Not Just Another Walk In The Park
Vincent Versaces Presidio Project

Photos © 2002, Vincent Versace, All Rights Reserved

This park had a story that wanted to be told," says Vincent Versace, Los Angeles celeb photographer best known for his images of "the beautiful people" of Hollywood.

When the trustees of Presidio National Park in San Francisco invited him to photograph the 1480 acres of forest, Versace jumped at the opportunity. In a house built in 1854 Versace put his bed in the basement and filled the house with computers, printers, and camera equipment. He shot the project with the Nikon D1X and D100 and a 5-megapixel Coolpix 5700, which he calls, his "little stealth camera." Lenses were 14mm, 17-35mm, 70-210mm, 35-85mm, and 80-400mm.

"It was an experience to wake up every morning and walk the park," says Versace. "That park shows what I do. I tell the truth and shoot the pretty. It is one of the most spectacular places on the planet. I could see the peninsula of the Marin headlands, the sunsets over the ocean and fog rolling in, and this forest with the old walkways and buildings and the trees where the wind coming had gnarled and shaped them to look like something out of Lord of the Rings. I knew there was a story here and I would just walk and look and watch without imposing myself on it. The beauty was all around me and I would not leave the confines of the park. So much was happening within that perimeter, like the weather changes and the moment-to-moment changing of light."

The Digital Route
Involved with digital since 1992, Versace was among Epson and Nikon's first beta testers and found he could do more with digital than he ever could with traditional photography. "There's a bigger dynamic range on the output than with silver," he says, "more choices in what you can print on. There's better color and longer life and these pictures have to last for generations. Depending on the image and the ink combination they will last for 85 to over 100 years. I printed the images on the Epson 9600 and the look was spectacular, and if they are properly cared for they will last far longer than traditional photographs."

Versace describes how he used digital techniques to expand the range and depth of his images. "I bracketed multiple exposures and all of the work was shot using a tripod. I would bracket upward of eight stops in either direction and do that with both shutter speed and aperture so I could get the desired depth of field and the exposure I wanted. Whatever the shot was, I could expose the foreground, mid ground, and background, then pick the best examples out of the exposures and pin register. I have shots that have over 11 stops of dynamic range in them and people can't figure out how I do that. I was at a large format conference and shooting digital and all these guys shoot 4x5, so they were gunning for me. I pull out this photograph of fog which is a composite of 11 shots of the same thing and they all take a gasp and then ask--`Well, okay, how did you do it?'"

In short, Versace's technique uses what he calls real, exposed pixels to create the reality instead of manipulated pixels in Photoshop. "I use Photoshop as an emery board rather than a jackhammer," he says. "One of the interesting things I found when using Photoshop is that the `red-headed stepchildren' (the unwanted tools) in the graphics world are usually the eraser and the magic wand, sometimes called `the tragic wand,' but these are two of the tools I use the most. Keep in mind that every time you do something in Photoshop you dump information and that creates artifacts, which are cumulative. If you do too much of it you will be able to look at a photograph and say, oh, that's digital. Like grain is an artifact of film, digital has its own set of artifacts.

"Blowing pictures up as large as 24x30, as I did for this project, forced me to come up with a way to work these highly manipulated images, to get the feel and look I saw. I also work in RAW file format because I don't want the compression to occur. I want a relatively small file but still want to have the best possible data. JPEG is great in an emergency situation. One of the mistakes people make with digital is that they never expected their film camera to do the processing, but people expect that of their digital camera. The minute you go to JPEG, that is what happens."

As digital photographers know, battery life is everything, so Versace uses Lexar flash media because it writes fastest to the card and uses less battery power. He says he does not use Microdrives because their spinning takes power from the battery.

Digital Expectations
We asked if when he set up this project if he was expected to do it all digitally. "No," Versace says. "All they said to me at the meeting was `no Mapplethorpe.' Cracked me up!" Then why did he shoot it digitally? "Because of the unlimited control I have with the computer," he says, "and the capture potential that I don't have in traditional photography. If I go the traditional process route I have little color control, only control in exposure, sharpness, and depth of field. In digital I have complete control of every aspect of the photograph. I can have just one area in focus and blur the rest of the image."

For some images he used eight different exposures, even including one for the specular highlight. Says Versace, "I picked the elements I liked from each exposure. What you must keep in mind is the way in which light works in incidental levels of variation from light to dark. You can't really see where a shadow starts and ends, as the gradations are so infinite. So when you work in Photoshop you must be careful not to see your chalk marks. I know I did my job when someone asks if I did any manipulation."

According to Versace, digital is "there." "In the next 18 months everyone is going digital," he says. "With traditional photography all the problems have been solved. With digital you have the most important thing an artist can have, which is control of the creative process. Photoshop is the most inspiring and creative piece of software ever written."

One of the best "how-to's" this writer has run into is Versace's doctrine. "I go into my idiot savant mode when I shoot a picture," he says. "I'm not conscious of shooting anything, and then I look at it and say, my God, I've channeled it! It's what the Japanese call shibumi, which is thoughtful, thoughtless thought. When you don't think about what you're doing you do the most appropriate and thoughtful thing in that moment. That's when everything is in balance."