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World of One: Somnium | Johnny Tang Photo

World of One: Somnium

A line of Asian guys in dark suits looking into the camera. One Asian in a white jacket in the foreground looking off into the distance.

Somnium
2013
Archival Pigment Print from 35mm Negatives
24″ x 38 1/4″ inches | edition of 5

 

Somnium Sketchbook
My pictures usually begin with some notes in my sketchbook, which I always take notes in, but in which I almost never make sketches. Sometimes I have a clear image in my mind of what I want to make, but I have no idea what that image means. Other times I have the title of the picture scribbled on a piece of paper, but no idea how I want it to look. In the case of the image being presented today, I had a clear idea of how I wanted it to look, but I had no idea if it had any intellectual depth. Whenever I come across these situations, I always err on the side of creation, and make the picture anyway. I assume that if the picture looks interesting enough, the meaning will float up from my subconscious during the process of creation.

 

I want the artwork I make to appeal to the viewer on multiple levels. I don’t just want my work to be interesting to look at; I want it to be thought provoking and/or emotionally moving as well. Held in balance between eye candy and mind candy is where I want my work to live, and my working process is constantly struggling to find that balance.

Somnium
When first I arrive on location, the first thing I do is figure out exactly how I want to frame my picture. I then take some test shots with my digital camera; this makes sure I have the correct exposure before I load up the film and begin shooting. The number of rolls I shoot typically depends on how complex the final image will be. Because I’m shooting film, I meticulously plan out the logistics of each shoot (lighting, location, where each figure will stand etc.) so I can be as economic as I can about how many frames I need to take. For most of the images in this series, I need to shoot around 5 rolls in order to feel confident I can complete my image.

Somnium Lightroom
After the shoot, I drop off my film at a lab, where they process and make high-resolution scans of the entire roll for me. I have to scan the entire roll of film, because I never know until I start the collage process which frames I will need. After getting my film back from the lab, I import all the frames into Lightroom and make my initial edits. Lightroom is where I also decide which of the figures have the strongest presence, as well as which background plates I want to use.

Somnium Background
The collage process always begins with the background. Often times, I like to start with a clean background, and remove the people in the frame before I start pasting the different Johnnys in. But, in the case of this picture, there were so many people in the background that I decided to put off that part of the post-production process until the end.

Somnium Sketchbook

Somnium Sketchbook
After laying down the background, the next step is to start pasting in the key frames. I find that the success of these picture oftentimes depends on having a clear central interaction. I like to call the key figures in this interaction the “hero,” and the “antihero.” Together they make up the Yin and Yang of the interaction taking place.

Somnium Sketchbook

After the potential key players are established, I then begin to fill in the rest of the frame with supporting characters. Initially, I like to start with a large supporting cast. Towards the end, I will edit out any unnecessary figures.

Somnium Sketchbook

I then begin the masking process. This is, by far, the most time-consuming portion in the making of one of these images. From their original frames, I cut out each figure, along with its shadows and reflections in quick mask mode, and match it with my background. The key is to use as little of the frame as needed, which helps build consistency throughout the illusion.

Somnium Sketchbook

I like to begin this process from the background to the foreground, so I know which parts of each figure I need to mask more closely. I work in this way, because the smallest bits of excess becomes much more noticeable where the figures overlap. The masking process needs to be done with meticulous attention to detail otherwise the illusion won’t be effective.

Somnium Sketchbook

Somnium Sketchbook

I generally try to resist the urge to edit out any characters before the initial collage is finished. It’s hard to tell which figures are worth keeping until the initial composite is complete. For me, making this distinction is one of the more difficult aspects of the process. I always feel like deleting figures earlier will mean less work, and therefore less pain, that’s usually not the case though. It’s always hard to tell which figures are worth keeping until the initial composite is complete, because you don’t know which frames you’ll need until you have the whole picture.

Somnium Sketchbook
After I have masked in the supporting cast, I then try to remove as many excess figures as I can, while still maintaining the essence of the composition that I want. Over the years, I’ve learned that having more figures can make the frame look overly and unnecessarily crowded. Keeping as few guys in the picture as I can, while still maintaining the original idea and dynamic for the composition, is the key to making these pictures successful.

Somnium Sketchbook

Somnium Sketchbook

With the final cast in place, I am ready to remove the people from the background. Usually this is done using bits of background from other frames, when that’s not possible, the stamp/clone tools become your best friend.

Somnium Sketchbook

Lastly, I crop the image so that all the elements will fit in the frame as one cohesive unit. This is also when I give the image a title, if it doesn’t have one already. Titling the piece is often either the first or the last thing I do, depending on which end of the creation process that particular picture began on.

Somnium

Somnium (from the series World of One)

Somnium is the Latin word for “dream,” but, according to Google, it can also mean daydream, fancy, and nonsense. It also happens to be the title of the first science fiction book ever written. I named this picture as such, in part because I think I look clueless in this picture; but also because I feel that art, like life, doesn’t always have to make sense to be meaningful. There’s a whole universe of stuff out there that we will never get around to understanding in our lifetime. But that’s okay — we don’t have to completely understand something in order to be inspired by it. Rather, I find that inspiration more often comes from a curiosity for the unknown.

A big thank you to Jenn Boudreau for assisting me with the button pushing portion of this shoot!!!

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