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It's June 19, and I'm at a diner in Twenty Nine Palms, California, staring warily at the first cup of coffee I’ve had in days. Ten days ago I was in Upstate New York, anxiously anticipating the images I was about to make. To most of you, this is a story you’ve heard before: traveling the country to bear witness to its grandeur. However, have you seen the world like this?
I am an art photographer based in Peekskill, New York, just outside of New York City. I specialize in an obscure type of stitched panoramic photography called Stereographic Projection. Colloquially, these images are referred to as "Little Planets." Personally, they are my passion, and I make my living selling the images I create.
In 2012, I hit a wall, artistically. Prior to this, I had developed quite the love affair with the Diana and Holga plastic cameras. I am a lover of process, and for me to be engaged, it has to involve methodical preparation with a difficult level of execution. I once heard it said that you should do the hardest thing you can think of to ensure few people will attempt to follow or imitate you. I had developed an elaborate process involving the images I made with plastic cameras and transferring those images by hand to various substrates.
So, in 2012, I was no longer satisfied with the images I was making. I wanted to tell a grander tale, I wanted to see spaces, places, and structures in a whole new way and ponder their meaning. I had come across Stereographic Projection photography some years back, and fell in love with it. At the time I was unable to pursue my interest in it, so I filed it away. It was a day in late winter; I was on the High Line, in New York City, feeling underwhelmed. All of a sudden it hit me. Everything I was looking for creatively, artistically, technically, and metaphysically could be found in pursuing this style of image making.
I would like to take a little time to introduce you to my process and how I turn many individual images into something greater than the sum of its parts. The most important thing of all is that the core images I shoot for a particular projection be precisely aligned, level, and have the same degree of overlap. It’s also of paramount importance to position the camera on the tripod in such a way that the nodal point of the lens is directly over the center axis of the tripod. For this I use the Manfrotto 303SPH Camera Mount with the Manfrotto 300N Leveling Base. The only caveat of this rig is its weight. To make these images, I am forever on my feet, so minimizing weight is something I constantly pursue. To mitigate the weight of the mount, I use an Induro CT214 Carbon Fiber Tripod, and I shoot with a mirrorless Fujifilm X-E1 with Fujinon 18mm lens. Due to the amount of walking, hiking, and climbing I do, I prefer to carry all my gear in a backpack. The Tenba Medium Shootout Backpack fits all of my gear perfectly and is comfortable enough to carry all day long.
The Fujifilm is an amazing camera, super lightweight, with excellent image quality, and fantastic for doing long exposures at night. With this rig I will shoot 30–40 frames per image. There is a direct relationship between the focal length of the lens and the number of images required to make one Stereographic Projection. I like having more images to work with because of the amount of detail I get.
One aspect of making these images I really enjoy is that I never use the camera viewfinder to compose. It’s all about how a space feels to me. I must look like a madman to some when I’m feeling out a space. I pace back and forth, step to the left, right, back, and maybe just a touch to the right again. I look up, down, and all around. Many times I’ll just walk away. Recently I drove a hundred miles to a place, hiked for a few miles, and didn’t fire a single shot. It just didn’t feel right. Time of day is everything. My favorite time is late afternoon—low sun and long shadows. This style of imaging is perfect for shadow play.
For my 4000-mile, cross-country trip, I rented a Nikon D600 that was converted to photograph only in infrared. It threw me a bit, because the infrared images look best when the sun is high in the sky; late morning through mid-afternoon. I found it could shoot long exposures at night with the full moon, and with a little help from my Nitecore C16 torch, the images look absolutely stunning. The Nitecore C16 has an infrared beam, so I was able to paint with infrared light to fill in some darker shadows. That might be my new favorite.
In the studio, I process my raw images with Capture One Pro. After processing, Kolor Autopano Giga does the heavy lifting in terms of image stitching. Photoshop brings up the rear with color corrections, tonal adjustments, and retouching. A lot of my images get converted to black-and-white and, for that, I absolutely love Silver Effects Pro from Nik software.
I love making these images, and I’m so lucky that I’m able to do what I love for a living. The reactions from my clients and collectors are priceless. So many people have never seen their world this way. The response to my work really runs the gamut. The surreal nature of the images allows the brain to make all manner of associations. Some images take on a zoomorphic quality; others are like a photographic Rorschach test.
I am a creator of many worlds, and am forever intrigued with changing the definitions and reassembling the spaces in which I find myself. I hope you enjoy the images from my past travels and explorations.
About Michael James Murray