Twenty-five years ago I first saw the wall at Battery Mendell, a reinforced concrete gun emplacement, completed by 1905, to guard the entrance to San Francisco Bay. It is situated in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, north of the bridge. In the bright sunlight one could count the generations of paint, blue, grey, brown, gold, each taking turns to escape the surface whose hold was becoming ever more tenuous. The wall fascinated me, and I wondered what I could do to portray it without succumbing to the cliché of peeling-paint photography. I concluded that an obvious strategy was to juxtapose something lively and colorful using complementary contrast for mutual enhancement. A decaying wall needed a living presence, rather than an inanimate object placed just for the sake of design. It needed the dance of life.
Weeks later, my friend Len and I returned to the wall. This time an idea had begun to form, and now I had a test model wearing purple sweats and brandishing a borrowed trumpet. I knew it wouldn’t work, at least not yet. The light was too harsh, the model the wrong sex, the clothing too inelegant, the trumpet insufficiently dramatic. I shot a roll of film anyway. The exercise allowed other images to penetrate my consciousness, especially when I removed my spectacles and saw less detail and more color swaths. Sometimes an imposed lack of objective focus can actually improve one’s design vision. Since then, laser ophthalmic surgery has given me acute sight, so I have to resort to other means of tricking my mind.
The processed slide film was exactly as I had anticipated: awful, but promising. As I thought and sketched and played with images of the wall in the ensuing weeks, I began to conclude that I needed a tall, shapely, leggy, female dancer-model. I’d always needed one of those, but this time it was for art.
Dr. Karine came into my life at the end of that July, and stayed on. She not only has the required physical characteristics, but also a deeply formed intellect and the great gift of a sense of fun. She offered to find the props, brilliant red tights and perfectly color-matched opera gloves. I borrowed a brass trombone, the length of the slide being a counterpoint to the length of the model’s legs. I found out later that, when assembling the instrument, I’d placed the spit valve wrongly, but that doesn’t affect the design. Nonetheless, I offer my apologies to trombonists everywhere.
Each day we watched for perfect light conditions, and one day we got them: bright sunlight beautifully diffused by mist, a not unusual condition for San Francisco. I posed Karine to maximize the saturated color effect, red-gloved hands holding the trombone as no musician would, red-tights-clad legs off the ground to imply dance, face obscured for enigma. To cover slight variations, I shot ninety-two frames.
I had promised to make her a cover girl. The final image, “Brass Tights,” became a magazine cover (PSA Journal) and won the second award in the Royal Photographic Society’s annual International Exhibition, then known as the “World Grand Prix.” Thus, for a glorious one hundred and twenty-fifth of a second (at f8), I became the second-best photographer in the whole damn world. It left me with a remaining potential of 14 minutes, 59.992 seconds of fame.
Because new techniques have enabled us to tinker forever with images and text, the work is never done. I’ve alluded to this in a previous column, “The Thirty-Year Snapshot.” So, I’ve occasionally worked on this image again, first changing it to a partially solarized silvery monochrome, and just recently using my remaining minutes of fame (and more) to add fruit to the original. The latest version is called “The Lemonade Trombone.” Click on the image. Maybe next year I’ll fix the spit valve.
© Raphael Shevelev. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted provided the article, copyright and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form.
Raphael Shevelev is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on photography and the creative process. He is known for the wide and experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His photographic images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries.