Insights and ideas from Arthur Drooker
Revealing ancient worlds
Whether it’s a dilapidated and vacant building like Alcatraz prison in San Francisco or the ruins of a Mayan temple in Mexico, I reveal the mystery and mystique of buildings from bygone eras. I tell stories through infrared photography about the rise and fall of structures and the people who inhabited them. Adobe® Photoshop® CS5 and Photoshop Lightroom® 3 software help me show the architectural variety, geographical diversity, and historical significance of ancient ruins in a different light.
I’ve been a history buff for as long as I can remember. History has become not only my career, but my life’s work. I have a degree in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and I’ve written and directed Emmy Award–winning television documentaries about some of the most unique historical sites in the western hemisphere. But to me, nothing captures the aura and essence of ruins quite like infrared photography because of its ability to highlight contrasts and evoke their inherent mystery and timelessness.
I was familiar with Simon Marsden’s infrared images of British and Scottish castles and graveyards. On a trip to Cambodia, I had the opportunity to visit the temple ruins of Angkor, and it was a life-changing experience. I was so taken with these ancient structures that I set out find ruins in the United States and preserve them using infrared photography. That search led to my American Ruins book, which is a photographic survey of historic ruins that includes 22 ruins in 15 states.
When I first started shooting infrared in 1995, I had to use infrared film and specialized camera filters and tote lead bags to protect the light-sensitive film from accidental exposure. Today, I use a specially adapted 35mm digital camera to capture these timeless images. Working with imaging specialist Mac Holbert, I use Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom 3 to perfect my work and prepare images for print.
Photoshop and Lightroom let us make as few or as many edits as we want, helping to fine-tune the images. Infrared light is invisible to the human eye because it is reflected rather than absorbed. With infrared photography, I can reveal that light, making clouds pop from the sky and creating a high-contrast, ghostly look. Lightroom not only helps us organize all the photos for easier sorting, but it also makes it easier to reduce the magenta cast that infrared photography produces, gives us a good black point to start with, and helps us make easy color temperature adjustments. All these steps accelerate the process of converting the images to pure black-and-white.
The Adobe software offers a variety of tools and features that we use to accentuate, correct, and perfect images. The Curves feature in Photoshop lets me draw out the dark areas and adjust shadows and highlights so they work well, while cropping and cloning make it a cinch to remove objects I don’t want such as litter or other artifacts that don’t belong. I can also take advantage of Photoshop Actions to apply my signature touch of sepia toning.
But the game-changer for me is Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop CS5. Time takes its toll on ancient structures, so it’s not uncommon for walls to be crooked and jagged. The Content-Aware Fill tool lets me instantly correct essential subjects in the picture to straighten a wall and reorient an image so it reflects the structure as it existed in the past.
Many people look at old structures and see ruin and decay. With Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom 3, I can use infrared photography to highlight and emphasize the cracks and imperfections of these buildings with striking contrast to reveal what they truly are—beautiful.
Arthur’s midtone enhancement action Courtesy of R. Mac Holbert