June 10, 2004
  Saline Valley

(2002(ish), Berkeley, CA; image Copyright 2003 Hamish Reid)

A reworking of the old cliche about bodies and landscapes... (bodies are landscapes, just more intimately surreal than the ones Out There).

This is how I remember it: K. came over to my Berkeley studio to get some publicity images for her dancing career. She barely knew me at the time. She had strong opinions about what would make a good photo, and of the sort of thing she wanted. I had a more mixed idea of what I wanted, a more complex and less articulate set of motivations, based mostly on the strange unusual beauty of her face, her body, her clothes, and her jewelry -- her image, which she changes completely over time while never being anyone but K. -- and a more generic wish to keep my little Body Surrealisms series going.

The session produced a riot of images, both intended and accidental. But K. didn't much enjoy it at the time (and even now she's not particularly enthusiastic about the images I've made of her or with her) -- she typically wanted direction from me, she wanted to be told how to look, she wanted to know what the final image would look like and why I was taking this or that shot. Me, I didn't want her to be a fashion horse or strutting model, I wanted to let herself show over time, I wanted a set of images that would surprise me later, images that would be about her and her strange beauty, and the surrealism inherent in the familiar, and not so much about her dancing. I think she (reasonably) saw the session as just another step in getting some publicity prints; but for me the session and the images it produced were the beginning of a process that's still going on.

So by the time I took this shot she was tired, and getting a little impatient at my vagueness. As we finished up, K. asked what I would do with all the images I'd taken that evening. I had to say I didn't really know, which was true, but the question irritated me (and my typically vague answer really annoyed her) -- I rarely know what I'll do with an image when I'm taking it. I just see things, record them, then often see them differently later. I'm always restless with images, I revisit them again and again -- I used to rework them obsessively in the darkroom, now I just use Photoshop. I have literally tens of thousands of uncatalogued images that I might (or might not) do something with -- see something in -- some day. Or not.

The straight version of the basic image didn't make a big impression on me when I took it, and while it made the final cut for printing straight (as a black and white), it wasn't what I was looking for out of the session. Plenty of other images were, and I concentrated on them. But a few months later I realised I wanted to juxtapose K.'s body and wariness in this image with another landscape that would be equally unfamiliar to most people, a harsh landscape that was mostly about straight lines and colour. The original shot of K. was a low contrast colour image (done with a little D100 and studio strobes), but I felt for the final image it needed to be black and white, and high contrast. I knew I wanted a strong blue cast in the overall image -- I have this thing about colouring bodies blue, mostly, I think, because it's pure abstraction. There really aren't any naturally blue human skins out there, and the blueness draws a little of the natural strangeness of human bodies out, it makes it harder to see the familiar as familiar.

So I played around with Photoshop's layer modes and opacity controls and a bunch of likely blue sky landscapes beneath the original. It didn't take long to come up with the final image...

You can see a version of the original Saline Valley image on my old Pandemonia site. For me it's a familiar landscape, very evocative of the heat and quiet of Saline Valley, of the beautiful harsh Californian desert light I like to surround myself in sometimes.

As for the final image, nearly everyone thinks it was a projected setup that I took the way you see it, which surprises me (I just wouldn't have the wit to do it that way, and the results would have been quite different). Everyone comments on the "cross" and asks about its significance: the only significance for me was the angularity and colour of the underlying poles, and how they contrasted so well with K.'s smooth surfaces and curves. The image is now part of a growing series of layered images that may turn up here sometime. But as always, it's hard for me to look at it and not think of the way it all unfolded, and the strong reality of K. in person (which inhabits this image for me), and of the collision of the memories of Saline Valley and Berkeley.

This is still my favourite image from that session. Even K. rather likes it, which is a victory of sorts, I guess.

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Hamish Reid is a photographer, designer, and software engineer living and working in the Jingletown district of Oakland, California. This is his full profile.

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