Photography, Filmmaking, and Design Explorations

Design Project: 1963 LOOK

1963 LOOK Magazine Graphic Design Project

Model Kristina Paulk requested a shoot in late February 2011. I had some ideas about what we might be able to do, based on earlier shooting with Petrarcha in Philadelphia. Just a walkabout shoot, but with vintage clothing. Kristina liked the idea—she appreciates and has vintage fashions—so we scheduled it.

We shot for about three hours in Philadelphia—the basic concept was to pick up shots as though we were shooting for a vintage magazine. I processed and delivered photo sets shortly after.

I wanted to do some magazine spread work and I had this copy of LOOK from 1963 that had grabbed my attention. . . .

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - Cover

Concrete Underground

When Kristina met me in Philadelphia for the shoot she was wearing this dress. And I had her change out of it because it didn’t strike me as being particularly vintage—and, I wasn’t sure what to do with it photographically. I did promise her, though, that we’d shoot with it last so I’d have time to think about how to use it in a scene and pick up a vintage look with it. While Kristina was changing out of the dress I had time to look around and start thinking about it. I had a solution. The dress, evocative of the 1960s, was part of a future that never happened.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 2 & 3

J.G. Ballard gets at this concept in his work from the early 1960s: The atomic age is as much about the artifacts in concrete that are littering the landscape, the cradles of a future that has seemingly moved on without us. The structures being the only remaining objects, reminders, sentinels, warnings. I was also thinking about the ‘64/’65 Worlds Fair in New York City. The future was a marketing ploy—an imagined space where corporations had a vital (and continuing) role to play in shaping how we live. They were serving up the promise of a better life. As though the technology would solve the all-too-human problems of the present.

The building material of choice was concrete. Plastic final forms made from liquid stone and left behind to decay. It was the future when they made it—and their work then serves as a reminder now that we’re in the future, but this vision of the future is from the past. And we’re still stuck with it. For good or ill.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 4 & 5

In any case, this is what I was thinking about when preparing to shoot Kristina in this dress: How to effectively capture the promise architects and workmen cast into their concrete structures—and the decay of that promise.
I’d shot near the subway at City Hall in the past with Atul Narula—an accident, really. The time-period of the look was right for the early 60s. So was Kristina’s dress. So, why not?

Almost half of the photoshoot’s photographs came from the shoot with this dress and in this environment. Kristina was on her game, I’d like to think I was on mine, and something was just clicking.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 6 & 7

I can say that going into this phase of the shoot I was unsure of whether or not I’d “gotten it” earlier in terms of the shots. (I had, but I was unsure.) It was largely uncertainty about using a 50mm focal length with tighter framing (I normally use a 35mm focal length in the city), trying to put into practice lessons I’d learned during the “Shooting Six” shoot from February (in terms of composition), and a bit of worry that the Elmar 5cm lens from 1953 wouldn’t give me results I could actually use—I’d never used it for this kind of shooting before.

But, conceptually—and with the swap to the 35mm focal length—I got more comfortable. And the architecture was positively humming with “future promised but not delivered.”

Kristina met the task. She matched her performance to the scale of her surroundings. Whether this was conscious or unconscious, I don’t know, but I’d like to credit her with working well in her surroundings to nail the look.

Well done, Kristina. And the future is concrete.

Something Blue, Something Red

During the shoot in Philadelphia, I wanted to work closely with Kristina to use texture and color as backdrops for her vintage looks.

As I said to Kristina—and as I was discovering myself—the more I shoot the less interesting most backdrops and backgrounds become. I’ve shot so many photographs now that I want interesting things, in terms of texture, color, how the light falls on the object, etc.

For this dress, I wanted good, interesting light, and color to set it off.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 8 & 9

We shot with backdrops of stone, brick, the shiny red tile (above), and the degraded and decayed blue paint (left).

I stressed backgrounds when working with Kristina and she had said at one point: “I’ll get a lot of photos with great backgrounds.” She did.

In my opinion, the backdrop is the most underestimated object in most photography. The way a surface appears, the way it feels, the way the color will render—or how the texture will pop in a black and white treatment—are often overlooked. Or, just ignored.

The subject is the whole photograph. The backgrounds are a critical part of the whole thing.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 10 & 11

Backgrounds, through framing and careful selection of color, accentuate the point of focus in the photo—and an interplay between the point of focus and the background are critical to establish mood, tone, time period, and a general aesthetic.

Great backgrounds can be pulled out of just about anywhere—you work with what you have. The camera is as dumb as a brick, having no sense of time, place, or space. With something interesting to frame up your point of focus—in this case, Kristina and her vintage fashions—the negative space isn’t just there, it helps to make the final photograph work well.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 12 & 13

Lenses

The “Something Blue, Something Red” photos, along with the cover shot, were taken with a 1953 Leitz Elmar f/3.5 5cm lens. I’d picked this lens up just to see what it could do and specifically so that I could have “poor” optical quality to degrade the image, as one would expect to see from an old lens. It did surprisingly well. My only criticism might be that it was “too nice” in how it rendered images. Bokeh is classic, which is excellent, but at f/3.5 it holds its own in terms of image quality.

The “Concrete Underground” photos were taken with a more modern Summicron 35mm ASPH. I needed a wide for those and had already “risked” half of the shoot on the (to me) unproven Elmar.

Black and White

Black and white shots were treated using TrueGrain and Panatomic-X grain.
Layout was completed via InDesign, using a custom-made Müller-Brockmann grid, which I designed to be based on LOOK magazine dimensions, content ratios, and typography.

Vintage Ads

The vintage ads (with the exception of the Leica ad, left, which I was compelled to include), were all scanned in from the March 26, 1963, issue of the magazine and then laid into the design. I selected ads that served layout purposes and also helped to set the time period. The Pennsylvania Tourism ad is probably my favorite, strictly because the photos were shot in Philadelphia and this is a “Pennsylvania” project.

Backgrounds and Page Depth

I built the vintage page background from a few different scans, creating (via Photoshop) an unbroken surface that could be used in the page spreads.

The shadowing and lighting effects for the pages—which give the optical illusion of page solidity and depth—were developed on a previous project and adapted for use here.

Handling Color

Getting reasonably “accurate” photographic color was tricky. I didn’t want to spend time tweaking each photo. I did want the page texture and color to affect the photos directly. The “aged look” of the photos in old magazines are caused from the breaking down of the paper, which gives them their look.

In other words, the “old look” of an “old” photo is one part optics, one part film stock, and one part condition of the paper upon which the photo was printed. Well, I’d gotten the optics down (the 1953 Elmar) and the film texture was handled with TrueGrain—but what about paper?

The color photos you see are actually a color photo laid over a black-and-white photo (treated with Panatomic-X grain)and then composited using InDesign’s effects and controlling for opacity—so that the tint of the paper comes through Panatomic-X grain, then the color of the topmost photo. I quite like the look.

In short, it’s not a clean look. But it has an authentic look. Again, I want to stress that in my opinion “vintage” things look their best when they’re degraded and destroyed in exactly the right way.

Fun and Thanks

Fun, all around. And. . . . This project wouldn’t have been possible without Kristina—a huge shout out to her for her elegant style and work.

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