Monday, September 1, 2008

Saving Lenin and the Historic Value of Throw-away Shots

I have a really hard time throwing away images after I've selected the "good ones".  Even though I know that I'll probably never need them, the older I get the more I realize that even the mundane shots can become more valuable over time.  Here's a good example: I took this shot of the iconic Goodyear Blimp in the 1970's...

...and here's how it looks today (from an image I pulled off the web from

At the time my original blimp image was nothing special... but 40 years later it now has some historic value.  As a result I've licensed this image 3 or 4 times. 

This same phenomenon hit me again after I returned to Moscow and Latvia after 20 years, and in the last few months I've had a chance to re-visit my old work and compare how the two countries have changed.

[Caption: The infamous "CCCP" initials in the Kremlin building (left) are gone now (right).  It's as if the letters were Photoshopped out, but in real life. :-)  ]

The impetus to examine my old archive and look for before-and-after changes came from a young writer (20 years old) in Latvia who was doing an article about my reaction to how Latvia has changed since Soviet times.  The image above, of four "Young Pioneer" boys (equivalent to the American Boy Scouts - a pure Soviet institution), I had considered a "throw away" shot originally, but this now represents a part of the vanished Soviet history which the article writer never knew growing up.  To my surprise this image was of extreme interest!

Okay, so most of you are not stock photographers, so how on earth is this relevant to you?  The answer: I have found this same phenomenon to be true when it comes to old family pictures.  Going through old snapshots 10 and 20 years hence -- even the ones that weren't good enough to show others at the time -- can bring back overwhelmingly positive memories (thereby fulfilling the purpose of a snapshot - to jog a neuron based on a previous experience within the viewer).  Plus, now that I'm married to someone who loves to do scrapbooking, I learn that otherwise boring shots can be faded out and used as a background for the more important pictures when doing page layouts.

"So what about that reference to Lenin you made in the title??"   Well, I'm getting to that.  During my initial Soviet trip back in 1988, I was a bit of a snob.  "I refuse to take pictures of statues of Lenin", I told myself, "since every tourist gets pictures like that and I'm not here to take tourist pictures!".

Arrogance?  Yes.  And I've always regretted that decision, since all the Lenin statues are now gone and this iconic reminder of a bygone era is now marketable.   This is why today I almost always cover my bases, and even take 'establishing shot' pictures of things we all take for granted (anyone seen a phone booth lately?).  30 years from now these images might very well appreciate in value.

But wait!  What's this??  When going through my old archives for the aforementioned magazine article I realized that I had begrudgingly snapped just such a picture; perhaps in a weak moment, just to cover my bases.  But it was a very poor shot, with simply horrible light and because it was shot on slides there wasn't much room to play with as there would have been had I shot using negatives.  (Shooting negatives is kind of the equivalent of shooting with RAW -- it gives you more leeway to fix gross exposure errors later on.)  Is it at all possible to save this shot and make it marketable??

The left image was the original slide, scanned with my ancient Nikon LS-20 film scanner.   The center image was manipulated in Photoshop to try to bring out the detail that was already there:

1) First, I selected just the sky and darkened it a bit.

2) I next selected everything that wasn't the sky and adjusted the curve to bring out and enhance the contrast in the dark area (as shown in the "Curves" window on the right).

3) Notice that step 2 resulted in horrible shift in colors.  (This, despite the fact that I was editing in 16-bits-per channel mode, and in AdobeRGB color space!!)  Only one thing to do: Convert the image to B&W.  (Which is fitting since most people associate B&W with history shots anyway.)

The right shot of the statue is the final product after a little bit of cropping.  Not great, not bad.  And it should really, really reinforce the notion that "Just as there is no substitute for good focusing, there is also no substitute for good light".

(By the way, My Soviet Union visit back in 1988 was to document a cultural exchange between Soviet and American high school students during the Gorbachev era.  You can see the award-winning multi-media documentary online right here.  Some of my best storytelling is here.) 

Florida and Nova Scotia seminars are open for enrollment!

1 comment:

  1. Actually, you are wrong about all Lenin statues being gone now. They stubbornly linger on in many places, especially in small villages, insignificant train stations and such (but sometimes also in large cities too, e. g. in the center of Kiev). Here is an excellent example of a recent Lenin statue photo, showing a combination of the old and new realities:

    So I guess you might still have a chance of making a great Lenin shot :)