Wild Animals in Skips

It is well known that a wild moment in the history of art occurred in 1905 when a group of adventurous artists held an exhibition in Paris. Their exhibition is remembered because it marks a significant break with the established traditions of art. 

The exhibition created a furore because the paintings were not what people expected. Instead of natural looking portraits and landscapes, these paintings used intense vivid colours and reflected turbulent emotions. The young artists involved had been influenced by the masters of Post-Impressionism, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. The dominant figure of the group was Henri Matisse. 

These artists are now commonly referred to as the ‘Fauves’. The name derives from the judgment of a critic who was appalled by the paintings and who in his review referred to the artists disparagingly as "les fauves" ("wild beasts"). Many of their works defy interpretation and can be appreciated only as a sensation of colour and shape.

So this we know already! Why is it relevant to photography today? Well, as Damon Runyon often wrote, ‘a story goes with it’.

My 2008 photography resolutions were:

a) shoot for 3 hours per week and 

b) take images that have not been taken before.

The first is not easy but the second is the bigger challenge. There are so many photos being taken, and we see so many wonderful images in magazines such as Australian Photography. Yet we tire of seeing lighthouses against a perfect sunset, bright blue rally cars with four wheels off the ground, and cute pelicans. Exasperated judges are heard to mutter, ‘Not another bloody sunset!’.

We have access to so many exquisite images of Antelope Canyon, perfect models, insects mating, cute kids, etc. that there is little motivation to take more. However I have my first goal of 3 hours to meet so there I was on a sunny afternoon searching around my neighbourhood to find something to shoot that has not been shot many times before.

Working to a theory that powerful images often rely on colour or shape, I was examining tree bark, jetty rails, pavement patterns and in fact anything that did not move too quickly for my autofocus to track. I was seeking colour and/or shape in normal suburbia.

I took some of my most boring images yet - hoping that my eternal optimism would be right about some of them. Then, in a new housing development I came across a colony of industrial bins quietly waiting to be fed the unwanted leftovers of the house building ritual. Like Pauline Collins’ midriff, these showed the wondrous scars of life. They might have started life bright yellow, blue or green, but now they have deep scratches rusting red/brown. Paint of many colours has splashed interestingly from near empty cans thrown perhaps from the second story. Most skips have their owners’ tags and free additions by local graffiti artists. Amongst all this rubbish I began to see a confusion of wild colours and intricate shapes!

From a conventional distance of course at first they look just like boring old dumpsters, but when I looked at select segments of their life story through a 105 mm macro lens they shouted out to me.

Initially there was a language problem. Actually a depth of field issue! As we have all had to learn, even lovely macro lenses bow to the rules of physics with regard to how they bend light. They work best when the film/sensor plane and the object are parallel.

As I discovered to my frustration, often the sides of these dumpsters are not vertical. The top of the dumpster is bigger than its base. Therefore the sides are on an angle to my camera. This design has been scientifically calculated so that the skip looks huge but does not hold very much! This makes it easier for the owner to lift up and cart away – and clients need more or more expensive dumpsters! But these sloping sides angle in an unhelpful way if one is shooting with the camera pointing downwards. The amount of the image that is within the area of sharp focus is very small unless you get down low and angle your camera upwards so that the back of the camera is on the same angle as the wall of the dumpster.

Now this upward shooting crouch is a normal posture that keen snappers adopt automatically, but it poses special issues for me. I do my suburban photo tours in an electric wheelchair. I can get down low and shoot upwards only by falling out and this is not reversible! If I shoot downwards at a skip that has sides that angle in towards the base, the depth of field becomes so small that I can get only about one third of the image in decent focus.

What to do? The initial images showed promise (in the sharp bits) so I enlisted assistance in the form of a friendly helper and my laptop and tripod. Connecting the camera to the tripod and the laptop to the camera, the helper could follow suggestions as to how high and how close to the skip to place the tripod. Then I could fire the shutter from the laptop and view the resulting images. 

As digital exposures are not expensive, it was possible to try many interesting looking bits of several dumpsters. I went back repeatedly to the more interesting dumpsters to the point where people in nearby houses made excuses to come to ask what I was up to. Several offered help assuming that people in wheelchairs must need help, or because they thought that the helper on the ground with the tripod might need help. One asked, ‘How can you find anything interesting to photograph in that junk?’. I gave them a wink and muttered conspiratorially about forensics.

Back in the digital darkroom the images have had very little tweaking. All that has been done is to let the colours loose and – in some cases – convert the oblong format to square. They are not double exposures or multiple images layered. The different moods, colours, shapes etc. were all latent on the dumpster. Like Leonardo’s blocks of marble, I have just selected the bits necessary to that image.

The useful bits have been dropped onto canvas 120*80cm or 1m square and put up on our walls and the walls of friends who liked the intricacy of the shapes and colours.

Has it been fun? Well where did those several lots of 3 hours go and how soon can I get back to my favourite dumpster? I drive past unexplored skips around the community noting where they lurk and promising them attention.

There is a downside! People who start off enjoying the images can be disconcerted if I confess that I took them from the side of a dumpster. They would prefer them to be the outcome of a mystical experience. Perhaps I should describe them like that! It would be honest.

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