One type of post you will see here every 2-3 weeks is the “Behind the Photo” series. In this series, I discuss the stories behind featured photos. These stories include details about planning and location, the shoot, my creative process from start to finish, and what the finished photograph means to me. This week I’m kicking off this series by writing about Roadside Attraction, one photograph in my on-going series, A Southern Sense of Place. I know some people have been wondering; “What’s with the cow in glasses?” This photo is one of my favorites; every time I look at her she makes me smile and think about traveling the back roads exploring small towns off the beaten path.
These days, the most frequent traveling I do is driving up to visit my family in Kentucky. This trip takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes each way traveling on the interstates. My sister, however, mapped out a path down the back roads, which is more direct, but takes about the same amount of time. After her first journey to visit me via this route, she enthusiastically described some of the beautiful country she had passed through. She said that she kept seeing ‘mental snapshots’ of landscapes she imagined I would love to photograph. Eventually my sister suggested that we drive up that way sometime together. With her at the wheel, we could take our time and stop along the way wherever I wanted to take some photos.
A few weeks later, we put the back seats down in the mini cooper, stuffed our two dogs, overnight bags, and my small amount of camera gear in the back, and excitedly set off. Although we weren’t part of a grand caravan heading toward some exotic location, we were still able to appreciate our modest opportunity for adventure. We made our first stop about 20 or so miles up the road and just over the state line in Guthrie, Kentucky; a small hamlet of less than 1,500 people. Right off the east side of hwy 79, between the Lotto Express shop and Red Top BBQ, we spotted a giant statue of a cow! We had to stop and take some photos.
Daisy (as I call her) is about 10 feet tall and made of fiberglass. She has black and white patches, a big pink udder, and is wearing a rather large pair of jaunty red glasses with one partially broken lens. I don’t know for sure why there is a giant dairy cow in Guthrie. It might have something to do with the prominent stockyards located in the area. Or Daisy might just be a ploy the local businesses use to encourage people to stop instead of just passing through. I suspect the latter, as there is a pink elephant of similar proportions just around the corner at the gas station.
Given that we reached Guthrie around midday in August, it was very bright and sunny and extremely hot when I got out of the car with my camera. The brilliant thing was that with my sister along, she was able to keep the car running and everyone (but me) cool while I tried my best to capture how looking at Daisy in that moment was making me feel. I know the word is overused, so I generally try to avoid it, but Daisy was truly ‘awesome’ in her magnificence. Meaning, according to Google, “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” Take it however you like…
I usually carry a camera with a prime lens of wide to standard local length. I quickly, realized, however, that photographing Daisy at that time of day along a busy street surrounded by bustling businesses was going to be a challenge. I decided to grab my Fuji x30 which is an advanced point and shoot camera with a zoom lens. In doing so, I sacrificed some in sensor size, but gained more flexibility in framing my subject. An important part of the art of composition in photography is removing distractions from the scene to better capture the intended story or emotion. Unfortunately, a very large pick-up truck was parked just a few feet away from Daisy’s left side.
I tried as quickly as I could in the heat to capture all of her, both from across the road and closer. I photographed her full profile from different perspectives, her udder, tail and feet, but I wasn’t happy with what I was getting. The scene was just too cluttered to benefit from including the background. Finally, I decided that I might best capture Daisy’s essence in a portrait. Something in the tradition of Michael Sowa’s painting, Fowl with Pearls. I thought that if I could get a good portrait I might be able to work with the photo in post-production to create an image that would do her some justice.
Once the trip was over and I had made it back home, I downloaded Daisy’s photos from my camera and set to work picking and editing the image. Her portrait had good exposure, color, and sharpness, but there were a couple of problems. Considering the brightness, time of day, and the fact that taking her portrait required me to frame her against the sky, the photo had a slight blue cast and the color temp was on the cool side. Also, I was pleased that there were a few wispy clouds in the background, but there were also some tree branches protruding up into the bottom of the scene on both sides. So, I started by using the healing brush to remove the branches. Then I corrected the white balance and tint, brought down the highlights, raised the shadows, and increased the overall exposure just a bit. These actions improved things, but I still felt that the image did little to convey her meaning and how she made me feel.
Finally, I imported the edited photo into the Snapseed app on my IPad, cropped in the photo a little, gave it an old timey frame, and then worked with the vintage grunge effect until I had created the overall look I wanted.
For me, Daisy inspires nostalgic feelings related to the traditional American road trip. The bright colors and vintage feel of the final image remind me of some of the good things about my childhood in the rural South and the endless possibilities in life that we all assume exist when we are children. Daisy is a true piece of Americana and I believe that my photograph, Roadside Attraction, really captures her spirit.
If you’re like me, you frequently feel disappointed that you don’t have more time for road trips. Daisy motivates me to get out as much as I can, even for small adventures, because you never know what you might encounter and how you might benefit from the experience. I had the opportunity to create an image that is very special to me and a unique piece of photographic art.
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-- Angela Martin
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