50% Underground


I thought of this image as the centerpiece of my Thesis I final, and it has been the most tumultuous journey to a finished image I’ve had so far in undergrad. It involved buying a new camera in order to achieve the technical aspects I felt it needed, multiple iterations of the image over several shoots, and started with a fascination months before the exposures were made (and then a few weeks before the ink was on paper).

For my own purposes of reflection, I think I’ll walk through its genesis chronologically. It’s something I haven’t done for one image, really. I remarked on one of my classmate’s work recently: she had made a large print of an image which we gave technical critiques on, and she went back into the studio, made the same set-up again, and reshot it to fix the problems. To my recollection, that was the first time I saw a classmate remake an image from scratch with the same arrangement fixed in order to improve it technically, and it was so awesome how much she was driving at that one idea that she needed the image to be perfect, which was amazing to see. I would like to make work that’s based around a similar attachment to and dedication to crafting impactful images, and this felt like a big step towards that goal.

I started thinking about this building when I made a food delivery to it in the summer of 2016. I had my bike, I walked up to the door near the base of its parking entrance the person I called told me to go to, and I leaned up against the inside of the railing around the door. Within ten seconds, no more, someone on an intercom who was looking at me through a camera said “you need to wait on the other side of the railing”. Amazed, I walked around and waited several minutes for the security guard who ordered to food to come out. Where did she come from in that labyrinthine structure?

After some googling and some light reading on the Federal Reserve system, I found out that more than 50% of the building was underground, which was staggering to me to think of. There was already so much visible floor space just looking at the building- what do they possibly need all that space for?

Later, in the fall, I resolved to photograph this building. After one unsuccessful attempt to photograph it from across the river which I didn’t even scan, I made this image.

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It was not quite right. Besides being technically unsatisfying, I could not get the colors to coalesce into something that made sense with the 3 color process. I went back to try again during the daytime.

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I only successfully made one exposure due to a security guard for the building that showed up within two minutes of me planting my camera on a lawn adjacent to the building. I was rushed, made several mistakes, and ruined two of the three color filtered images. I ended up with this image, which was closer but still didn’t feel right.

A few weeks pass. The realization of the 9/11 relationship happens during these weeks.

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Not quite. Some worthwhile things happened in this image, but it’s useful as a sketch. I might want to come back to them, and I’m going to resist the urge to write about them publicly for now.

Besides some other photographs on that shoot which didn’t quite turn out, I made this, which is how the image looks in its “raw” state.

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One of the hardest things about this process, which is a reason that I love it (and also why I’m considering biting the cost bullet and shooting color 4×5) is that it’s so unpredictable. 4×5 photography has plenty of points it can fail, and trying to make a pristine image from three separate exposures leaves a lot of points in the process where things can go wrong and render the image unusable.

I don’t have it on my hard drive, but when I originally scanned this image (or rather, when I first combined the three exposures I had to make a color image) I thought it was unusable junk because of how off one of the exposures was. I then rescanned a few days later and I realized it might be savable. Once I finagled correct color correction, I thought it might be worthwhile to keep editing it. I meticulously removed all dust,  did local color correction to help further realize the image, and removed some small extraneous elements to have a refined finished product. It was probably 30 hours of scanning and editing work when all said and done.

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50% gray tone placed above image layer, revealing all spotting and tone/color adjustments.

I shot this on 4×5 so I could print big at a high DPI. So after stressing over every inch of this image and settling that it was basically “done”, I load everything up, double check every photoshop print setting, and release it from that machine which turns the digital into the physical.

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dev for scale

It really was dumbly worth it to print big. I say dumbly because for so long I had avoided going big- I never “felt” much of a difference between a small and medium sized print, and always felt more attached to imagery, so for the longest time I had ruled out even considering printing something bigger than about 24 x 30″. However, the size really did drive home the feeling of “wow I really put so much time into this thing”. Had I not, the print would’ve looked horrible and amateur. It may only look “right”, but I’ve always felt that good artwork feels almost inevitably and correctly “in place” when you look at the finished version. Nothing feels disjointed.

I envisioned this on a black wall, so I painted the wall I was installing on black. I had a really bad idea of how to get it on the wall: taping over the face of it with black gaffer’s tape directly onto the wall. It turns out that gaffer’s tape does not so much stick to fresh paint. I had some dumb justifications for why this would work, but it ended up looking bad, and it also fell off the wall and ripped. I didn’t even really have the energy at this point to be upset, despite the fact that ~$60 in materials and so much effort and care was laying on the floor with a tear in it. Matt Warren, our photo facilities + equipment manager suggested I tack it to the wall, tape the print back together, and dab some mat ink on the tear to try to mask it a little bit. It looked okay, in other words, distracting but only a little bit (so of course, very distracting to anyone who really cares about art). I did not want to spend another $60 to fix what I felt was an error just under my threshold for failure, so I wrote it off as “oh it’s uh, a comment on the failure of images…” and tried to move on.

This was planned as the first piece of the final installation, but was also part of the Pollak open night (and was at one of the most prominent places of the entire show), the chair of my department said I could reprint it for free (waiving the cost of the ink). There was a mad dash to do so, I got a better hanging method from Matt, and it was on the wall (and holding) within hours before the show it had to be up for.

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finally in place

So that sort of felt like the end of that image. Of course, it’ll probably show up again, because when that much work is put into something, it’s worth keeping around and maybe expanding on in other ways than just that iteration. My classmate, Becca Schwartz, also went big and painted the wall for her final, but she really really drove it home with frames. Prints that big look so much better with frames, and this was a cost I saved and an avenue I didn’t even explore. So that may be another route forward with this image.


As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there’s also this image, which I like the composition of a lot more than the image I ended up printing. For one thing, it gives me the option of including the entire building or not, I like the relationship between the sunlit and shaded side more, I think it’s a more interesting view of the highway, and the buildings around it are better framed.

So I may take that route of reshooting and doing all this work again. That’s how you move on, I suppose. It’s how you improve.

I will blog later on about the ideas that surround this image, and others, in my final for Thesis I, but I started that post and ended up writing about 75% of this one before realizing this should probably stand on its own. I hope that this was an interesting story, at least. I’ve always wanted to read artist’s iterative arrival at certain imagery, so I thought I would offer that from my own practice.


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