Insights and ideas from Barbara Boissevain
Bringing issues into focus
Barbara Boissevain uses her photography to increase awareness of environmental and social issues. Her passion has taken her around the world to photograph the plights of gypsies in Greece and the near-forgotten indigenous Quechua people of Peru. Recently, she decided to focus her work closer to home when she discovered that the San Francisco Bay Area where she lives leads the nation in terms of environmental awareness, yet it is among the most polluted areas in the country. Here, Boissevain talks about her photography goal: to cultivate awareness and provoke meaningful discourse about environmental stewardship.
Photoshop.com: How did growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area influence your interest in art and photography?
Barbara Boissevain: Our family moved from Ohio to the Bay Area when I was seven years old. My mom was a software developer and my dad was a NASA scientist, so I was surrounded by technology and was interested in it. But I loved art too. I started as a painter at Parson’s School of Design in New York City, and I began my explorations in photography while still in college. My photography blossomed and became a passion for me in my early 20s.
Photoshop.com: What and who inspired you to become a professional photographer?
Barbara Boissevain: While still in art school I saw Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s “Worker’s” series at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, France. This was a life-changing event and I was captivated by his work. The idea of using photography in the service of social and political advocacy was not new to me, but this idea combined with the formal qualities of his images and his extraordinary use of available light really resonated with me.
Photoshop.com: When did you begin to focus on social and environmental issues?
Barbara Boissevain: In 2009, I collaborated with a dear friend on a humanitarian mission to Peru. The result was “Children of the Rainbow", a traveling exhibition and book project that helped fund several medical missions serving underprivileged indigenous communities in Peru. In many ways this project represented a real milestone for me in terms of combining my humanitarian goals and my photography. I would love to do more projects like this in the future. Most of the images included in this project were shot while on the Patacancha trail—off the Sacred Valley at an elevation of about 14,000 to 15,000 feet.
I am now working on a Masters in Fine Arts (M.F.A.) at San Jose State University, and my thesis, due this May, focuses on something I care deeply about: toxicity in the Bay Area. People are surprised about the levels of pollution that exist here; I want them to know more and I convey that information through photographs.
Photoshop.com: Tell us more about your thesis.
Barbara Boissevain: I’m creating a photographic series called “My Backyard” that documents five environmentally toxic sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. Yes, it’s an expression of my art, but ultimately my goal is to raise awareness. I also want to collaborate with non-profits and other institutions to get the word out and educate the public. My goal isn’t to tell people to take specific actions, but to inform and inspire people to learn more about these issues. I am concerned about the problems communities and individuals face who live alongside toxic sites without their full knowledge or consent. I consider this situation to be one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.
Photoshop.com: What role do Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop CS6 software play in your artistic process?
Barbara Boissevain: It’s pretty simple: I start by importing the raw files into Photoshop Lightroom and then export the images as TIFF files. Finally, I bring them into Photoshop for color calibration and cleanup to remove any flaws. I don’t alter the images very much, but just highlight the important parts that show the toxicity.
Photoshop.com: What are your favorite features in Photoshop CS6? Why?
Barbara Boissevain: I love the clean new interface and the dark background, which is how most photographers I know (including me!) like to view images. The darker interface remains in the background where it should be, so the photographer can focus more easily on what’s really important—the image itself. I love the Tilt-Shift feature in the Blur Gallery for giving photos a miniature feel. I have a wide-angle shift lens for my Nikon D3 that cost thousands of dollars. Now I can create the same effects in Photoshop CS6 with infinite options. Also, the Content-Aware Patch is really fabulous. I recently used it to edit out an unwanted helicopter component in some aerial shots. The updates in Photoshop CS6 showed that Adobe is really attuned to what photographers need to save time and get the best results in postproduction.
Photoshop.com: What makes your style recognizable?
Barbara Boissevain: My photos have a dramatic aesthetic about them and I am interested in providing as much context as possible in one shot. They also represent what famous photographer David Maisel refers to as the “apocalyptic sublime.” What he means is that certain images of environmental degradation are horrifying–yet underneath they have a dizzying, imperial beauty.
Photoshop.com: Describe a favorite image you’ve created, what grabs you about it, and how you created the result.
Barbara Boissevain: Ghost Hangar No.1, from the Ghost Hangar series, depicts the largest Superfund site in Santa Clara County, the Moffett Field Naval Air Base in Mountain View, California. It is a very potent image for me for many reasons. Moffett Field is home to the iconic Hangar One, a colossal structure that covers over eight acres and is one of the largest freestanding structures in the world. As a small child I rode up and down in hot air balloons inside this hangar during annual NASA Christmas parties, and I remember experiencing the incredible vastness of the space known to produce its own weather systems within its walls, such as rain and fog. Built in 1931 to house a naval airship—the dirigible USS Macon—the hangar is now rife with controversy. It was recently found to be leaking toxic chemicals into the wetlands bordering the San Francisco Bay. Efforts are currently underway to remove the toxic outside “skin” from the hangar as it contains polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, and asbestos.
I took this shot at twilight, when fortuitously, there were clouds that enhanced the photo. In postproduction, I created an adjustment layer and tweaked the levels to increase the density in the sky. I also created another adjustment layer with a mask and used curves to vignette the image slightly. In the lower half of the image, "underneath" the hangar, I created a semi-transparent layer and composited an aerial shot of the Bay within close proximity to the hangar. This layer depicts the die-off that has occurred in the wetlands close to the hangar. My intention was to suggest the hidden toxicity that exists below ground level that we cannot see from above ground—mimicking the ways in which information about the true level of toxicity is obscured and hidden from the public.
Photoshop.com: Can you talk about your “Big Dirty Secret” series and the inclusion of text in some of the images?
Barbara Boissevain: The focus of the "Big Dirty Secret" series is the Lehigh Permanente cement plant in Cupertino. Still in production today, the plant is responsible for creating more than 50% of the cement used in the Bay Area. Growing up, I lived within a mile or two of the plant, but didn’t know it existed until a few years ago. It is within close proximity to a dense population that I believe has the right to know about its existence—and its harmful effects on the environment. I chose to use embedded text in these images to allude to how much of the toxicity that surrounds us is hidden. We have to actively look for it, just like the text in these images.
I gathered the text from different sources, including the San Jose Mercury News and the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. Adding the text into the image was simple. I created an adjustment layer, and created a text box over the entire image using the Text tool. I copied and pasted text from my different sources until it covered the entire image. I then clicked on the mask icon on the adjustment layer and used the Brush tool to "paint" in the text wherever I wanted it show within the image.
Photoshop.com: What’s next for you after you graduate?
Barbara Boissevain: I’m hoping to continue to continue to expand the “My Backyard” series here in the Bay Area, and investigate other communities affected by toxicity in other parts of the country as well. While completing my M.F.A. at San Jose State I had the opportunity to teach undergraduate photography classes and I discovered that I have a real passion for teaching and sharing my love for photography with my students. I am hoping to find a position teaching at the university and college level.
Barbara's High Pass Sharpen action