Ghosts and Masks

Sometimes Images and Emotions Emerge from Photos When We're Not Expecting It- Be Ready to take Advantage

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to

Ghosts and Masks, straight print. The photograph is low in contrast, showing all the forms and details within the frame of the Mamiya 645 image. Ghosts and Masks, straight print. The photograph is low in contrast, showing all the forms and details within the frame of the Mamiya 645 image.

Throughout the 1990s, I led a huge environmental battle relatively near my home in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State. A sand and gravel mining company wanted to put in an enormous gravel pit and hard-rock quarry in an extraordinarily sensitive area: The two-square mile proposed project was bordered by a salmon-spawning river on one side and a designated national scenic byway on the other.

The gravel company had strong local political ties; other companies involved had very deep pockets. So despite winning a landmark legal victory in 1995 (when the project’s Environmental Impact Statement was found inadequate on 10 counts), we lost in the end after local politicians altered or overturned every environmental law that stood in the way of the project. Our only solace was the fact that we cut down the proposed project by half, limiting the mining to one square mile and limited the number of truck trips to 512 trucks per day, half of the company’s original proposal. Still, I was angry.

Within weeks of that project getting a permit in 1999, I started photographing a small log I had found on my property nearly six years prior to that. I had found the log during the cleanup from a major windstorm that had blown over several hundred trees on my own 20-acre property (we had 17 truckloads of logs removed to allow us to get back on the land for replanting and rehabilitation caused by the winds).

The log was barely six feet long, with swirling burls of wood along one edge of it—none more than four inches on a side. Somehow I knew with certainty that photographing that log would give expression to my anger and depression.

Using a Mamiya 645 camera with a normal lens and extension tubes, I moved in close to the log, photographing the small, tightly wound burls. Some mosses, common to this wet, rainy area, were just starting to invade the burls, but they were all still visible. I made a series of photographs over a period of just four days, all of which were made on soft-light cloudy or rainy days. All photographs were made on Ilford FP4 film and developed to normal contrast. I was not angry while making the photographs, but having a good time while my dogs pestered me to stop photographing and play with them. The photograph shown here, which I call Ghosts and Masks, was the very last exposure I had made in the series.

As you can see from the straight print, the image was seen—like all the others—in the horizontal position. You can also see that there was no outstandingly high contrast in the straight print.

Ghosts and Masks, final print. The final print, turned vertically and increased in contrast dramatically, is dominated by the faces emerging from the image.

Printing decisions

When I went into the darkroom to print the negatives, however, I had a very different idea of how the final print(s) would look from the series. I wanted high contrast with the deepest of blacks dominating the images and small areas of white sparking out against those deep tones. I also knew that I would burn areas that were out of focus, printing them black even if they were the brightest thing in the image. That was not the case with this specific image, but was with several others.

For this image, I first exposed for the dark tones needed in the upper right half while maintaining reasonably good highlights (via dialing my contrast level up to 80 units of magenta on my LPL enlarger), while burning toward the lower left half of the print. I then began bleaching selected portions of the wood grain. The strongest highlights came from bleaching after the print was fully developed, giving the image the sharp contrasts it needed. Within moments a face began to emerge, one that I had not seen in the horizontal position while photographing the burl, nor while inspecting the contact proofs of those negatives. Initially I tried desperately to avoid that obvious look of a face. But within a few moments I realized several things: f irst, that I could not avoid the look of a face; second, that the face may be useful and important for the message I wanted to convey; third, that if I turn the image 90° the face became more prominent and more disturbing, thus enhancing the desired effect; and fourth, that there were several other faces that began to emerge once I saw the initial face. Immediately the image took on the emotional character that I was seeking in photographing that small log.

I immediately saw the central face as mirroring that of The Scream, the famous painting by Norway’s Edvard Munch. It is one of my favorite paintings. Most viewers immediately see the same panicked face in this photograph.

Following that discovery, I began looking at the contact proofs again, this time from all sides: turning the original images 90° to the right or left, and even 180° to view them upside down. Additional discoveries came after making that initial breakthrough. Eventually I created a set of images that I felt fully conveyed my feelings about the politics and politicians responsible for ignoring the law, the environment, and the citizens to permit their desired gravel pit.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.