Nathan Wirth’s Black and White Imaginations

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All photos by Nathan Wirth. Used with permission.

Photographer Nathan Wirth has been featured before on our site, and in his Imaginations series he holds himself true to the claim that he only works in the worst weather possible. This project is a much more whimsical one that still uses the black and white format to tell a story. Nathan tells us that he chose black and white as an homage to classic cinema–since growing up the only television that was in his house was a black and white one.

Imaginations first got started when Nathan looked at an image that he was working on for a self-portrait long exposure series. He photoshopped Darth Vader into the scene, loved it and continued to do this with other characters.

Phoblographer: Where did the creative inspiration come from for this series?

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Nathan: The first image I made in this series is the one with Darth Vader staring out into the sea. In the original version of the image, I am standing there instead of him; in fact, I have been working on a series of long exposure self-portraits like this for a few years now, each one reflecting a decidedly Emersonian connection with the natural world.

One day, as I was looking at the image, I suddenly, out of nowhere, wondered what it would be like if Darth Vader was standing there in place of me. The thought made me laugh out loud, and I mean actually laugh out loud (which I rarely do by myself). That laughter was strong enough to make me want to go ahead and “find” Darth Vader via a Google image search and then place him in the image. Doing so, made me laugh even louder. Even though it would be several months before I put together another image like this one, this was the beginning of the series, that initial whimsy being the creative spark that has fueled all of these images.

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I recently came across a comment about this series, the commenter saying the images were boring and not impressive, that all I had done was just insert characters into landscapes.

I have no argument with most of what this individual said. As he points out, all I have done is simply insert characters into landscapes … and this person certainly has every right to find them boring.

However, I have never thought there is anything impressive about them, nor was I ever trying to impress anyone. I have never tried to be impressive. That strikes me as an odd goal— as if I have set out to “wow” people and will only feel good about what have done if I have made a bunch of people I don’t know think I am impressive. I find that to be a very unimpressive reason for doing anything. For this series, I simply set out to be whimsical. And if one takes a few moments to look at each image, one might see the humor I have tried to express in each image. Many, however, do not find that whimsy. I know several photographers— whose work I really admire— that have told me that I have basically ruined otherwise reasonable images by integrating these figures and objects into the scene. But, again, these images are not meant to be traditional long exposure seascapes. I simply wanted to play with the conventions of such things and express a little bit of humor.

I also never intended to share these images when I first made them. Well that’s not entirely true because I had shared a few of them, individually, via social media. Still, I had not intended to release them as a series. In other words, I made no cognizant attempt to create a series. It just materialized from my continued desire to create something whimsical.

A few of them were made as gifts for family members. My mother-in-law, like me, fondly remembers the old Godzilla movies made by Toho Studios in Japan, the ones with the special effects that were created with a person in a rubber suit destroying miniaturized sets. It is those kinds of unsophisticated special effects that I am honoring in quite a few of these images. My father-in-law loves the original The Day the Earth Stood Still from the fifties and, in particular, Gort. I love that film as well; in fact, I fondly remember many of the older B science fiction films of the fifties and the sixties. I watched these films when I was a kid and they still have a nostalgic resonance even if I have not seen most of them again since my childhood. Watching them back then activated my imagination. Many people today find the unsophisticated special effects of those older films laughable—especially by today’s standards of computer generated effects. But I liked those movies particularly because they asked a viewer to suspend his or her disbelief. That suspension interests me greatly in this series.

The other thing about that image is that Gort is a robot who stands very, very still, guarding the ship throughout most of the film. When you take a long exposure image, you typically want the objects to stand as still as possible otherwise they blur (while you want the water and / or sky to blur). This is why so many long exposure images feature rocks and bridges and piers. Who can stand more still than Gort, a robot? I added the cormorant because when you take a long exposure seascape, seagulls and cormorants often appear on the rocks in your shots whether you want them to or not, and the fact that it is sunning itself, as cormorants often do, made me chuckle. I did the same for Robby the Robot in another image.

Phoblographer: You do a lot of black and white work, but why did you stick to black and white for these images?

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Nathan: The answer to this, for me, is incredibly simple. I am drawn to the mood, tonal possibilities, and contrasts that a black and white image tends to express. Color images are quite lovely to look at. I just don’t have much interest in working with color for my own images.

I should add that, for all of these images, I used photos that I had already worked on and had more or less abandoned because they seemed too similar to other images of mine (then again all of my images kind of look more or less the same) or were not quite good enough— or I had not entirely figured out or ever gotten around to finishing them. They all sit in a folder unused (probably a couple hundred or more total). From time to time, when I have nothing new to work with, I return to that folder to play around with some of them again (in fact, some of the images from this series came to life during periods when I had nothing new to work with).

As a quick side note, when I was a kid, the only TV my family owned was a black and white one; so, even though most people were watching movies and shows on color TVs, everything I watched on television was in black and white. As a result, many of my first forays into the world of suspended disbelief were experienced in black and white even though the films and shows were being watched in color by most people.

Phoblographer: What made you specifically choose these characters?

Nathan: As a child, I enjoyed all of the films, TV shows, comics and books that these characters come from. I first read the Lord of the Rings back in 1977 or 78 when I was around 10 or 11 years old. Around the same time, I stood in line for many hours to see Star Wars on opening day at the Coronet Theater in San Francisco. The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I really had no idea what I was watching because I was too young to understand any of it, but I was still drawn to it. I read Batman and Superman comics when I was a kid (the ones from the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies). I watched Star Trek and Dr. Who as well. I still remember the first time I saw the original King Kong at the Surf Theater in San Francisco. I must have been only six or seven years old. My love of that film—and stop motion animation in general— later led to viewing many of Ray Harryhausen’s films.

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Throughout our childhood, my two brothers and I loved old science fiction and horror films (we saw many of them on a late-night-weekend show called Creature Features, hosted by Bob Wilkins). We never thought to question the unsophisticated special effects that propelled those films because we were so enamored by the invitation to imagine the impossible, to, for example, imagine the future or a world of fantastic creatures (and many of those films we watched with wide eyes when we were kids are truly terrible movies, but we certainly did not think so back then). We didn’t need the kinds of sophisticated special effects seen in films today. We had our imaginations. And these images are simply homages to those rough special effects, those fantastical worlds, those invitations to imagine. Also, to read comics and / or books, you have to open up your imagination—so much so that the experience relies on that imagination. Modern films serve this to you on a platter (as do many of the sophisticated video games). Nearly all the work is done for you. I am not, however, criticizing that fact. In these images, I am simply honoring something that I feel had a lot to do with my childhood imagination. But such things are really for me—and not necessarily for the viewer of my images. In other words, I do not expect other viewers of these images to necessarily engage with these images in this way. Every viewer will bring him or herself to the images and have their own reactions (some, as the person I mentioned before, will find them boring).

I don’t, personally, think the images are believable. They are not meant to be. But they, for those that are willing, do reflect a bit of whimsy and a bit of nostalgia—and I like to think they invite one to imagine these well-known characters in slightly different situations than we are used to seeing them in. If you want to see some very impressive, realistic images that incorporate Star Wars characters and objects into realistic conditions, check out the work of Cédric Delsaux. His work is eerily realistic and way, way more believable and admirable than anything I am up to with my series.

The Dark Knight's Vacation Rental

Phoblographer: Some of these images look like you photographed toys, while others look like they were placed in the images. Talk to us about how these were done.

Nathan: I did not photograph any toys. I did, however, find the Darth Vader and Batman “figures” at two different sites that sell costumes. I just used Photoshop to add them to the images— nothing impressive, nothing fancy, nothing complicated. A lot of people go on and on about their process as if that is the most important part of photography. I, personally, could not care less about such things. I am only interested in the final image, and I do whatever I can within my means to end up somewhere that I feel is good enough (even if I don’t always know where that is going to be when I first start out). I am sure that many people can step in and complete everything I do more quickly, efficiently, and realistically. But, again, such things don’t matter to me. This also has a lot to do with how I approach other people’s work. When I connect with an image, I don’t worry about how it was achieved (what camera or lens was used, what software, how many layers, etc). If I connect with it, it has everything to do with emotion, mood, drama, tone, contrast.

I lifted Gollum and Gandalf straight from movie stills from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. I found Yoda in a still from The Empire Strikes Back. The following characters and objects also came from stills that I found online: the Enterprise, the monolith and hominid from 2001: A Space Odyssey, King Kong and the planes, the Tardis, Gort, Christopher Reeve as Superman, the UFO, and Godzilla. And, once again, the seascapes and landscapes are all pictures that I had worked on previously and, for one reason or another, had decided to leave in that folder of abandoned images.

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Phoblographer: To get the specific nostalgia, we imagine that these images were storyboarded, yes? What debates were you having with yourself when creating the scenes?

Nathan: I used no storyboards. I had no debates. There was, however, a lot of private snickering and chuckling. I can share some of the thoughts that I was a considering as I put these together, but I explain these things knowing full well that those who encounter these images will have their own reactions and thoughts about them. The idea of Darth Vader staring out into the abyss in contemplation is, for me, quite hysterical. C3P0, a robot, contemplating the light as if he were the released prisoner from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is also quite silly (but there is that quip he makes to R2D2 in the original Star Wars film: “Don’t call me a mindless philosopher”). Yoda contemplating an egret fishing also made me laugh (though I will admit that Lucas did borrow heavily from Zen for his ideas about the Force). The one that makes me laugh the most is the one with Gollum, which I titled How Gollum Spent His Fall Vacation. I had imagined, as I was working on it, Gollum taking a selfie. Naturally, he would never take a vacation, but if he did, he would spend it alone and he would not smile and would look miserable as he often does (especially since he was still looking for the ring that had been stolen from him). The picture of me looking up at the Enterprise in the sky is probably the most serious one of them all. I put it together right after I had heard that Leonard Nimoy died. And, finally, I titled the Superman image, with Christopher Reeve flying very quickly down the side of a building, The Paparazzi because I was imagining him flying down to deal with someone trying to catch a quick shot of him. All in all, however, I never set out to plan any of these images. The ideas happened when they happened. They really, quite simply, are whatever they are. I don’t mean for them to be much of anything else.

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These images are really not very representative of what I generally do with my work. While I always try to keep a sense of humor in my life, the rest of my photography tends to be quite serious. I stopped reading comic books in my early teens, and I stopped reading sci-fi and fantasy books in my early twenties (I am currently 49 years old). I do still watch some of the new sci-fi films when they come out (and I was very partial to Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight), but, for the most part, I have shifted my attention to poetry, foreign films, novels, philosophy, Zen, and art history.

Phoblographer: So what’s the goal for these photos and this project?

Nathan: I have no real goal for this project. Quite a few people have contacted me to ask if they could buy prints, but I have turned down their requests. I have given away five of the Darth Vader images as gifts to friends (and that is all I will ever print of that image), and several of the images, as I said before, were specifically made as gifts (the Tardis image was a gift for my sister). I don’t feel that I should sell them because I took the figure in each image from a source that is not of my own making. I also don’t really know what the copyright and, thus, legal obligations and problems are for these images. I’ll probably add a few more images someday (for example, I loved watching the James Bond films with Sean Connery and would also love to incorporate the robot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), but for now, they stand on their own as a more or less finished project (even though I never set out to make a series). I am, to be honest, very surprised that they have received any attention at all. I am, of course, grateful and flattered that they have.

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