Portrait of Susan

I don’t consider myself a portrait photographer by any means, but having learned about available-light portraiture from the wonderful Ibarionex Perello I at least developed enough confidence to shoot some portraits under those conditions. (I admire the people who work with strobes and all that sort of thing, but it’s beyond the tasks I’ve set out for myself in this lifetime.)

DSC_0197 1 sJust after I completed the course with Ibarionex, my friend, author Susan Heyboer O’Keefe, took me to dinner and asked me to shoot her portrait as her publicity mug for her upcoming novel. Susan is primarily known as an author for children and young adults, and Frankenstein’s Monster was going to be her first novel for adults.  Well, I said, I’d give it a try. Here is the result. Susan had a gift for the jaunty wearing of hats. I photographed her outside our office building, where the blurred reflection of fall foliage in the black glass provided an uncluttered background, and the light overcast sky that day was just what we needed to avoid harsh glare.

Last spring, when one of her brothers-in-law was Ed IMG_1369 sgetting married, Susan decided to get a blue streak in her hair for the occasion, and she asked me to photograph her. Not so much a formal portrait as a decent record shot. Here is one of them. The light was perhaps a bit too strong, but there was the advantage of the background being almost completely dark. Or so I thought. This turned out to be the only usable photo of the series, because for the others I turned in a slightly different direction — and ended up with a lovely tree reflection growing out of her head. Lesson learned: When shooting in the sun and you think your background is complete (or nearly complete) shadow, don’t assume anything: Check your LCD screen very carefully, preferably with a loupe, just to make quite sure.

Shortly before the blue hair incident, Susan had taken a bad fall on some ice outside her front door and used a cane ever after that. But not an ordinary, functional-looking cane. Not Susan. It was a consummately stylish cane, and she used it with aplomb, especially when it was accompanied by her usual array of colorful, flowing scarves and shawls. I regret that I never got round to photographing her with it.

The blue hair pictures may have been the last “serious” portraits ever taken of Susan. She died, suddenly and shockingly, of a suspected coronary embolism, two days before Christmas. She was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my photography. She even gave a metallic print of my Vintage Chevy abstract to her brother-in-law as a present, at the same time as she ordered an aluminum print of it for herself.

But more than that: After her funeral in New Jersey yesterday, I decided to avoid the Interstates and instead return north via the back roads through Ringwood — that intriguingly liminal area where Passaic County melts into New York’s Orange County and where my cameras and I spent considerable amounts of time during the four years I lived in Bergen County. And along Route 511 I passed the Ringwood Diner, where Susan and I once met for Sunday brunch after I had finished shooting at Ringwood Manor (“Just call me when you’re finished,” she had said). Arriving first, I took up a table by a window and before long saw Susan coming up the ramp, smiling. Someone was smiling because they were about to spend time with me. It doesn’t get better than that.

Rest in peace, Susan. No, despite what the song says, you didn’t leave us laughing when you went — you left us crying. But undoubtedly you now have the folks in heaven shedding tears of laughter.

Note to self: Got to get back to photograph the Ringwood Diner.

Topaz Great Plug-In for B&W

A few weeks ago I visited an antiques store in the Catskills region known as the Mountain Top. The store, at the junction of Routes 23A and 296 in Hunter, New York, is run by Cindy Smith, and contains both “Old Treasured Belongings” — the gently used items of all kinds — and “Handmade by Cindy” — a stunning array of handbags and other products made by Cindy herself. If you want to read more details, and to see my full-color versions of the photos below, please check the December 5 post on my Hudson Valley and Catskills blog.

But in this post I want to show you just a small part of the capabilities of Topaz’s B & W Effects. This is a powerful tool for expanding your creative postprocessing options, and given my propensity for photographing historic and other interesting buildings, both inside and out, I purchased and downloaded it to see how it could enhance what I call my “Modern Vintage” work. 

Since my objective is that you enjoy the old-fashioned warmth and coziness of  Cindy’s store as mediated by my interpretations, rather than to give you a detailed photo tutorial, I’m going to post the four pictures with just a brief word of explanation about how Topaz B&W Effects was applied in each image.

Ed Img 2034 Top BW sThe presets in Topaz B&W Effects are grouped into collections with such headings as Traditional, Albumen, Cyanotype, Stylized, Opalotype, and others. Each collection then has a number of different presets, which you can preview in a grid if you want and then select from the grid the one you want to work with. This photo was processed using Warm Tone White with Border from the Traditional collection. I increased the Brightness slightly to give it a hint of a faded look.

I’m not a fan of unusual effects for their own sake, but in this case it seemed to Ed Img 2040 Top BW sfit the subject of the image, as if the room were emerging like a benign spirit from a pleasant past. (No, no, I’m not channeling Dickens — at least, I don’t think so!) It’s the Milky White preset from the Opalotype collection. I’ve found that Opalotype presets have good potential for these “old-fashioned” interpretations; I’ve used another in a slightly different context, the interior of a rural diner.

Ed IMG 2036 Top BW sBoth in Topaz B&W Effects and in Topaz Adjust 5 I’ve found the Stylized collections to be great places to mine for processing ideas, and so the next two images were both processed with Stylized presets. This one used the Painterly Color preset; it seemed to be a good way both to make sense of the busyness of the room and to contrast with my interpretation of the first photo above that has similar content.

A word of warning: Topaz B&W Effects is like rich food; you can only eat so Ed IMG Top BW 2044 smuch rich food at one sitting, and in my experience I found myself saying “enough!” by the time I got to the fourth picture, again in one sitting.  A lot of trial-and-error went on here as I found it difficult to settle on an interpretation I could live with. My aim, after all, was to make workable, artistic interpretations in their own right rather than to offer demonstrations of Topaz B&W Effects as ends in themselves. For this last one I again chose from the Stylized collection, this time the Detailed Grunge preset. I gave it a very slight tint. Looking back on the entire process, I found it interesting that my “Modern Vintage” interpretations lend themselves to the two extremes, either a grungy, detailed, structured look or a soft look with vignetting or other “fading” effects toward the edges.

There you have it — my brief intro to Topaz B&W Effects. If you visit their website you can download a free trial before deciding to buy.  I get no commission here, just wanted to share my enthusiasm for this great plug-in in case it helps you. The photos are for sale on my website.

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