Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Colin Zelt's Mesmerizing Urban Landscapes

I spoke with Rice University earth sciences professor and photographer Colin Zelt at the Houston Center for Photography's annual print sale last month, where I bought a print of his View from Elysian Overpass, pictured above. Colin was nice enough to send me a high-resolution photograph of the photo to reproduce here with his permission; click on the image above to view it at a larger size, or click here to visit his website and see a lot more of his very interesting work. Colin takes most of his photographs in his own industrial neighborhood in Houston, and also has a great series of photographs taken at Sea Arama, once an aquarium-amusement park in the oceanside tourist town of Galveston and now a city of concrete ruins and graffiti.

Colin's urban landscapes differentiate themselves in from postcard scenes in their color and lighting, as well as in the starkness of the scenery he chooses to capture. He frequently shoots multiple, bracketed exposures of scenes under challenging lighting conditions. He then combines them seamlessly in Photoshop to create crisp images of floodlit no-man's-lands between and within a major port city's industrial core, where train tracks meet the blank stares and broken windows of dilapidated warehouses and factories. In the View above, he explained, he used the sky from one exposure, the factory at left from a second, and the rest of the scene from a third, combining them to even out his lighting and capture the best face of each part of the scene.

The quality of color and sharpness of detail he captures in that hollow between twilight and darkness is even more stunning in his actual prints than in his web portfolio; I had only seen them online prior to the sale, and wanted one then, but seeing them in person sealed the deal.

The real-world viewing also made immediately clear to me what, exactly, I found so attractive about many of his photographs of Houston. This had eluded me previously only because I usually pay little attention to photographs of downtown skylines or urban landscapes, and have never found Houston to be an exciting city. Standing with a couple of matted prints in hand I quickly recognized that despite all of the grim features of the photographs' setting and subject, the cast of blue-black nightfall that suggests coldness even when nights may be hot, there is an essential calm in Colin's openness to seeing what he sees and working so painstakingly to recapture what he sees there. In my experience, this type of calm is frequently claimed for photographers but is often a mere ratification of that objectivity imposed by the medium itself, and feeds into many fine art photographers' work in ways that do not complement their subject or their author. But I find myself influenced by the calm in Colin's industrial landscapes and invited to view the world with an objective, inquiring, and patient eye, taking in all that is around me and acknowledging the beauty even in ugly circumstances.

"Some people would call it manipulation, to use Photoshop in that way," he
said in a later email correspondence. "I think it's just recapturing something that is closer to what was really there. Film or a digital sensor is limited in what it can see under those conditions. By bracketing and then combining images in Photoshop, I can better approximate what the eye is actually taking in at that moment. Alternatively, you can use this approach to interpret the scene in a subjective way to achieve an image that best represents how the real scene made you feel at the time, as opposed to what the real scene might have looked like."

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