Sunday, February 6, 2011

The raft adventures 1: Model making and photography.

Last week I got busy in my workshop and built a model raft that turned out to look quite like the Kon tiki, Thor Heyerdahl`s famous raft that he sailed from Peru to Polynesia and showed the seaworthiness of a wash-through design where the logs supported the load platform and allowed any waves that came on board to simply disappear down the cracks. I even built a flat bottomed bateau for it and peopled the raft with a crew who stood less than a finger high and were made from some moldable wax based clay. That was just the first stage of preparations for a photographic project I have been thinking about for some time.

Last year I made a paper canoe and two paper cut-out paddlers and photographed them as they ran the rapids in my little stream. Obviously cut outs, they never-the-less caught the imagination of many people. Minds were not tied to reality it seemed and in fact related to pretend figures more easily than to simple reality. That should not really have come as a surprise; all the arts work on this principle, after all.

I varnished the finished raft to keep it waterproof and got Heather to sew some simple sails and then, impatient to begin, placed it and its first two figures on a blue, crumpled-up sleeping bag to simulate the ocean and began to photograph it from all angles and in different lighting. Even in their raw, unmodified state the images I made on my new little Samsung T 70 were impressive. I now had a much more three dimensional craft to work with and more fully rounded characters to put into action. The moldable clay allowed the figures to be twisted and altered into a variety of poses. The raft was too large ( about 20 inches long) to cruise down the creek but the brimming pond afforded a large body of water and some interesting shorelines to explore. The next afternoon, with two more characters joining the crew, the raft set sail ( and it could really sail) on the calm and sometimes rippled surface of the pond. I began to photograph it.

Sure enough, as it sailed into the bull-rushes and I photographed it from above it did look like the model it was, but what interested me was that when it approached shore and I held the camera at water level, just as with the canoe series, the sense of smallness and model-ness receded. When I put a crew member in the bateau dinghy and she set out to tow a mooring line to shore the effect was increased. The little characters were no longer idle passengers but took on roles and reality. Close-up, they were still roughly hewn, but that did not matter, or more accurately it seemed just right. Model people on a model raft going about their real lives.

The next step was to ‘photo-shop’ some action into the still fairly static images. The raft needed to create a wake, the waves must leap and splash, cabin lights must cast their golden glow in the star filled night. The woman towing the mooring line ashore must be seen to be paddling hard and foaming along in the raft`s bateau. This is where the photographs became paintings as well, as the computer photo-shopping tools did their work. As I was now free-styling I now needed to recall background knowledge on how a raft would create a wake and how water would look when stirred by paddles, and I needed the skill to paint them in.

I also needed to continue to keep working creatively as I went along. The night sailing image started simply enough. By darkening and making the image monochrome I achieved the first stage of ‘night’ and by tooling in a phosphorescent wake I had the raft moving across the dark surface which reflected a starry heaven. But the image, while semi-accurate to ‘reality’, lacked any real punch. It needed something more and when I placed the imaginary oil lamp at the masthead and lit the cabin from within, I finally had something. The golden light spilled out of the window, through the cracks, and touched the deck and a mast just enough to give the effect I wanted. How often on night watch have I myself glanced down the companionway hatch to drink in that same warm glow from the reading lamps of the crew below and then raised my eyes again to the windswept, star-filled sky and the faint curve of the horizon we were sailing endlessly towards.

One thing was obvious however, just because these were photographs of a model did not mean that just any old pictures would do. I still needed to make good, interesting images. Where will this project go from here? Well this camera will make HD videos and I have always been interested in action and story telling. Perhaps this model raft project will not end here but be a good beginning for something new and the raft folks will have more adventures.

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