For an amateur, and even for some professionals, what you photograph is who you are. There is a booming community of self-portraitists out there in the world, some very talented, filling the pages of flickr’s explore with their faces, poses, composite images etc. I’ve never gotten into this kind of photography, chiefly because I think all images are self-portraits. That is to say – all earnest photographs made for photography’s sake are self portraits. They are portraits of my reaction, emotion and thought. Why would I need to put myself in this frame when the frame tells you more than my face could? You can learn a lot about what someone values by the photographs he or she makes. There’s a reason I don’t post photographs of Disneyworld or box stores here. The world has enough of that and photography is my way of understanding the world and sharing the images projected on the back of my mind. It’s the great privilege of an amateur to photograph, say and publish as he or she pleases.
It is not my intent to diminish self-portraits or -portraitists (in fact, some have elevated this to levels I couldn’t possibly), but to explain why, though the photographs are clearly well made, they don’t move me to do the same. Or is it that because I’m no good at self-portraiture that I don’t care for it? If all images are self-portraits, then putting myself in the frame seems a little, well, obvious. Well that and you don’t want to see my mug grinning back at you from the warm confines of the Harper Memorial Library Reading Room.
Closing up the library.
If all images are self-portraits, then where am I in this photograph? Well, it depends when you look.
Before the Mansueto Library, before the Pink Line, before the wheel (to quote Dylan Thomas), when there were still books in the Harper Reading Room, I worked behind the circulation desk in one of the narrow, stone-capped corridors on the way to this magnificent space. There I go as a sophomore, weaving between the labyrinthine bookshelves that once populated the floor of this vault, on my way to flip a switch (conveniently located on the opposite side of the library from the exit) that will dim the amber chandeliers for the night. The embedded fluorescent lamps off, the room’s immense size renders the feeble glimmer of orange emanating from the hanging lamps useless to penetrate the darkness. Back I’m walking now, the gales of a cold December buffeting the sagging, leaded glass panes and BOO! my then girlfriend, now wife, jumps out from behind a bookshelf to scare me half to death. Down, down, down the Escheresque stairs and out into the cold, into the gray Gothic winter wonderland and homeward bound now, blazing a path through the stones and snow.
Fast-forward a few years and and I’m back in the vault again with my new camera and a new-found love of this thing called HDR photography – snapping away. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was excited to try to grow photographically. I’d gotten a taste for the beauty of the reading room again and wanted to return shortly after that last linked photograph was made. I found the place boarded up. The reading room was undergoing its most recent transformation and it would be years before I made my return to the vault.
By early last year, my time at the University of Chicago was quickly drawing to a close. I started putting together a series of images to remember the place by and I couldn’t leave the Harper Reading Room alone. I dropped by to make a few images and fell in love all over again and decided to write my thesis from glowing stone confines of Harper Memorial. This time, I would close the library as a user, working along one of the long tables that stood against the wall where my path to the light switch once ran; working quietly next to the heating vent into the night. I brought my camera with and made a few shots with a tripod and a few by dragging a chair out to the aisle and propping my camera up on my sweatshirt. At the time, I kept wondering to myself how one might gain the Mezzanine and the balcony seen in the photographs linked above. The reading room looks great from the floor, but I wondered how it might look from a vantage point hung in the lofty spaces even with the great chandeliers. My attempts to open the various doors along the stairwells were unsuccessful.
Here I am again late last month, taking the worn marble to the third floor. I stopped by the small booth that now stands in place of what was once a lengthy circulation deck and asked the attendant about the balcony. These conversations typically start with me saying, “This may seem like a strange question …,” followed by my explaining why I want to get somewhere unusual with my camera. The girl behind the desk pointed me in the right direction and I soon found myself high above the floor, camera, tripod and panoramic tripod head. I framed the library in some 60-or so images taken at 70mm, f/8 with my D700 and the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8. Normally I would bracket to capture five frames each spaced by one stop, but I worried that the cacophony I had already made in getting setup, etc would disturb the studious horde below. Late twilight was settling in outside and I waited for the perfect mix of a deep blue exterior peering through the windows and the bright tungsten glow of the lights within. As before, I was able to capture individuals and motion in the frame by carefully pre-visualizing and timing my captures. I wanted to get the ghost of a student walking into the library, down the center aisle, to do a little studying. If you link through to the full-resolution version on flickr, you’ll be able to see at least one student who must have been pre-visualizing what I was doing as well and decided to mug for the camera. After I’d finished capturing this beast of an image (over 250 megapixels) I packed up and, carrying I care not to admit how much camera equipment, followed that same foot-worn path northward to home I’d first blazed so many years before.
My father, a long-time fan of Capra’s often overly-dramatic It’s a Wonderful Life, loved that I was often responsible for shuttering Harper’s great reading room. When I was a student working at the circulation desk, he would enthusiastically imitate Clarence by shouting “He’s cloooosing up the liiiiibrary!” into the receiver when we spoke on the phone. In some ways this last trip to the reading room and this photograph was me closing up the library more or less for good. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be more than a tourist here from now on. I couldn’t help but hear Dad’s words ringing in my ears on the walk to my car; Mary Bailey, old maid or no, would have been so lucky as to close up a library as beautiful as Harper.
If you’re wondering why I would bother to make an image so large and laboriously, then I offer the following analysis. Here is an image of roughly the same angle of view (horizontal angle of view that is) taken with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 at 14mm. I processed it as a single HDR and gave it many of the same modifications. I hope it is as instantly obvious to you as it is to me what a difference in tonality and quality there is between the first image and this.
If you’d like another reference point for comparison, I submit a 100% crop of the chandelier in both images for your consideration:
The other clear advantage of these kind of captures is the little architectural details it reveals. Rockefeller and company put an incredible investment of time, money and energy into this building and you just can’t appreciate that from a single photograph. Every corner is unique and beautiful. They literally don’t build them like this anymore. Check out the gargoyles and keystones on the ceiling, each it’s own work of art.