted the humanity in the sculpture’s face. “It just felt right.”

Challenged to find a suitable angle given the limitations of vantage, the photographer returned to the memorial three times. “Overall I made 23 frames from varying angles—both horizontal and vertical compositions. I couldn’t quite get the angel squared between the window arches of the structure behind.”

He produced frames in RAW using his Nikon D700 and a 24-70mm f/2.8, minus filter, minus tripod. He rarely uses either of the latter. “In my opinion your best composition and crop tools are your legs and knees!”

Graham imported the photos using Photo Mechanic, then worked RAW files in Photoshop CS6. First, he squared the lines in the image using the transformation tool. Next came work with tones and overall palette. “My secret ingredient was to use color symmetry—playing the blue and yellow tones off each other,” he says. “I tried several looks, settling on the dark warmth with the cooler statue coloration playing well with each other.”

He made the background darker and more recessive using Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro plug-in filter “Dark Contrasts.” A mask helped him ‘paint out’ the angel. He also used a touch of “Viveza 2” to add a bit of structure to the statue.

El Morro

For a third image, Graham recounts a trek down to El Morro, a citadel located in Havana. “As I do many times when away from home, I got out the door into the morning darkness,” Graham says. “This allows me to see light in a bit different direction, plus photo possibilities in advance of them happening.”

He walked down to the Malecón, a waterfront breakwater wall that protects the land from the sea. “The surf was washing over the large boulders, and at dawn the light was a wonderful reddish color.” He used a Nikon D3x with 24-70mm set to f/2.8. This image required a long exposure of 10 seconds. “I braced the camera as best I could—wanting lots of movement in the water. Only this amount of time exposure would give this look.”

As usual, Graham began retouch by opening the file in Camera RAW. There, he does basic toning and color correction. “Starting in Camera RAW allows me to also size the file,” he explains. “As a rule, I choose the largest output possible; I can always downsize later.”

He then opens it in Photoshop and sits back to look at the image. “I make decisions about what is needed from a technical standpoint—just as I might have done had I been working in the darkroom.” Graham shares that he really enjoys using the Nik Software Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex

Pro 2 and Viveza 2 plug-ins. “They give me a great amount of freedom to refine the clarity, tone, hue and feel of an image.” A touch further refinement was made using CS6 and Nik Software Viveza 2.

Once he’s finished with an image, he saves it as a layered PSD (Photoshop Document). “Then I’ll flatten the file and lower the bit depth to 8 (magazines work in 8-bit rather than 16-bit). I also save a large JPEG. If I’m going to print it, I’ll work from the 16-bit PSD. This gives me much more image information.”

Photo In-Between Time

A Nikon loyalist since he started taking pictures nearly 48 years ago, Graham quips that like many, he’s become inundated with technology; he gestures to an iPhone 4S with retina display. Working with a DSLR will remain a chief way of creating photographic art, but Graham acknowledges that tools such as a cell phone can enhance the creative process.

In fact, this little device has opened up entirely new ways to work and be creative. Powered by apps such as Hipstamatic, his cell phone now houses a ridiculous number of photo ‘sketches’ that often evolve into fine-art prints he displays and sells.

Graham can catch spontaneous instants using an iPhone camera, then massage them to initiate a visual sketch. Many files are refined completely on his iPhone, but some are eventually imported into his computer for best edit.

It Didn’t Feel Like Winter, It Didn’t Feel Like Spring

For the fourth photo, Graham recounts, “A little over a year ago I was walking the property that I live on. It didn’t feel like winter, and it didn’t feel like spring. It was an in-between time. The weather had warmed a bit, so fog hung over the fields and seeped into the bordering trees.” In an instant, Graham spied geese flying overhead and out came his iPhone. A moment later he was fiddling with an 8-megapixel image file using the ProCamera app. He next tapped the Blender app to add a layer of texture, and then Snapseed helped round out tone and add structure. “All this was done in less than four minutes as I stood in the field!” he says.

Experimenting in this manner, Graham created a series of photos called “Là Fhéill Bhrìghde.” This is the period of time marking the beginning of spring—halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. He feels that his, “imagery parallels an old time, a time that was perhaps more mythic. . .moments when winter’s grip was lessening and the beginning of spring was nearing.” To that end, the work has a more alternative look, he says, “as though they were a platinum print, an ambrotype or maybe even a bromoil. And while much of this work remains personal, some may eventually be shown in a gallery—it’s just an issue of finding the right one.”

PAPER AND PRINTING CHOICES

As a fine-art photographer who exhibits often, Graham dives into printing using his own studio tools. For prints that require photo black ink and are sized up to 17 x 22 inches, he relies on an Epson 3880. For larger pieces, an Epson 7800 printer with matte black K3 UltraChrome ink is preferred. The Moab Master says that products from Legion Paper Brand are mainstays for him. “I use Entrada Rag Bright 300, Lasal Exhibition Luster 300 and Somerset Museum Rag. Museo’s Photo Rag Satin is my choice when printing any image that has a photo- realistic look.

To view more of Graham’s images, visit http://jimgrahamphotography.com.

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