Dredging for Photo Gold

Recently, I’ve been combing through megabytes of photographs that I’ve taken over the past few years, looking for images worth processing. Now, I’d love to say that this is part of a brilliant strategy: take photos, wait a while, then work on the ones that I spared from the delete key. Such an approach would sever any lingering emotional attachment to what, in point of fact, are simply bad pictures.

Truth be told, my forays into the depths of my external hard drives have been motivated by a desire to clean up a colossal digital mess that’s grown into my very own techno version of the La Brea Tar Pits. I suspect that even Marie Kondo, the decluttering phenom, might consider my excavation needs above her pay grade.

As I plumb the layers of folders and subfolders on my drives, I think about the words of my friend and mentor, the wonderful photographer David Lee Black. David says that as photographers and visual artists, “we mine, we refine, we shine.” “Mining” means taking photos. “Refining” refers to processing our work. And “shining” refers to getting out there and showing the world what we’ve done.

I propose adding a new category between mining and refining: “Dredging.”

When you take photos and process them in a timely way, you know what you’re going to find on the image files. You remember what attracted you to the subject or scene, how you framed a composition, and how you chose to use light through particular exposure settings.

With dredging, because of the time lag, you don’t know what you have until you open the file—you’ve long forgotten the what and why (assuming your digital organization scheme is, shall we say, lacking). Often, though, the drudgery of digging through thousands of images is punctuated by pleasant surprises.

For example, not long ago I rediscovered a series from one of my favorite Cambridge haunts, Simon’s Coffee (an incredible asset to the neighborhood with great coffee, tea, and food, and wonderful camaraderie among the regulars). The forgotten series whisked me back to a wintry day in 2018. A nor’easter with wild winds and wet snow created a surreal backdrop as people braved the storm, walking by the cafe’s windows and door. The condensation on the glass added another layer of intrigue and an opportunity for creative processing. I fired off a number of burst shots to capture passersby at various positions within the frame, entering and leaving. Here’s what one image looked like straight out of the camera (Fuji 23mm F2.0 + Fuji XT2):

By converting the photo to black and white, cropping the viewing area to just the door, and then adjusting various tonal and brightness qualities, I reduced the image to a simple statement of “human versus the elements.” I liked how the streaks on the glass evolved into spiky headgear, further enhancing the otherworldliness of the scene, almost as if an extraterrestrial biped was exploring our planet.

After reviewing the image, I wanted to add another element to the stark statement, one that conveyed the sheer misery of walking down a cold and windy thoroughfare during a major winter storm. To amplify the chaos of the swirling snow and build a sense of foreboding, I created a layer based on a folded, tattered paper pattern. Here’s the result:

As satisfying as the dredging may be when a little gift turns up, I look forward to the day when all my images, old and new, are well organized and tagged and easy to find.

Marie K, no need to lose any sleep over my haphazard bits and bytes—I’ve got this.

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