Floating World Photographic Series

The Floating World Series of photographs was born out of an experiment with my Canon EF 8-15mm f/4 L USM fisheye zoom lens.

Latarnia morska Stilo
An early succesful shot with the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4 L USM Fisheye.

I bought this unique lens a few years ago, but have struggled with creating images with it. It is not the fisheye distortion that causes me problems, but the seriously wide angle of view which makes it difficult to simplify the scene (so much is included) and the fact that a light source is almost always captured in the frame leading to dynamic range issues.

I wanted to give this lens another try and planned to take it downtown to play with some architectural shots.

While planning my shoot I saw an architecture photo on Flickr by Peter Stewart which showed enigmatic symmetrically. This photo gave me the idea of intentionally mirroring half of the fisheye frame to create symmetrical images. I would then only have to worry about the content and dynamic range of half the image. I thought this technique might work to add some abstraction to the architectural shots I was planning. I’ve seen shots like this before (usually duplicating one quadrant into what people describe as a kaleidoscope image), and the results can be trite, but I thought I could do something new and creative with this technique.

Unfortunately early March weather took a turn for the worse and I knew we were going to be in for a few cold grey days. I couldn’t get downtown right away, so I decided to go shoot some tests in the natural park near my house.

With the grey overcast sky and flat light I figured I would be capturing a lot of sky at the top of the frame and some stark winter branches and trees nearer the middle. With a fisheye lens, straight lines that run through the middle of the frame remain straight, but lines progressively closer to the edges of the frame appear more and more curved. Since I was going to be mirroring the frame down the middle I figured I would be placing the horizon near the middle of frame. I would thus have a distant line through the middle of the frame, some closer stronger lines branching perpendicular to this central line, and the white negative space of the sky surrounding the majority of the subject. This is what I pre-visualized as I set out to take the first experimental shots.

Floating World 2017-03-05 1
Floating World 2017-03-05 1

When shooting these fisheye photos it is hard to imagine the complete composition while looking through the viewfinder. I keep an eye on the content of the top half of the frame and watch the line of subject matter at the centre of the frame where the mirroring will take place.

Back at home on the computer I load the raw frames into Lightroom. I do some basic adjustments to deal with scene brightness and dynamic range, all the while focusing on only the top half of the frame. Then I open the best images in Photoshop, selected half of each frame, and flip it across the central axis. Back in Lightroom I do some very minor adjustments to the black and white clipping.

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Floating World 2017-03-08 10

I thought at first I would be rotating horizontal shots into portrait orientation so the image was symmetrical left to right, but I often find that to be too static and artificial. Images seem more dynamic when the mirroring occurs across the horizontal axis and they remain asymmetrical left to right. Our brains seem hard wired to expect some asymmetry to occur left to right, even with faces which are never completely symmetrical, but accept a mirrored scene from top to bottom, probably because we often see things reflected in water that way.

Really, post-processing is quite straightforward.

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Floating World 2017-03-05 2

The Floating World Series title is a reference to the Japanese “floating world” school of drawing and painting (ukiyo-e) popular during the Edo and Meiji periods.

The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kisokaidō Road
Katsushika Hokusai, The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kisokaidō Road, ca. 1832

Like the Japanese works, the photographs encompass both straightforward descriptive representations of the world, and graphically abstract qualities. Also, because, in most of these photographs, the sky forms a border around the edge of the entire image, the central subject is left floating in a field of negative space (much like many of the Japanese images).

A Snowy Evening at Kambara Station
Utagawa Hiroshige, A Snowy Evening at Kambara Station, ca. 1833–34

In my photographs the mirroring heightens the tension between the abstract and pictorial qualities. There is no attempt to hide the original subject, but a new and more abstract subject appears in the final composition.

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Floating World 2017-03-08 4

Writing about his Horizon series of repurposed found photographs, Martin Venezky, states the following:

For me, the photographic relationship between the pictorial and the abstract is one of the most fundamental understandings of place and time. “Place” is something we carry with us—a summation of our inner memories mapped onto the present landscape as we traverse it. The continuity of the land, though, has its own unbroken timeframe, and it is much longer and steadier than the interrupted, distracted time we are able to spend with it. While we look for the universal, we are always tripped up by our own presence.1

This statement mirrors my views of both architectural and landscape photography. While I do not attempt to hide the identity of a location I also expect each photograph to stand on its own independent of the original location. Its the difference between taking a photograph of a location versus at a location. Viewers expecting to see some recognizable place in the Floating World photographs will perhaps be disappointed. The photographs are merely interpretations, signs and not the signified, double abstractions of the scenes they represent due to both the basic nature of photography and mirroring process.

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Floating World 2017-03-05 3

Flickr Gallery

Floating World 2017-03-05 3
Click to launch the Floating World Flickr gallery…

  1. Martin Venezky, Horizon, https://www.lensculture.com/articles/martin-venezky-horizon