Photographing Decay and Metamorphosis

A still life study of wallaby bones, picked clean, at Blanket Gully in Central Victoria, Australia.

This image features wallaby bones. They were all that remained from the carcass. The rest, no doubt, had been picked over by animals, birds and insects.

I loved the fact that the bones, picked bare, appeared quite luminous lying in the dark, muddy puddle in which I found them. It was a straightforward image to make, although I needed a tripod to steady the camera with the Canon 180mm f3.5 Macro lens attached.

Polarizing Filter

I made the photo in Central Victoria, about an hour and a half north west of Melbourne. It's a harsh environment in summer and the ground is either stony or red cracked earth under a bright blue sky, somewhat reminiscent of Central Australia. In addition to a hat, sunscreen, drinking water and solid walking shoes the bright ground reflects so much light that, to be able to see what’s in front of you, sunglasses are required. Similarly, the use of a polarizing filter is essential to prevent the inherent color and texture in earth and leaf being reflected off their surfaces and producing a flat, relatively colorless result.

It’s tough wondering around such a location in the middle of a hot day. It’s the time of day any self-respecting landscape photographer would be resting or reserving their energies to basic reconnaissance, so as to determine the locations best suited for photography under more forgiving light.

Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

While we all want to photograph beautiful locations and can all make great photographs of interesting subjects under ideal conditions, it is a hallmark of an accomplished photographer to be able to make a great photograph of an otherwise banal subject or scene, particularly when that photo is made under less than ideal circumstances.

Moving Behold the Known

And that’s the reason I used to take folks to this location when running workshops in the region. Because it’s outside our normal experience it’s interesting, but photographing it is challenging and requires energy, technical competence and a unique approach. It’s a great feeling to know that by pushing yourself, both physically and mentally, you’ve done your best and, through the art of photography, employed the subject to explore larger themes.

Photography's Greatest Challenge

One of the greatest challenges facing photographers is the need to control lighting contrast. I have a range of mantras that help me demonstrate essential photography truths. Here’s one:

The brighter the light (therefore) the darker the shadows.

Photographing outdoors under a bright, sunny sky will produce black, impenetrable shadows. As we normally like images that allow us to perceive texture and variation in the luminance of shadows, we are likely to be disappointed when they photograph black. As side and back lighting produce larger areas of shadow, compared to frontal lighting, our disappointment may be increased when shooting side on or into the light.

There are many ways to manage high contrast conditions, some requiring extra equipment, one or more assistants and image manipulation on the desktop. I’m of the belief that it’s usually best to do as much of the work as possible in the camera, and that we should be doing that work, wherever possible, on our own with as little equipment as possible. The computer’s job is not so much to save a bad image, but to elevate an already good image onto a higher plane. You photograph the subject or scene in a way that records as much information as possible, and employ software to re-map that data in line with your artistic intentions.

Making the Image

In the case of the above image I remember seeing (and smelling) a kangaroo carcass around 6 months earlier. Each time I returned to the location the carcass had been reduced down in bulk until, eventually, all that remained were its bare bones, some of which had been ripped away from the skeletal remains.

I’m the type of person who’s not all that keen on handling dead animals. This is partly a fear of disease and partly out of respect for the fallen. However, the history of photography is full of the exploration of life and death. Ever observed the seasons change? Talk about a Metaphor!

The fact was that predators, scavengers, decay and weather had, over time, reduced this mammal to a series of scattered bones, clean and white. It seemed to me that the connection of the bones to that particular Wallaby was now extremely distant and tenuous. I felt that they now presented me with an opportunity to make a photograph that was less about the animal and more about other, larger concerns relating to our existence.

The trouble was the light was so bright that it was reflecting much of the delicate detail off the surface of the bones. I decided to take two of the bones the 100 metres or so back to my car, which I’d parked in the shade. On arrival I’d noticed a piece of old metal, the type you might imagine on the door of an old boiler or furnace. It was right next to where I’d parked my car. I laid the metal onto my car bonnet and carefully placed the bones on top.

The dark, rusted metal was interesting. I poured some water over it to clean it up and enhance its color. Washing the bones also increased their inherent luminance (i.e., brightness) which helped emphasize their shape and made them glow against the darker background.

As there is a sense of timelessness inherent to a black-and-white photograph, I decided to remove all the color and then to add a light warm hue for a more nostalgic feel. Then, just like in the darkroom, I used Adobe Photoshop to apply some local density (i.e., brightness) adjustments, to better shape the image. Finally, I applied a slight glow to the image and the appropriate amount of sharpening for viewing on the web.

The Cycle of Life

On one hand the photo is a documentary record of a deceased animal. One the other hand it’s an image that explores notions of death, decay and metamorphosis. Not your usual still life, but interesting nonetheless.

This image involved effort, experimentation and vision. The process was fun and I hope you find the result pleasing. If so please feel free to share this post via the social media icons listed above.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru