Photographing Decay and Metamorphosis

I photographed this wallaby skull in an abandoned mine near the town of Chewton in Victoria, Australia.

This image features a wallaby skull. It had been picked bare by animals, birds and insects and was separated from the rest of the carcass which was lying nearby in a muddy pool.

It looked quite luminous, lying in the open shade.

The photo was straightforward to make, although I needed a tripod to steady the camera with the Canon 180 mm f/3.5 Macro lens attached.

How A Polarizing Filter Can Save The Day

I made the photo in Central Victoria, about an hour and a half north west of Melbourne. It's a harsh environment in summer with so much of the ground either stony or red cracked earth.

In addition to a hat, sunscreen, drinking water and solid walking shoes the bright ground reflects so much light that, to be able to see what’s in front of you, sunglasses are required.

Similarly, the use of a polarizing filter is essential to prevent the inherent color and texture in earth and leaf being reflected off their surfaces resulting in a flat, relatively colorless result.

I don’t have to tell you that it can be tough wondering around such a location in the middle of a hot day.

It’s the time of day any self-respecting landscape photographer would be resting or limiting their energies to basic reconnaissance, so as to determine the location best suited for photography under more forgiving light.

The script should allow for a nap and a decent meal, prior to a leisurely photography session either side of sunset. It just never quite turns out like that, at least not for me.

Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

We all want to photograph beautiful locations and, with a little bit of tuition, it should be possible to make great photographs of interesting subjects under ideal conditions.

But it’s the hallmark of an accomplished photographer to be able to make a great photograph of an otherwise banal subject or scene, particularly when that photo is made under less than ideal circumstances.

As a teacher of photography I work really hard to set folks up so that they can make very good photos under a variety of lighting conditions.

Your Photos Allow You to Move Behold the Known

And that’s the reason I used to take folks to this location when running workshops in the region.

Because it’s outside our normal experience it’s interesting, but photographing it is challenging and requires energy, technical competence and a unique approach.

Good composition can make a big difference.

It’s a great feeling to know that by pushing yourself, both physically and mentally, you’ve done your best and, through the art of photography, employed the subject to explore larger themes.

An abstract image of an out of focus plant backlit by warm sunset light near Harcourt in Central Victoria, Australia.

Photography's Greatest Challenge

One of the greatest challenges facing photographers is the need to control lighting contrast. I have a range of mantras that help me demonstrate essential photography truths. Here’s one:

The brighter the light (therefore) the darker the shadows will photograph.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

Photographing outdoors under a bright, sunny sky will produce black, impenetrable shadows.

As we normally like images that allow us to perceive texture and variation in the luminance of shadows, we are likely to be disappointed when they photograph black.

Because side and back lighting produce larger areas of shadow, compared to frontal lighting, our disappointment may be increased when photographing under more dramatic lighting.

A black and white close up of a Wheel Cactus that emphasizes the plant's shape and texture.

There are many ways to make photos under high contrast conditions.

For some folks this involves extra equipment in the form of flash, reflector and/or diffuser; one or more assistants; and image manipulation on the desktop.

I’m of the belief that it’s usually best to do as much of the work as possible in the camera, and that we should be doing that work, wherever possible, on our own with as little equipment as possible.

The computer’s job is not so much to save a bad image, but to elevate an already good image onto a higher plane.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

The approach I recommend is to photograph the subject or scene in a way that records as much data as possible, and to then employ software to re-map that data into information that explores your own artistic intentions.

A still life study of wallaby bones, picked clean, at Blanket Gully in Central Victoria, Australia.

Making the Image Of The Wallaby Bones

In the case of the above image I remember seeing (and smelling) a wallaby carcass around 6 months earlier.

Each time I returned to the location the carcass had been reduced down in bulk until, eventually, all that remained were its bare bones, some of which had been ripped away from the skeletal remains.

I’m the type of person who’s not all that keen on handling dead animals. It’s partly a fear of disease and partly out of respect for the dead.

However, the history of photography is full of the exploration of life and death.

Have you ever observed the change in season from autumn to winter, or the rebirth that occurs in the transition from winter to spring? Talk about metaphor!

Whether the wallaby had died a natural death or had fallen prey to predators the fact was that scavengers, decay and weather had, over time, reduced this mammal to a series of scattered bones, clean and white.

It seemed to me that the connection of the bones to that particular Wallaby was now extremely distant and tenuous.

I felt that those bones now presented me with an opportunity to make a photograph that was less about the animal and more about other, larger concerns relating to existence.

Delicate Details, Harcourt Reservoir, Australia

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The trouble was the light was so bright that it was reflecting much of the delicate detail off the surface of the bones.

I decided to take two of the bones the 100 meters or so back to my car, which I’d parked in the shade. On arrival I noticed a piece of old metal, right next to where I’d parked my car. It was the kind of thing you might imagine on the door of an old boiler or furnace.

I laid the metal onto my car bonnet and carefully placed the bones on top. The dark, rusted metal was interesting. I poured some water over it to clean it up and enhance its color.

Washing the bones also increased their inherent luminance (i.e., brightness) which helped emphasize their shape and made them glow against the darker background.

As there is a sense of timelessness inherent to a black-and-white photograph I decided to remove all the color and then to add a gentle warm hue for a more nostalgic feel.

Then, just like in the darkroom, I employed Photoshop to apply some local density (i.e., brightness) adjustments to better shape the image.

Finally, I applied a slight glow to the image and an amount of sharpening that seemed appropriate to bring out some of the fine textural lines on the surface of the bones.

Beautiful silver light illuminating reeds on the Expedition Pass Reservoir near Chewton, Australia.

Photography And The Cycle of Life

On one hand the photos of the wallaby’s remains in this post are a documentary record of a deceased animal. On the other hand they’re a means by which I’m able to explore notions of death, decay and metamorphosis.

Not your usual selection of still life images, but interesting nonetheless.

The photos in this post involved effort, experimentation and vision. The process was fun and I hope you find the results to be visually arresting.

If so please feel free to share this post via the social media icons on the page.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru