I would like to tell the story behind “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
My wife and I were visiting my son who was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine (providing balance to his two brothers who were serving in the Marines). Being part Polish, we decided to visit our homeland and took a train to Krakow. Upon arriving discussions began on what to see and of course Auschwitz-Birkenau was high on the list, but secretly I hoped we wouldn’t visit the camps because I did not want see a place of such sadness. However my wife wanted to go and so I agreed.
We took a bus tour that would spend about 1 hour at Auschwitz and 30 minutes at Birkenau. Even though I had my camera equipment with me, I had not planned on photographing the camps because it seemed that this might be disrespectful. The tour began indoors and we saw the meticulous records the German’s kept of their victims and then the piles of personal effects: glasses, shoes, hair and other items.
This was just too overwhelming and I felt like I was suffocating, so I signaled my family that I was going outdoors. Breathing in the open air I began to feel a bit better and slowly walked, looking down at my feet. The thought then came to me: how many had walked here before me, in these exact same footsteps and now were dead? How many had taken this same path and then had been murdered?
I began to wonder if the spirits of those who were dead still lingered, did they still inhabit this place? And then it suddenly struck me that I must photograph the spirits of those who had died here. I instinctively knew how I would do that, I would use long exposures of the other visitors at the camps, who would stand in proxy for the dead. The enormity of this task hit me as I realized that the bus was leaving in 45 minutes and so I ran from location to location, working incredibly fast.
Each location had its own challenges, I had to photograph people without their knowing it, because if they thought I was photographing they would politely move out of my way. I developed techniques to fool people into thinking I was not photographing, I would set up my equipment and then talk on the phone or look in my camera bag, and then trigger the camera with a remote shutter release.
I found that the closer I was to the scene, the harder it was to get the shot because people would see me and move out of my way, not knowing that I actually needed them in the picture! Auschwitz No. 9 was the most difficult image to get, it took many exposures to capture these ghosts.
Another challenge was that people had to keep moving to produce the ghosting effects. So many shots were ruined when someone in the group would stop and interrupt the ghosting effect. In one image, Auschwitz No. 4, a man in the group stopped to read a historical placard. This is the only image that I’ve included a “mortal” because it seemed to say “I am completely unaware of the ghosts around me.”
It’s no simple matter to get the right ghosting effects; so many factors affect the image such as the color of the clothing people are wearing, the speed in which they walk, the angle they are walking in relation to the camera and of course the length of the exposure. I had to learn all of this in very short order and I was so grateful to be using digital so that I could get immediate feedback. There was so much to learn in such a short time, but I knew I had to finish before the bus left as I would not have another chance.
In one sense I felt prepared for this moment, for this opportunity. I had been working with long exposures for several years and I understood the basics, however I had never worked with people before and certainly not with unsuspecting subjects. I had to learn quickly and work quickly.
I do feel that I was inspired, both in concept and execution. As I looked at each scene I knew in my mind exactly how the finished image would look. However if you were to see the original shots and compare them to the final images, you would be surprised to see the extensive Photoshop work it took to bring the “shot” into compliance with my vision.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is a depressing place, but I am glad that I went. I hope my images can portray the camps not just as a historical location, but as a place where real people lived and died.
P.S. I recently had the honor of meeting a group of Holocaust survivors who attended the opening of this exhibition in Dallas. I saw a very elderly woman in a wheel chair looking at my images and I introduced myself by saying: “Hi, my name is Cole Thompson and these are my images.” She responded by pointing at the wall and exclaiming: “These are my images!”
Her name was Edith Molnar and she had been interned at Auschwitz and recognized these locations. That was a humbling moment, to appreciate that you were talking to someone who had lived through these horrors, she was “living history.” Edith passed away several weeks later.
I was a 14 year old boy living in Rochester, NY when I discovered photography. Now some 45 years later I return to Rochester to exhibit, speak and conduct a workshop.
I will be exhibiting “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau” and speaking about my experience at the Death Camps and well as sharing impressions from my meetings with Holocaust survivors.
My workshop is titled “Simple Secrets to Great Black and White Photography” and I’ll be sharing my “simple” philosophy, demonstrating my long exposure techniques and showing how I process my b&w images while using only six tools in Photoshop.
The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau
April 18th through May 13th, 2012
Artist Reception: April 20th from 5-8:30 pm
My experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester
April 22nd at 2 pm
Simple Secrets to Great Black & White Photography
Saturday April 21th from 1-4 pm
Tickets are $35 and available by calling 585-271-2540
Two years ago I stood in the lobby of a hotel in Akron, Ohio and looked up. I saw saw a ceiling lamp, but it was more than that, it appeared to me as abstract shape that inspired me to create my Ceiling Lamps portfolio. The image above was that first lamp.
Now fast forward; three weeks ago I was back in Akron and staying at that very same hotel. Upon checking out I thought about that lamp and looked up. The lamp was still there, but to my surprise I could no longer “see” it, it just looked like an ordinary lamp to me. I thought to myself; I wonder why that lamp inspired me before?
That really kind of scared me, why didn’t it look special any more? What had I lost and could I get it back?
And what if I were walking down the street today and passed “The Angel Gabriel,” would he inspire me to stop? If I were to stumble across that “Old Car Interior” again, would it interest me enough to photograph it?
This experience reinforces two personal beliefs that I have: first to always stop because you may not “see” that inspiration later and second, you can keep going back to the same location over and over and over and still “see” something new. Seeing a great image has more to do with our creative mood, than with the location.
I’ll be back in Akron next year and I’ll be very curious see how I’ll “see” this lamp!
I recently visited the Northern California coast. Part of me wanted to photograph there because so many of my photographic heroes have, and yet another part of me said: “What can I create that is better or different than what they have done?”
For me the answer was to go, to enjoy the beauty, to be inspired and to try! I know that this coastline still has many famous images to give, but only to those who have the eyes to see them. Every place, no matter how small or mundane, has great images to give, so how much better to be in this beautiful place?
I did create several new images; some are conventional ones such as “Diminishing Cliffs” above, but my primary focus was to complete “The Lone Man” series. I’ll be introducing some of those new images in my next newsletter, due out in about a week.
Another very enjoyable part of my trip was to have lunch with my friend and classic photographer Huntington Witherill. He’s been in LensWork a few times and he creates in both b&w and color. I love his work so much that I own two of his images, please check out his work.
This was a great trip. If you have a chance to visit this area, I’d recommend it as it’s both inspiring and a piece of photographic history.
People ask me, how do you find people who stand still for so long?
Something unusual happens when a person stands on the beach and stares outward. They become still. You can almost see their thoughts as they ponder something much greater than themselves.
Where did we come from?
What is my purpose?
Where am I going after this life?
What does it all mean?
Who created it all?
Is there a grand plan?
Does my life have meaning?
Is this all there is?
What is beyond, the beyond?
Do I make a difference?
Is there a God?
People are affected by this time of meditation and they vow to make changes in their lives. But soon these weighty questions are replaced with others; McRib or Big Mac? Large or extra large fries? Should I try that new green milkshake?
“Can you tell me how to get better at dodge and burn. I try and try, but I overdo the blacks and whites and get an image that’s too contrasty. Any tips you can give me would be great.”
This is a very common question and issue, and one that can easily be addressed.
First a little background, for those who don’t follow my workflow, it’s a very simple one. I primarily adjust brightness and contrast and then dodge and burn the image in a fairly detailed and intricate manner. To successfully dodge and burn you must own a pen and tablet, a small 4X6 Bamboo tablet can be purchased for about $100 and a larger one is very nice if you can afford it. I like Wacom tablets.
When you dodge and burn there are four basic controls you want to be aware of; Diameter, Exposure, Hardness and Range.
The “diameter” of the brush is simply how large the brush is and choosing a brush size is generally obvious; big brushes for big areas and little brushes for little areas. The larger the brush is, the easier it is to blend in your work and make it look natural. So for big areas such as skies, use a very large brush. Obviously for bringing out the highlights on tree branches you want a brush about the size of what you’re dodging.
The “exposure” or strength of the brush is perhaps the most critical setting and the easiest to abuse. I generally use an exposure of 4% and work the dodge/burn very slowly, building up the areas with many passes of the pen. I often see people going at it with 50% and this where things get overdone and artificial looking. Think of dodging/burning as painting the image, you must work slowly and carefully.
The hardness is how hard of a edge you want on the brush. I generally work with a 0% brush for areas such as skies. When you are working in very small areas with very sharp detail, you might choose a small and hard brush, so that you can confine the dodge/burn to a very tight area.
The “range” of the dodge/burn refers to the range of values you’re affecting, either the highlights, midtones or shadows. This is the hardest technique to describe (it’s much easier seeing it being done). If you set your dodge to highlights, then your brush is brightening the highlights and ignoring the midtones and shadows. While this three setting separation works pretty good, you have to be careful because the highlight dodge will tend to bleed over to the lighter midtone areas as well. So you might choose to use a smaller brush and confine your dodging to just the highlights that you want to brighten. Likewise with the burn tool, if you set it to shadows you can generally darken just the shadows, but again be careful not to affect those darker midtones.
In general, I’ll dodge my midtones to bring out detail in shadow areas and my highlights to increase contrast and make my images pop. I’ll generally burn my midtones and shadows to darken down my images. I rarely will dodge shadows or burn highlights.
An example: The image above was created recently at Stonehenge; I wanted to darken the blue sky, increase the contrast in the clouds, darken the foreground and stones and bring out the highlights in the stones.
I started with the sky, if I had tried to darken the sky with a big brush, I’d have also darkened parts of the stones I didn’t want to. If I had tried darkening the sky with a smaller brush, I’d have done a blotchy job of it and I’d have created halos where the stone and sky met. So instead, I masked out the sky so that I could process it separately without affecting the stones, and then I reversed the mask so that I could process the stones without affecting the sky. I’ll address my masking techniques in another article.
First I took a midsized midtone brush and burnt the blue sky and some of the darker parts of the clouds. Then I used a medium sized midtone brush to dodge the highlights in the clouds and then did the same with a midsized highlight brush. Going back and fort between dodging and burning, and working slowly, I created a dark sky and contrasty clouds.
All along this process I keep careful eye on my histogram. Your eye doesn’t always accurately tell you if your blacks are dark enough or when your whites get blown out, so the histogram is my constant companion.
Then I reversed the mask so that I could work the foreground and not affect the sky. I burned the grass almost to black with a large brush set to shadows. Then I burn the stones down, first with the midtones and then the shadows and finally I brought up the highlights on the stones with a stronger dodge.
The result is my preferred dark image, with strong contrasts. lots of 100% blacks and 100% whites.
So summarizing; get a tablet, set your exposure to 4% and work slowly, alternating between the dodge and burn. When necessary, mask and work each part separately. Paint and caress your image like a painter would a canvas!
I know this is a quick overview, but a lot of what you need to learn will come from doing, not reading. So get out and do!
Many people ask me to tell them the “secret” of my black and white conversion. Here is the secret: great black and white images are not made in the conversion process. You can buy the most expensive plug-in’s and execute the most complicated processes to convert your images, and it will not guarantee a great image. There are no shortcuts or simple proceedures.
Okay, so what is the “secret?”
It’s that you must plan for a great black and white image starting with the selection of the scene and then all the way through the processing. I tell people that it’s 50% the shot and 50% the post-processing.
Taking the Shot:
My style relies on dark images with bright subjects. It’s this contrast that creates an image that can really jump out at you, so when I go out shooting, I’m looking for these types of scenes. While there will be many scenes that catch my eye, if it doesn’t have this potential, then I know the shot will not work for me.
When I create an image, I have a vision of what it’s going to look like, and generally the original shot doesn’t look anything like my vision of final image. That’s where the post-processing comes in; using very simple techniques I “create” the image. I do not use curves, profiles, layers, plug-ins or any sophisticated techniques. I simply adjust the brightness and contrast and then dodge and burn the image like a painter would paint a canvas.
Above is one of my latest images from England; the Old Wardour Castle. While it appears to have been shot at night, it was a 30 second daytime exposure. The key is that I knew in advance what I wanted the image to look like and this vision was realized by underexposing the image and then extensively dodging and burning it to create a night-like scene.
So while the conversion process is important, it’s not really the key to a great black and white image. What’s most important is that you visualize the image in advance and then take control by creating the image along the way.
P.S. For those of you who are still interested in my conversion process, here it is: First, I shoot in b&w mode and RAW which produces a color image that I convert using the “channel mixer” method. In Photoshop you choose Image/Adjustments/Channel Mixer. Check the “Monochrome” box and then adjust the Source Channel color sliders to see how adjusting each color changes the image (note: some prefer the “Black and White” converter over the “Channel Mixer” method as it offers slightly more control and is a bit easier to use). That’s it!
I’m still in England, but the visit is nearing the end. We spent the first week in a extremely small village on the southern coast and visited Stonehenge and several ancient castles. While there, I did get excited about an image or two and and I’m tentatively calling my new work “The Ghosts of Ancient England.”
The image above was created at the Berry Pomeroy Castle, which is rumored to be haunted…here’s a bit of the castle’s history:
The ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle, reputed to be one of the most haunted castles in Britain, stand on a steep wooded hillside above the Gatcombe Brook.
It was built in the 15th century as a fortified house for the Pomeroy family, and was later sold to the Seymour family who built a new mansion house within the defences of the original castle.
A plan to further enlarge the house was never completed and the castle was abandoned by the beginning of the 18th Century.
I’ve just spent the last couple of days at the Moab Photo Symposium and what a great time I had! Moab was of course fantasticly beautiful, but the real highlight were the people I met.
During the “Seeing in Black and White” workshop, we went out to Mill Creek Canyon and walked, talked and created images. During the workshop I took an image and then demonstrated my b&w conversion and post processing techniques. Above is the final creation.
If you get a chance, join the folks at next year’s symposium. Good people, good photography, good scenery, good food and good discussions. A wonderful weekend.