Alone, Phoenix, Arizona, 2009
At mid-day, a high sun will create deep shadows that can render a scene harsh and soulless. However there are times where such harsh light can intensify the meaning of a photograph. This is such an image. I noticed a man waiting outside of an office building. He was pacing nervously, and seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the building behind him. I made this image from across the street, zooming back to include gaping shadows on each side of him. I caught many different positions, but the one that spoke most eloquently to me was this one. He turned his back to my camera and walked towards the building, his hands clasped behind his back as if in frustration. Scale incongruity is at work here, but so too is the symbolic meaning of black shadow. In this case, the shadows seem to express the unknown, the face of urban loneliness.
Construction site, Phoenix, Arizona, 2009
I was drawn to this construction site because its chain link fence was covered with a mural depicting the future appearance of the area. Apparently, it will be a plaza or park of some kind, and the artist has shown how it will look when busy with pedestrians. I made this image just before noon. The sun was shining straight down, putting the mural into shadow and burning out the sidewalk. I spot metered on the sidewalk and waited for some actual pedestrians to pick their way around the construction site and its idealized mural. As they entered the frame, I made this image. I deliberately underexpose it. My spot meter turns the sidewalk gray instead of white, leaving the mural and pedestrians in shadow. When post processing, I opened up the shadows a bit, making it seem as if the pedestrians were blending into the crowd depicted on the mural. The colors, particularly the red dress, the red warning stripes on the barrier in the middle of the sidewalk, and the red letters on the front of the city bus in the background, bring the scene to life. The image has three layers – the pedestrians in the foreground, the mural in the middle ground, and the bus looming behind the fence. It is an urban scene, full of people, real and imagined, merged into a cohesive whole by the shadows that tie the image together.
Empty art gallery, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2009
The collapse of the economy has put a number of Scottsdale’s art galleries out of business. This empty gallery building was on a corner, and had windows on both its side and in front. I made this image of its side window because the harsh mid afternoon sun reflects the stucco wall of neighboring building upon it, creating a rough texture that symbolically seems to seal the empty gallery off and making the series of rooms seen beyond it look even more grim. The hot light creates a glowing surface of golden color on the wall at right, which represents the buildings better days. The geometry of reflection and interior panels tell the story of the structure’s current plight. The high, harsh light provides an ideal mood for such an image as this.
Gallery window, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2009
This gallery offered a window full of art. I liked the way the mid afternoon light was falling on the breastplate of this angel’s armor so I selectively built my image around it. This window offers a shadow-box effect, allowing me to photograph its contents with reflected light coming from the street. For example, the reflected light bouncing off the armor softly illuminates the face of the angel. A large painting of a saguaro cactus fills the right hand side of the frame – it is in dark shadow, a presence, rather than a detailed description. Shop windows allow light to fall selectively, rather than universally. I metered on the one glow of light in this scene, allowing everything else to go darker, and giving the face just enough illumination to carry the photograph’s emotion to us.
Reflections, Phoenix, Arizona, 2009
A distorted reflection of a downtown hotel fills every window of the office building at left. The glass wall of the building behind it also reflects the hotel, but gives it more room to flow upwards on its dark surface. I try to contrast a world of order and system, to the world of the imagination. I included the white building at right as symbol of order – its grid of panels and rigid framing contrasts strongly to the imaginative reflections that flow as golden liquid through the left side of the image. By spot metering on the white building, the exteriors of both office buildings in this picture become darker, and offer a perfect context for the surreal hotel reflections to play across their glass surfaces. Although it is nearly mid-day, with the light at its so-called “worst,” the sun is in the right place to create the reflections that give this image it’s meaning.
Dormitory, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona, 2009
The atrium of a dorm on ASU’s new downtown Phoenix campus is covered with a network of slats. The overhead position of the sun at mid morning creates a pattern that gives the dining tables set up in the atrium a bird-cage like ambiance, and my 24mm wideangle lens, turned vertically, makes the most of that pattern. Most striking, however, is the color incongruity here. The single orange chair catches a shaft of full sun, and thus dominates the image with its vivid color. The huge atrium was empty, an architectural show piece without, at least for the moment, a function. The orange chair seems to be its only visitor.
Advertisement, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona, 2009
A series of huge photo mural advertisements, each featuring an ASU student, extends along the wall of one of the buildings on the University’s new Phoenix campus. All but one of them was in full mid-morning sunlight. Partially shaded by a well placed tree, that was the one I chose to photograph. The smiling student on that mural seemed to be incongruously laughing at the branch just under her nose. I waited for an actual student to walk below the huge mural – and caught her animated hand gesture as she entered the frame. The overall image is well shaded by the tree, which creates humor, incongruity, pattern, and shadow. With a little help from nature itself, a potentially flat image becomes alive with vitality.
Dining alone, Phoenix, Arizona, 2009
This restaurant creates shade for its customers by covering its sidewalk café with an awning and an umbrella. A sole diner sits below the umbrella, its fiery red panels dominating the scene. Because he is under the umbrella, I can silhouette his figure against the gray window behind him, stressing body language, instead of his detailed appearance. He becomes an abstraction, a symbolic diner. I caught him with his water bottle poised in mid-flight. It is either on the way up or on the way down. Whenever I must shoot in “bad light” I look for people under umbrellas and awnings, and sometimes I get lucky. I photographed this figure at various moments during his meal, and this is the image that offered the most tension in the gesture.
Bike shop, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2009
Mid-afternoon sunlight can create harsh contrasts. When working in such light, I will look for contrasts that convey ideas. Such is the case here – I noticed that the angle of the light throws this bicycle wheel into a silhouette as dark as the shadow it casts on the tiled sidewalk. The contrast between the sidewalk, the shadow, and the bike is striking. However the wheel is only partially silhouetted – a sliver of light illuminates the rim of the wheel, intensifying its brilliant red color. The sight of red coming from within the black silhouette comes as a shock, and breathes vitality into the image. What could have been a study in shape alone becomes an expression of the manufacturer’s art -- bringing beauty to a utilitarian subject such as a bicycle rim.
Triumph, Phoenix, Arizona, 2009
Making a picture of a person at noon on a sunny day is a disaster waiting to happen. The overhead sun will create dark pockets around the eyes and harshly shadow the planes of the face – just as it does to this statue. However a statue is not a person – it does not have to be flattered. It is a work of sculpture, and has, in fact, been sculpted twice, once by the sculptor, and again by the harsh mid-day light. Its chest, nose, a bit of the face, and the hair – along with the edge of the upraised arm and the hand – emerge from the shadows that cloak the rest of it. It offers a gesture of triumph, and the harsh shadows here can symbolize struggle and difficulty, and thus make that gesture more meaningful than if we saw the entire statue in even light. The gilded window supports and the thrusts within the overhang of the office building echo the statue’s symbolic gesture.
Wind sculpture, Downtown Civic Space Park, Phoenix, Arizona, 2009
A series of netted hoops and funnels, representing Arizona’s distinctive monsoon clouds, forms a vortex-like cone that moves with the wind. It dominates this new park near Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus. The sculpture, created by Janet Echelman, cost the city $2.5 million, and like other controversial works of public art, it has as many detractors as advocates. I photographed it in mid-morning, and my images initially seemed unexpressive because of the flat light. When I studied this image on my monitor, I noticed that the angle of the sun brought subtle highlights to this funnel shaped segment of netting linking several of the huge metal hoops. During post-processing, the more I darkened the sky behind the netting, the greater the glow of those highlights. I was able to create an entirely different mood, as well as express an essence of Echelman’s art, by simply under-exposing the scene. With just one small move of a slider in Photoshop, I was able to overcome the flattening effect of mid morning light.
Restaurant sign, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2009
Another way to work around the harsh, flat, contrasty light of mid-day is to step out of the sun altogether, and look for images in shadowed areas. As we were walking along a street of art galleries and restaurants, I noticed a restaurant sign made out of brushed aluminum, mounted on a sheet of rusted metal. The bottom of the sign resembled a fork, and the ends of its prongs glowed with tiny red LED lights. I was able to make good use here of the soft light reflecting back into the shadows from the glare of the concrete street. I abstracted the sign by removing the entire top, which spelled out the name of the restaurant. We are left with a work of contemporary commercial art, its illuminated prongs teasing the mind and suggesting a possible refreshment stop.