David English: Ethereal Shadows

Sometimes you spend an entire day shooting photos and end up with just one or two images worth keeping. Other times, you spend only a few hours shooting and end up with so many outstanding images, it takes months to fully process them. So why the difference? It may need to be in an environment that’s different enough — yet vaguely familiar — to rekindle your creative fires. The Melaten-Friedhof (Melaten Cemetery) was that kind of place for me. Located in Cologne, I visited there last year on the day before the photokina trade show. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it would be the most fruitful few hours I’ve experienced so far with an M-System camera.

I’m usually a wide-angle shooter, though I switched from an 18 mm Super-Elmar-M to a 50 mm Summilux-M after about 10 minutes there. The same thing happened when I photographed the cemeteries in New Orleans earlier that year. The personal nature of the monuments and statues is best observed from a normal field of view. And the dreamy bokeh produced by the 50 mm Summilux is a good match for this cemetery, which has a fairytale-like quality even in broad daylight.

For me, the familiar aspect of Melaten relates to my background in classic films. I’ve been especially interested in the German UFA studio films from the 1920s. Almost everyone has seen “Metropolis” (1926) from director Fritz Lang. Other great Lang films at UFA include “Destiny” (1921), “Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler” (1922), “Siegfried” (1924), and “Spies” (1928). I’m also a big fan of F. W. Murnau. His UFA films include “Nosferatu” (1922), “The Last Laugh” (1924), and “Faust” (1926). These silent films are generally lumped together under the heading of German Expressionism. They are often highly stylized with sharp contrasts between brightly and darkly lit areas. Echoing the public’s fascination with psychoanalysis, they tend to project a highly subjective point of view onto the outside world. These films were a prime influence on the film noir that emerged from Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

This was my first trip to photokina. In fact, I had never been to Germany before. I’m not sure what I expected, but Cologne wasn’t at all like the fictional version of Germany I had come to know from the UFA films. That all changed when — almost on a hunch — I visited the Melaten Cemetery. The monuments and statues there seemed to share the same creative impulse that I had seen in the films. Melaten was like a laboratory where you could explore human faces and gestures in all kinds of lighting, much like a silent film studio. If you had a camera and lens capable of recording the subtlety of the experience, you might produce some terrific photos.

After the trip, I took my time processing the images. There was a fair amount of trial and error to see what would work for each photo. I didn’t know what the end result should look like, but I figured I would know it when I would see it. Three of the 16 were converted to monochrome and processed primarily with Silver Efex Pro 2. The rest were handled strictly by Lightroom, mostly using the basic tool-set. All were shot with an M9.

The 50 mm is an excellent choice when you want the perspective to be similar to what you would see in person, but you want that extra sense of closeness and isolation that a 50 mm gives you over a 35 mm. With the photo titled “Cemetery Statue #4,” the scene is more intimate and conditional than it would be with a wide-angle lens. The frame is composed so that the embracing arms seem to embrace the viewer, as well. You’re invited to become a participant within a comforting and protecting gesture. Here the lighting was ideal — though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. If I had wandered by at a different time of day, the illumination might have been less radiant, due to the inevitable shift in the light and shadows.

The Melaten Cemetery is heavily wooded. That provides the dappled light and dark shadows that can give a three-dimensional look to objects. With the photo titled “Melaten Statue #4,” the statue in the foreground is well defined, even though it shares many of the same tones with the leaves directly behind the statue. I used Silver Efex Pro 2 to emphasize the infrared portion of the spectrum, which gives the image a calm intensity.

The photo titled “Melaten Statue #3″ is another example of dappled light as seen through the leaves. However, the result is quite different. I was able to process this image darker, so that it appears to be almost nighttime. That allowed the light peeping through the leaves to appear like stars. It took several tries to find the best approach for this one. The face needed to be well-focused, yet softly pleasing. And the surrounding points of light couldn’t be harsh or overpowering. The overall effect should be of a real person transported into a poetic landscape.

That particular photo reminds me of the 1935 Hollywood movie version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was co-directed by theater director Max Reinhardt, who had a strong influence on the UFA silent film directors. The other co-director was William Dieterle, who worked with both Lang and Murnau at UFA. I wasn’t trying to emulate their work, but the kinds of images that we frequently see are likely to turn up again subconsciously when we create and process our photos.

If you work intuitively, your subconscious may zero in on elements that you were unaware of when shooting. With the photo titled “Melaten Monument #2,” I don’t think I fully realized the subtlety of the lighting, as I was preparing to press the shutter button. During the processing, I could see that each figure appears to be lit individually, as if hours had been spent aligning the stage lighting to reveal each character’s motivation and emotional state. Some of it came from the choices in processing, but most of it came from the monument itself and the chance lighting through the trees. Did the sculptor take all this into account to create a tableau that reveals itself only at a certain time of day? Probably not, but we’ll never really know.

I hope to return to the Melaten Cemetery next year, when photokina returns to Cologne. I plan to reshoot some of the same monuments and statues using my M Monochrom. With the Monochrom and shifting shadows, the resulting photos should have an entirely different look.

– David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M9 and M Monochrom. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.