Monday, October 13, 2008

Over the Fence and Into the Woods...

Photographers are in a unique position to share their views of the world. They can choose to show you a blood red sunset…or a portrait of someone they think you should know. If you’re English novelist, Matt Whyman, you want each one of your images to tell a story.

“A book can take nine months to write, and is hugely rewarding to see in print,” says Whyman. “But a photograph is just that little bit quicker. In some ways, it’s the same process – it’s just that I can go from idea to finished article in a day.”

Telling stories with photographs isn’t new. But blending an otherwise unremarkable image with imagination and some wonderful visual effects is something many photographers are turning onto. Whyman is one of the best of these. This is why we’ve chosen to feature his work as our latest flickr artist.

“I aim for a shiny, desaturated effect with a fairy tale finish! Photoshop used to baffle me, but once you forget about trying to master the whole thing, and just focus on getting to grips with one or two elements at a time, it works wonders,” Whyman says. “I work quite slowly, and cautiously – duplicating my layers every time in case I screw it up. Textures I use a lot, but I don’t want them to look like some kind of add on. I use them to look like the material the photograph is printed on – ie fabric or canvas –and also to cover up the cracks sometimes.”

Mist and fog are recurring themes in Whyman’s images. It makes sense when you think about it: here’s a guy who spends his days writing novels for younger readers who have no problem accepting that the back of a wardrobe can lead to a mystical land…or that chickens can talk.

In the image that opens this blog, All You Have To Do Is Stand In the Yard, we see a woman oblivious to two approaching dangers: she’s standing on the edge of a cliff and these spooky bird things are on their way. There’s mist of course – but the viewer of this image desperately wants to tap her on the shoulder and say “Ummm…excuse me…but you really need to see these two things. Let me show you…”

At the back of your mind you just know she's the kind of heroine who (in blatant defiance of every reasonable argument to the contrary) goes down into a darkened basement after some slithery monster armed only with a flickering flashlight.

The image puts me in mind of endless scenes where Frank and Joe Hardy are breathlessly watching the villains – completely unaware that the Really Bad Guy is sneaking up on them.

Whyman expected you to come to these conclusions, I think. He says the actual shoot for All You Have To Do Is Stand In The Yard was very fast. But I suspect he knew where he was taking us all along.

“My wife gave me thirty seconds in our crappy, cluttered, rundown yard before rushing for a taxi. When she returned, I’d placed her on a misty cliff edge overlooking an abyss,” says Whyman. (Yeah. And don’t forget about those spooky bird things…)

When you look at this image – does it whet your imagination? Do you start telling yourself a story? I do.

What more needs to be said about this image, sitting quietly in the back pages of Whyman’s Photostream? Here’s romance and mystery and danger. The notion is simple and unrelentingly creepy. I love this shot because it turns my mind onto all kinds of things. What’s in the woods? Who got killed? And (with an admittedly breathless shudder) are there guts hanging from the branches?

It’s not a complicated image, is it? But the artist has gone to great pains to ensure that the tree is black and white. So is the sign. Even that ragged border on the left is your basic black and white. Why? So the bright red blood spatter stands out nice and strong.

Look at the image again and ask yourself where your eyes go. Obviously to the red. What does the red cover? Answer: the next thing your eyes see – which is the sign. Graphically it’s a “planned revelation.” The artist has already decided the order in which you are going to become aware of the information. And the information is: Someone made a very bad mistake here. A really bad mistake. It’s a wonderfully uncomplicated unrepentantly manipulative thoroughly captivating image. (How’s THAT for a sentence and a half, huh?)

There’s some wonderful nuance in aspects of Whyman’s work. Here’s an image called “Neighborhood Watch.” This time, at least, it looks like our damsel in probable distress sees the spooky bird things coming for her. THIS is a load off my mind. But I look at the image and ask myself if spooky bird things are what she’s looking for. She’s not running.

Look at her feet, raised out of the heels of her shoes. She’s on tip toes.


And why is she wearing an evening dress in a back yard? Where was she going? How come she’s not going there? Delicious questions!

This image, which could have been cheesy to the 49th degree, really works because it is unrepentantly playful and fun. The photographer is inviting you into his imagination for a few minutes. It’s not a chapter out of a book: it’s an image. Just one.

Game Boy is one of Whyman’s favorite images.

“This summer, our three year old son picked up a Gameboy belonging to one of his sisters, and hasn’t put it down since,” says Whyman. “I took this early one morning in my office, in front of the radiator – and I chose this because I was looking at the shadows more than the composition. In post-production, the contrast is pushed as far as I can, and I’ve left a smudge of desaturated color in his face just to draw the eye. It really didn’t take long to process – the angle of the light really nailed it for me.”

Asking for Trouble was the first image of Whyman’s I recall seeing. He wrote that he had high hopes for his new mask…but "sadly it just made me look like a serial killer." Really? There are a lot of things at work in this image: the tattoos on the forearm, the half smile and the expression in the eyes. There’s also a funky texture to the image that demands attention.

Then there’s the light: “I’m mostly aware of the light as I take my shots. There’s a huge amount you can do in Photoshop, but if the shadows are all wrong it’s never really going to work. Lately I’ve been using PS to invent backdrops for my subjects, so a blank background is useful. My kids know that if I’m hanging up the sofa throw on the washing line, they’re about to be called for a shoot.”

We close this feature on Whyman’s work with my favorite shot from his flickr Photostream. It’s called At Least They Are Safe in the Yard. This is a fabulous image where the visual fascination is built into a myriad of things that just don’t fit together.

Let’s face it: If you were a kid sitting by yourself and a hole opens up in front of you…and smoke starts coming out of the hole…would you be sitting, still looking into said hole? Not me.

Look at the expression on her face. That’s not fear. Maybe she’s conjuring something. Yeah! Maybe a three headed tap-dancing chicken is going to come out of that hole singing the score from “Hello Dolly.”

Or maybe it’s going to be a dragon. Yikes! Or maybe…

You have to look at this richly textured image for a while. There’s great detail in the wood and the door (which, I hasten to add could fly open at any instant as a hero arrives at the very last second to save this little girl) while the hole itself is indistinct.

There are stories built into each of these images. The photographer is also a storyteller who respects his audience enough to allow them to use their own imaginations to fill in so very many lovely blanks.

Whyman has only been taking photos for a short while: “My wife bought me a Nikon D40 for my birthday seven months ago. It’s been a life-changing present for me. I studied photography a little bit at university in the early nineties, but hadn’t taken anything but holiday snaps since then. The camera led me to Flickr, and so pretty much the first shot on my stream is the first one I took.”

Whyman is going to be one of flickr’s stars if he keeps advancing at this rate. Scanning through Whyman’s Photostream,, you’ll see a number of images that make you shrug. It’s stuff every new Photoshopper has played around with.

But look at this body of work. You are going to see flashes of pure brilliance. There’s an intelligence at work and a boundless imagination. It’s playful and mesmerizing at the same time. When Matt begins to compose his next image, settle back and wait for it…because Mr. Whyman is getting ready to tell you a wonderful story.

It is our sincere hope that this article is an encouragement to Matt Whyman so he will tell us LOTS of stories for many years to come.

NOTE: All Photos in this blog segment are by Matt Whyman and are used with his permission. He reserves all rights.

No comments: