Claustrophobia breakdown

 

Goals and… um, “planning”

For the Disquieted Few’s 2011 show theme, we selected the concept of trigger events — those traumatic events that can inspire phobias. I have been mildly claustrophobic since I was about 6, when I got a sleeping bag for Christmas. I immediately unrolled it and climbed in… head first, for whatever reason. One of my uncles (you know the kind) flipped the sleeping bag over, and because I was a completely irrational 6-year-old (now I’m an irrational 30-something-year-old) and I was now sitting on the way out, I panicked. Ever since then, my own breath pushing back onto my face or the inability to extend my elbows fully outwards makes me stabby.

I thought the visual of a zipper would be a good place to start, but I needed it to evoke helplessness and panic. I grabbed a tailor’s dummy and layered every sweatshirt or coat I could onto it, carefully arranging the zippers to reveal depth. I thought about doing this as a stop-motion animation, but I had waited too long (gasp!) — this was on a Sunday, and the show was to hang on the following Thursday. A photo would have to do.

It was awful. I was so certain that many layers of zippers would have an interesting, visually suffocating effect on the viewer. This looked more like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad, and while that alone would make me want to vomit, this image was not something that would really get under anyone’s skin. I had been thinking for literally months about how creepy and paralyzing this image would be. Not only was this image neither of those things, it had zero story or raison d’être. It might as well have been a shot of some flowers.

So I gave up.

I told my wife that I’d be sitting out the show this year and started rehearsing my crappy excuses to tell the rest of the group. My wife pretty much told me to shut up and go take a shower. I listen to my wife. You would too.

This is what I shot. Awful.

This is what I shot. Awful.

This is what I comped together 2 hours later. Ugh.

This is what I comped together 2 hours later. Ugh.

Eureka

Then I remembered the 200+ cicada shells that my son and I collected in the local park the previous year. I didn’t know why I was keeping them. It’s just something broken human beings do. “Maybe I’ll use this someday.” I could probably rationalize myself into being less of a hoarder if situations like this would stop presenting themselves and my bizarre collections would stop saving my ass. The metaphor that the cicadas presented seemed just that right balance of obvious and inevitable, but hopefully only upon seeing it.

I still had the tailor’s dummy set up, and I couldn’t let the zipper idea go. I waited until my wife went to work the next day before I dumped cicada shells all over our clothes. I found the framing I liked and finished arranging all of the elements. Since this was going to be a static shot, I decided to play around with lighting in layers. Each lighting setup (shown above) was shot with 9 bracketed exposures [1]. My middle exposure was not always chosen well, so that is something I would change if I could. The lighting sources included the following:

  1. A 12“x12” LED panel
  2. Daylight from a window
  3. A CFL bulb through a cream-colored lampshade
  4. A 3“x12” LED panel buried under a few layers of clothing and shells
  5. A small, LED flashlight (as backlight)
  6. A small, LED flashlight

The 9 bracketed exposures were first combined and then tone-mapped back down to a 16 bits-per-channel TIFF file [2]. I wanted each of the tone-mapped images to be contrasty, detailed and visually interesting. I then combined all of the tone-mapped images into one comp, painting in or out what I wanted to achieve a single, “impossibly” lit scene.

 
 
 

Photoshop layer setup

Transient
Transient
Transient
Über

Über

Final

Final

 

To be honest, I think some of the individual tone-mapped images look more visually interesting than the final image, but I do not think they tell the story as well.

The last image I shot was a macro of the über-insect’s head. I tried to match the angle and translate/scale the depth-of-field, due to the obvious differences in size.

Comp, comp, comp. I think it went well. The final piece is printed about 24“x36” and seems to give some people the heebie jeebies, possibly more from the insect shells than anything else. But it’s a far cry from the popped collar nightmare I’d been pursuing.

And now, once again, I’m justified in keeping most of this junk…


  1. When you shoot bracketed exposures or time-lapse sequences, the camera must not get bumped or moved in any way. Therefore you basically have 2 options: use the camera’s auto-bracketing feature (if it has any), or shoot tethered to a computer via USB cable and control the camera through software. Only Nikon’s top-of-the-line cameras will auto-bracket 9 exposures. Most of their cameras, including the D7000 I was using, will only do 3. So I used the amazing and free Sofortbild to shoot tethered. It’s amazing. And free.  ↩

  2. Although Photoshop has a tone mapping feature, I much prefer the looks and control that Photomatix offers. And oh look, academic pricing.  ↩