What if Georgia O’Keeffe was a Photographer?
What if Georgia O’Keeffe was a Photographer? avatar

This post is based on a artists talk at Cohoes Artist Showcase V (CAS-V Friday March 6 & Saturday March 7, 2015).

Georgia O’Keeffe was a twentieth century painter best known for her flowers and southwest landscapes. In many of her canvases the background is a solid color. This isolates the subject from the context that it exists in. The four pieces that I’ve entered in this year’s showcase are a bit of an ‘ommage to Georgia O’Keeffee. All are flower images and all have been isolated. What I want to talk about today is a series of techniques that a photographer can use to accomplish that objective.

Let’s start with the obvious and least technical approach – which actually has a few variations. Only photograph objects that have a solid background.

In these first two images the background was a nearly featureless sky.

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Or at least use a background that can be rendered as a fairly solid out of focus area by using a rather shallow depth of field.

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Or get close enough to your subject to eliminate any background.

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The second technique is to use a solid colored backdrop.

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If we pull back the camera a bit you can see the set up that was used for the roses image.

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Ah – but what if your subject isn’t as portable as a vase full of rose buds? How about these tulips with the chain link fence, the dead leaves, and the grass behind the fence.

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Here are the same tulips 4 years later. In one I slipped a piece of white mat board between the tulips and the fence, in the other I used black mat board. I got tighter to the tulips to reduce the amount of ground clutter that I had to pluck out of the way.

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The third technique may seem purely contrived and there will be some that say it’s not “real photography”. But if Georgia O’Keefe can paint her bare canvas with a solid color and then add her flower on top of that because it is “art”, then I say a photographer can use whatever tools are available to create the art image that the photographer desires. Here is a flower shot that I took while wandering around Cohoes one day – I believe it was at Canal Square. I didn’t happen to be carrying a 32 by 40 inch sheet of black mat board so I shot it “as is.”

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I then used the paint bucket tool and the clone tool in Photoshop Creative Suite 5 to remove the portions that I did not want in the image. By creating a much higher contrast between the flower and the background the colors of the flower seem more vibrant – the image has more “pop”.  I also cleaned up the bit of spider web and few white spots on the petals, but did not try to increase color saturation in the flower. The actual color of the flower does not change from one image to the next.

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The fourth and final technique I want to cover is what I like to call controlling the light. If the subject is well lit while the background is in deep shadows – the background will disappear. Most of the time this will be achieved by using artificial light to illuminate the subject – but it can happen naturally too.

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I left the top part of the background in this image to point out that there indeed was green vegetation behind the flower. The flower itself was in strong sunlight while the background was in deep shade. Properly exposing for the brightly lit flower caused the background to be a nearly featureless black.

In this next shot despite being tight to the back lit subject, there is a lot of extraneous clutter in the image.

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In this next image I’ve closed the drapes to eliminate the back light, switched to a longer lens, moved back, and lit the scene with an off camera flash. As you can see the spill over from the flash is still lighting extraneous objects, including the now dark drapes in the background.

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In the next shot I moved the flash more to the side and a bit higher. As you can see, we still have flash spill issues.

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In the final shot I’ve lowered the camera position to crop out the table top and other extraneous items.

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