Professional photographer Arthur Drooker shares the tips and tenchniques he employed in his newest book, 'Lost Worlds: Ruins in the Americas'
This project clearly took a lot of travel. How long do you stay in one area?
I made 10 trips to complete photography for Lost Worlds: one to Central America, two to the Caribbean, three to South America, and four to Mexico. The length of each trip varied from one to three weeks. All the travel was done over the course of about two years.
How did you find hosts, guides, and drivers?
In the case of the Caribbean locations, I received wonderful support from the tourism boards of the various island countries. They saw Lost Worlds as a way to boost cultural tourism, and graciously provided guides and drivers. For the other locations, I relied on a travel agent with whom I’ve worked for several years. Through her contacts I had wonderful guides and drivers in Mexico, Central America, and South America.
You work with R. Mac Holbert for image processing. Tell us about that.
Mac and I have worked together for 17 years. He’s become a great friend and we’ve developed our own shorthand. Typically, I will send him a selection of RAW files and we will work remotely via iChat and screen-share. I watch him work on the files in real time, and we talk about them each step of the way. It’s very much a give-and-take collaboration. No one works curves, shadows and highlights, and midtone contrast in Photoshop better than Mac.
The toning of the images appears to be subtly different in color from picture to picture.
The toning is the same; you probably see different strengths due to varying contrast characteristics in the photo. Several years ago, Mac Holbert and I came up with what we call a recipe for toning my ruins images. I think of it as our version of sepia; it warms up the images just enough to notice and makes a subtle connection to the past.
There is an absence of people in the photos. How do you manage that?
I always go to these places at times of day when there aren’t many people around. The overwhelming majority of photographs in the book were taken with no people around. And in a lot of cases, when people see you’re a serious photographer, they will stop and wait for you. I’ve encountered that many times, and I really appreciate it. But if I’m in a situation where I’ve got to get the light when I can get it, I engage in depopulation in Photoshop.
You sometimes correct jagged or crooked features in Photoshop. In what situations will you do this, and to what extent?
Ruins frequently have crooked walls; combined with the distortion of a wide-angle lens, they can throw an image off balance. In these cases, we’ll find a single wall to serve as our straight line and adjust or rotate the image accordingly. It usually works. Beyond that, I don’t do any additional correcting.
Some purists might view this as excessive fiddling with reality.
As soon as you put the camera in your hand, you are making decisions every step of the way to manipulate the image. It’s all subjective, and photographers have to decide for themselves what is “excessive fiddling.” I have no problem removing litter, or an offending telephone wire, or even people from a shot, if I find them distracting from the composition in any way. I don’t consider this excessive, and frankly, I don’t care if others think it is.
The photos have a ghostly quality. Have you ever felt spooked on a shoot?
Not in an ooga-booga kind of way, but there have been some occasions where I’ve felt a presence, shall we say. Sometimes I feel more connected to a particular ruin than to another. I’m not sure why that is—sometimes I feel it is more than a photographic or visual connection, more deep-seated, psychological or spiritual perhaps.
What sort of information is available on ruins around the world?
All kinds. A lot of my research began by going online and doing simple word searches, such as “Argentina ruins” and, voilà: hundreds—if not thousands—of images would appear, as well as text describing them. I also found a lot of useful information in Lonely Planet and Moon Guides, as well as a variety of books on Mayan and Incan civilizations. Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham—the explorer credited with “discovering” Machu Picchu—was a particular favorite. Another great read is Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens, which is considered by many to be one of the best travel books ever written about ancient sites.
What would you suggest to readers who’d like to try ruins photography?
Go online or read books about various ruins and go to the ones that stir you emotionally. Once you’re there, take your time. Really study the site. Look for great light and interesting angles. Try to see the place beyond a typical postcard view. And be patient—you’ll be rewarded.
Arthur Drooker is also an Emmy Award-winning writer and director of TV documentaries. See more of his work at www.arthurdrooker.com and www.lostworldsbook.com.