Last week we revealed that Dad’s creative process involves watching lots of Westerns, studying old paintings and doodling on copious amounts of paper. This week we’ll reveal more of Dad’s secret sauce of creativity.
But first to recap: Dad starts by sketching the kernel of an idea he gleaned from the said Westerns, paintings and movies. Once the idea is fleshed out, he contacts the experts for a second opinion on the plan. Sometimes the experts are cowboys, ranchers or trail cooks. Other times the experts are taxidermists and fishermen.
Pulling the Pieces Together
At this point, Dad has the idea, he’s talked with experts and developed a plan on how to shoot the photo. Now he brings everything together by assembling the parts.
Dad asks himself a lot of questions at this point. Does he have the right camera gear for the shoot? Who are the people he can count on to do their jobs well during the shoot? Where can he get the props needed for the picture? What sort of special rigs does he need to build? Where can he test them?
In the case of “The Great Horse Chase”, Dad built a special metal frame that would hold three Nikon FTN camera bodies. This rig guaranteed he’d get photos from three different vantage points, ensuring the shoot would be a success since he only had a few passes of the horses before the camera.
Dad tested and fine-tuned the camera set up in Dallas. Meanwhile, he trusted Baker and McGrew to arrange for the actual horses, cowboy model and wranglers. Then Dad secured his two most dependable photo assistants for the trip.
All of this preparation gives Dad a clear sense of how to direct people like models, wranglers and photo assistants during the photo shoot. Throughout these big photo productions, Dad functions more like a move director than a simple still photographer. There are many moving pieces he must bring together to create a photo like “The Great Horse Chase”.
Other photos are complicated because they require designing and testing unique mechanical rigs to create the action in the photo. The “Big Bass” shoot required hiring a taxidermist to create a fish so realistic no one would believe it was fake. The faux fish was then attached to an arm powered by an air cylinder. (You can read the whole story here.) . Dad spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the projectile fish before shooting a single frame with his camera.
The idea that photographers just run out and shoot great photos is very flawed. Occasionally that happens, but most of the time they spend hours creating photos.
Ansel Adams summed it up best. “You don’t take a photograph. You make it.”
One of the key parts of Dad’s creative process is Photoshop. For Dad, Photoshop functions as an artistic tool like a paintbrush would be to a painter. He’s been able to create many of his best photos thanks to the software.
In the days of film, you were locked into one location. That site had to have everything you or the art director wanted. It was limiting, expensive and often required the headache of getting permits, among other things.
Photoshop allows Dad to shoot a simple landscape shot in one location and the model in a controlled setting at the studio. Then he merges the two images in Photoshop to create a seamless piece of Old West art. That’s exactly what he did with “Wild Ride”.
“As soon as I knew what Photoshop was capable of, it became a very important part of planning,” Dad said. “I began to shoot differently, like the movies. I could shoot a cowboy on a blue screen and drop him into the cactus landscape. It saved a lot of time and money. I could create more of the photos I imagined.”
So you may be wondering how long it takes Dad from the time he thinks of an idea until he’s shooting. That depends on a lot of things. Sometimes the idea needs to percolate for a while. Other times the idea is straightforward and entails little planning. Such was the case with “Barrel Racer”.
“Barrel Racer” required a barrel and one seasoned rider and her horse. Add a blazing sunset and you’re done. Within a couple of weeks, the image was shot and processed.
More complicated images take longer to plan. “Big Bend Country” necessitated traveling to two separate locations, a ranch in Colorado and Big Bend National Park in Texas. Dad shot the cowboys and cattle at the Goemmer Ranch in Colorado. But he needed a dramatic background. Dad remembered a desolate area near the Cottonwood Campgrounds at Big Bend that would be perfect. He hit the road and photographed the mountain peaks.
It took about two months to get the two photos; however, the real time consuming labor would be done in Photoshop. Dad worked on this image for about three months, in between shooting images for his commercial advertising clients. It was a tricky photo to blend.
The secret to merging the Big Bend photo with the Colorado cowboys was the dirt. Some of the dust coming off the horses and cattles’ hooves was part of the cowboys’ photo. But Dad also needed some dust from Big Bend to make the scene believable.
He got the dust by creating a special hoof-shaped tool that his assistant used to hit the ground, stirring up the dust. The tool was encased in blue screen, a fabric that is used in the movies. Special software detects the blue color and efficiently cuts it out as if it had never been there. So when you look at Dad’s photo all you see is the dust, not the tool. And, yes, there were two colors of dirt naturally occurring in the Big Bend half of the photo. So all together Dad spent about five months developing this picture.
As you can see Dad’s always learning something new. Whether it’s how to propel a fish out of the water or how to blend dust from one location with another location in Photoshop, photography is never boring.
“Oh, you’re always learning something new. It may just be a tidbit, but it’s an on-going thing,” Dad said. “You just keep packing the info in your head, but eventually it’ll come back around and you’ll use the knowledge again.”
That on-going quest of learning helps keep Dad’s creative juices flowing.
Replenishing the Well
Every once in a while, though, Dad hits a creative roadblock. Every artist does. When that happens, he shoots something new, visits a new place, purposely meets new people or tries out a new technique.
“You have to mix it up every so often so you don’t get stale,” Dad said. “A while back my friend Red Wolverton gave me the idea to shoot a stampede from underneath. He buried a steel tank in the corral for me. We got some fantastic images from that shoot thanks to Red. It’s a unique perspective.”
Start to Finish
So there you have it: Dad’s creative process from a kernel of an idea to the actual photo. The planning that goes into each of his photos takes them from average shots to authentic Old West photos.
We’d love to hear how about your artistic process. Do you have a secret sauce to spice up your creativity?