The City in Miniature: Photographing a Diorama

By Lori Nix Back to

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I’ve always considered myself a “faux” landscape photographer. I build complex dioramas in the living room of my Brooklyn apartment and photograph the results. I’ve been constructing scenes for the past 12 years, first landscapes and more recently architectural interiors.

In my current series, The City, I focus on the ruins of urban landscapes. I construct spaces that celebrate modern culture, knowledge, and innovation, as well as humanity’s more unsavory patterns of consumerism and potential debauchery: the theater, the museum, a vacuum cleaner showroom, and a dark, dingy bar. Here the buildings of civilization and material culture are abandoned, lying in a state of decay and ruin, with natural elements such as plants, insects, and animals beginning to repopulate the spaces. This idea of paradise lost, or the natural world reclaiming itself, becomes more forceful as we face greater environmental challenges in the world around us.

I am interested in forces of entropy, in the ruins left in the wake of humanity’s demise. My scenes are usually devoid of people, and this emptiness becomes an essential element in my work. The impact of civilization is shown by what remains when humans no longer populate the environment. Evidence of civilization may still be visible (such as books, paintings, and shoes), but the cause for humanity’s disappearance is intentionally left unclear, allowing the viewer to complete the narrative.

Library

Aesthetic Concerns

The success of photographing a diorama depends largely on the quality of light I capture in that image. As I go about researching a scene, I visit similar spaces—in the city and in my travels. Sometimes I take along a point-and-shoot camera to document some of the building’s elements, but mostly I just closely observe the space, the colors, and the light, and commit them to memory. When I start building the actual diorama, the research findings that made the deepest impressions on me determine the tenor of the scene.

“Bar” draws inspiration from several places I have visited, and though old and out-of-date, the space has a sense of warmth and worn charm. I knew I wanted the stuffed animal heads and the hanging beer sign with an interior scene that turns. The pinball machine and video game are both ones I personally enjoyed playing.

When I visit a space, I am specifically attuned to the quality of its light, color, temperature, how the shadows fall across the space, and if the colors are bright or muted. Take, for example, my diorama “Aquarium.” I traveled to my local aquarium in Coney Island to get a feel for the layouts of the fish tanks, but the building was lacking in grandeur. I flew to Chicago to visit the Shedd Aquarium, a place I remember from my youth as being spectacular, especially the Caribbean reef tank. For my diorama, I wanted the teal color of the walls to mimic the feeling of being underwater and to complement the yellow glow of the tank. Knowing the lighting would be soft, I carved low relief wall panels depicting various sea life. The three-dimensional aspect of the figures in the panel created subtle shadows and made the space more dynamic than if it were simply a flat two-dimensional painting. I wanted the overall color to be subdued and contemplative, so the viewer feels as if she is standing in that space, listening to the quiet sounds of water.

Bar

Technology

After doing my initial research and determining how I want to lay out the diorama, I begin to build the entire set from scratch, using simple materials, such as rigid foam boards used for insulation, foam core, paint, and wood. There is usually one element I either do not want to build or can’t because its construction is beyond my skills. These days I turn to the Internet to find that item. For the “Library” scene, I bought a globe that looked more realistic than I could have constructed by hand. The size of the globe determined the scale of the scene, and I built the rest of the elements in relationship to that one object. Once I know my proportions, I construct the shell of the structure and then slowly add the details: I sculpted each tiny book out of foam; I built the tables and chairs out of scale lumber; with foam and epoxy, I elongated the tree trunk so it could reach the top of the diorama’s ceiling. The light fixtures are large glass beads combined with brass tubing, and the display cases Plexiglas and wood with the birds formed from polymer clay and paint. Trash and debris on the floor of the “Library” are just that. I collect and categorize various colors and textures of paper, plastic, wood scraps, metal shavings, and other organic materials to create the illusion of age and the passage of time.

After many long months of detail work—the longest diorama took me seven months — it’s time to position the 8×10 large-format camera in front of the scene. By this time, I already have the angle of the shot in mind, and now I begin the process of lighting the scene. I use studio strobes with grids, gobos, and diffusers to sculpt the light so it matches the quality of light I remember from my research. In this preliminary stage, I usually shoot two sheets of 8×10 negative film and run it to the lab for processing and contacts. These initial contact sheets allow me to assess the set-up and adjust it accordingly. I mark up the contacts with all the changes I want to make, both to the positioning of the items and to the lighting. I move the lights in different positions, turn some up, others down, and then re-shoot the next few sheets of film. This process can take up to two weeks and three boxes of film before I capture my final image.

Once I’m satisfied with the image on the contact sheet, I then print a large mural of the final negative and inspect it closely before I consider the project finished. I’m old-fashioned in the sense that what I see on the developed film is the final image. I do not do any digital retouching, and I rely solely on traditional color prints. Though there is some flexibility in the printing process (density, color balance, etc.), the critical shaping of light and the physical set-up of the diorama must all happen between lens and film.

Aquarium

Studio Concerns

I shoot my dioramas using a Cambo 8×10 Legend large format camera with a bag bellows, Beattie fresnel screen, and mounted on a Gitzo tripod.

When I have two scenes going, I get out an old wooden Ansco 8×10 camera for the second shoot. My favorite lens is a 165mm Schneider Super Angulon lens. Because I’m shooting in relatively confined spaces, this lens lets me shoot close, if not inside the diorama. Another lens I use for smaller scenes is a Schneider 270mm G-Claron. My studio strobes are Paul C. Buff Alien Bees.

Ever since I left school, I have been buying Buff’s White Lightning strobes and Alien Bees. I like these lights because I can plug directly into the wall outlet and not have to worry about power packs and 220 volts. Over the years, as I have increased the complexity of my dioramas, I’ve added more and more lights to the process. I have used as little as three strobes and as many as 12 at a time. My only problem with using multiple light sources is that sometimes I blow the fuse box in my apartment. I often have extension cords snaking throughout the apartment to pull current from multiple rooms. I sculpt the light using spots and diffusion gels. Sometimes I will add a color filter to the strobes to warm up the background or add more blue to the sky. I like to shoot around f64. In order to achievethis aperture, I will turn off the modeling lamps on the strobes, leave the lens set on bulb, and pump my lights until I get enough light through the lens to get the density I need. This may take as many as 30 pumps of the lights. The heavy 8×10 camera and tripod ensure there will be no camera movement during these long exposures. The only thing that can shake the camera is if my overweight cat decides to walk underneath the camera I have wooden floors that creak when she walks about. I shoot mostly Kodak Portra 160 NC film and occasionally Fuji Pro 160S film.

I work a day job at a color photography lab in New York City called LTI. I am a “special projects” printer, meaning I print mural, large format color contacts and work in the digital mini lab when I’m not doing anything else. Because of this, I am able to print my own contacts, prints, and murals. I print on Fuji Crystal Archive paper in sizes ranging from 30×40 inches to as large as 50×84 inches. I am very fortunate to work in the color photography field, and I take advantage of it every week.

Vacuum Showroom
Church

Product Resources: Cameras: Cambo 8×10 Legend with bag bellows, Beattie Fresnel screen, Ansco 8×10 wooden view camera; Lenses: Schneider 165mm Super Angulon lens, Schneider 270mm G-Claron lens; Gitzo tripod; Lighting: Paul C. Buff’s White lightening strobes, Alien Bees; Film: Kodak Portra 160NC film, Fuji Pro 160S film; Paper: Fuji Crystal Archive paper.


About the Author

Lori Nix
LNix
Born in Kansas, Lori Nix holds an MFA in photography from Ohio University, as well as degrees in photography, ceramics, and art history from Truman State University, MO. Her work has been exhibited across the United States and is found in numerous museum and corporate collections.