I’ve talked quite a bit about my obsession with steampunk, which I think is a healthy and constructive artistic outlet for my pent-up English major’s frustrations with having spent seven perfectly good years wandering the hedgerows and dark back-alleys of 19th century English-language literature. Little Dorrit coughed up blood on my shirtcuff, and Jude whined obscurely in my garret; Heathcliff stood naked in the rain, howling on my moors (or maybe that was King Lear; different period I know, but it was a long time ago and these things start to blend together); Whitman sang and celebrated himself in my shower, while Emerson strode, a long-legged eyeball, across my desk; Ahab stabbed at me straight from hell’s heart, the mermaids did not sing to me, and the fog was everywhere: fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. There’s something about that century, or at least the second two-thirds of it, launching from the ascension of its titular Queen, reaching its zenith in the Crystal Palace and a century of confident and sunny Empire, and sliding on into the next century’s early years as its complicated construct of diplomatic niceties intended to tame the world led it directly and inexorably to its end 1918, its future buried in the bloody mud of silent French and Belgian farms.
Dearie me, that was a paragraph, now wasn’t it. Somebody’s showing off for sure.
Speaking of showing off, let’s return, then, to steampunk and the point of this (as will be revealed shortly) extremely cleverly-titled blog. So steampunk is a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, it’s dark and strange and swaddled in brass and steam and alchemy and not a little madness, levened by a touch of whimsy, and all made possible by an orderly, enlightened, and progressive culture of science and invention, presided over by a serene Victoria. At the same time, I’m concerned about the inevitable social stratification (even with the new influx of scientific and engineering nobility), or the air made unbreathable by a thousand thousand engines (that fog isn’t just a “marine layer” rolling in from the fresh and sparkly sea, and those goggles are for seeing through the coal dust as much as for discerning aetherial composites and magnifying tiny gears). I can’t help but think of the coal miners across the globe, toiling in the dangerous, acrid dark to power the engines if Empire, or the masses of unemployed laborers thrown out of their livelihoods by the phenomenal explosion of industrialization. So it’s not all shiny goggles and silk vests and lacy corsets and fancy fascinators.
Oh that’s right: corsets. Back to business.
It has come to my attention, the more time I spend in the glorious and wonderful subculture of steampunkery, that there’s a significant thread of something not altogether modern about the neo-Victorian mindset. Specifically, in the world of steampunk photography, it has quickly become obvious to me that the preferred aesthetic is comprised of upper-class white men with fantastical firearms and busty upper-class white women in corsets and not much else. (In point of fact, actual Victorian women, while perhaps overly susceptible to the vapours, women’s complaints, and occasional fits of dithering over whether or not the incident with the handkerchief in the hedgerow really meant something or simply meant something (oh yes, I’m looking at you, Jane Austen, with your misplaced billets-doux and ambiguous hankies) rarely went out and about having forgotten their skirts.) Google “steampunk” and sort by “Images” and you’ll see what I mean.
In short, much of steampunk art that depicts persons tends to depict persons in a thoroughly stereotypical, traditional gender-roled, male-centered manner. Now, while this may be in keeping with the general notion within steampunk of the need for–within the context of the fantastical alt-hist that’s been created–verisimilitude to the point of obsessiveness (steampunk crafters have told me the specific season of the specific year their clothing represents, and are sticklers for eschewing fabrics and sewing techniques dating after 1890). That only goes so far, though, as I am personally keenly aware: my more Wildean inclinations would, if we’re being strictly versimilitudinous to the Victorians, land me in hard labor for the next ten years, so let’s not get carried away. The simple fact is that steampunk is artifice, a history that is being created and told and spun out by steampunkers all the time. I bloviated on about my vision in the first two paragraphs here; others will have very different stories to tell. But all of it magically blends together into a subculture of Steampunk, and we have control of that subculture.
Here’s the thing: I am second to none in my admiration for a woman in a corset (well, OK, maybe second to some). But something in that cheesecake, pinup aesthetic has always struck me a little…not right. Now, I am not opposed to depictions of strong, brilliant, adventurous women looking fabulous, but when all the strong, brilliant, adventurous women appear to have cascading bosoms and an aversion to clothing, I have to wonder just a bit about why that is. I think (to get theoretical here for a moment) it’s not dissimilar to the way female superheroes are depicted: in ridiculously restrictive and inefficient costumes that expose a lot of skin (see, e.g., Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Batgirl, Laura Croft), whereas Batman, for instance, is covered from head to toe in more armor than King Arthur. So there’s a cultural thing going on, and it bothered me (just a little bit), and I thought to myself, “Someone ought to do something about this. And then I thought back at myself, “hey, stupid.” So I was going to do something about it.
So, being of a jolly-natured, tradition-disruptive character, I did this:
And also this:
And I’m working on some more. (You’ll be delighted to know that there will be a print and digital photobook, and possibly a pin-up calendar if purely for irony’s sake). But for now, I wanted to try a little experiment.
I love my fellow steampunkers. Every single one I’ve met, without exception, has been smart, funny, kind, and creative. I suppose it comes with the territory. But I felt the need to see if I could poke at this thing I saw, so I did. I posted a couple of those images on several of steampunk-related Facebook pages and websites, and the result was exactly in line with my working hypothesis:
I’m no Lady Gaga in the social media sphere, so when anything I post gets over fifty responses it’s a very good day. In this case, a whopping 58 women “Liked” the beefcake-steampunk photo on Facebook; only 7 men did so (and most of them are friends of mine). All the comments from women were positive: “Thank You!” and “Hooray!” and “So refreshing to see something other than a size 00 model wearing a corset and little more. Bring on the steampunk man candy” and so on. On the other hand, there were virtually no positive comments from men. Men had this to say: “Porn.” they said, “sexist,” and bandied about words like spam, exploitive, and unnecessary. One male commenter wrote, apparently without perceiving the irony, “but if they were scantly-clad girls all these women would be bitching about sexism and exploitation…… funny how that works.”
What’s good for the goose is apparently not always good for the gander, but sometimes the goose likes to take a bit of a gander herself, I guess.
In April, my husband and I honeymooned (thank you, Hollingsworth v. Perry) for two weeks in the south of England and Wales. We spent a few days in London on our own, based at St. Ermin’s Hotel just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, doing Tourist Things (theatre, the Tower, the British Museum, the British Library, Westminster Abbey, the fabulously old and author-frequented Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a gaslight tour of the neighborhood around Parliament et cetera, et cetera), but the bulk of our time was spent being ferried about by our private guide, Michael Osborne (operating as Unique British Tours).
The great thing about engaging Michael was that we saw a whole different England than we would have seen on our own. Oh sure he took us to Stonehenge and Bath and Oxford, but we also drove off-highway along winding country roads that took us through alarmingly lovely little villages, complete with thatched-roofed houses in which real people actually live. He arranged overnights for us in assorted Wolsey Lodges (unique “luxury” bed-and-breakfasts that were mostly repurposed olde manor homes–including a horse farm in the country, a village great house, and (by far the best one) a converted 12th century mill) and a modern four-star hotel overlooking Cardiff Bay. He showed us things we hadn’t expected to see, like Avebury, a World Heritage Site with aged and worn monoliths that–unlike the more popular Stonehenge–visitors can actually wander up to and touch. He hosted us for beer at local village pubs and for a fancy-pants (and delicious) afternoon tea at the stately Manor House Hotel in Castle Combe.
Of course pictures were taken, and since that’s what this blog is supposed to be about, let’s get to it. I hope some of these come off as something somewhat north of vacation snaps (for all our sakes). So Let the Travel Photography Begin!
(DEPT. OF CONTINUING SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION) For the past nine months I’ve been working with the City of Long Beach on a project conceived by Councilwoman Gerri Schipske called “Winged Wonders.” The project was to post educational banners around the El Dorado Park Duckpond, a location frequented by a large number of bird species, and an even larger numbers of human beings intent on feeding the assorted birds. Schipske reasoned that if people were educated about the specific birds in the park, and about the dangers of overfeeding them, then people would be more likely to act as responsible stewards of the environment rather than active participants in its destruction.
First a little background. El Dorado Park is a wonderful feature of Long Beach. A 450-acre greenspace, it includes a 105-acre nature preserve, lighted basketball and volleyball courts, softball and soccer fields, a skate park, picnic sites, a disc golf course, a tennis center, an 18-hole (non-disc) golf course, archery range, community center, and, of course, the duck pond.
So Schipske, whose district includes El Dorado Park, was dismayed by the growth of algae and litter in the duck pond, the direct result of residents feeding vast quantities of inappropriate food to the ducks, herons, and geese. Folks have been seen feeding the birds the usual bread, but also hamburger, chicken nuggets, corn chips, donuts, and candy. The birds, being basically driven by a single-minded interest in constantly eating, have very little self-control when it comes to effortless, free food, and eat all the crap they’re offered, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate for their health. Not to go into too much detail, but when birds eat stuff other than the usual insects, waterplants, and small fish, they produce copious amounts of waste, which goes directly into the water and, in a closed system like a pond, encourages the rapid and rapacious growth of algae. The algae sucks nutrients out of the water, and the birds’ natural food sources disappear, and the birds die. Alternatively, the birds die sooner from eating too much, from poisoning, and from eating plastic bags. So soon, Schipske knew, the El Dorado Duckpond would be a big, dead pool of stagnant water.
To avoid that, education seemed like the first solution, and the “5th District Lakes, Ponds, and Wetlands Taskforce” was created. Walling off the pond would be an unpleasant last resort. Initially, the plan was to commission local artists to produce images of the resident birds, which would be printed on large banners surrounding the pond. The results, while of fine artistic merit, failed to authentically look like the birds they depicted: rather, they were (as such things generally are) the artist’s impression of a duck, not any particularly identifiable species. While nice for a gallery, it was not the thing the duckpond project needed.
So Schipske and her staff went to the Internet, as one does, looking for photos they could use. On the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology they found several photos not just of the birds they were looking for, but that had been actually taken at El Dorado Park by a local Long Beach photographer (ta da). (Cornell had posted my photos by permission, of course.) Schipske’s staff reached out to me, and a project was born. Over the course of the next few months, I worked closely with Schipske staffers Haley Mizushima, who coordinated the project, and Misha Houser, who designed the banners. We sorted through my existing portfolio, and I took some new photos of birds that either were missing from my archives or for which larger-size photo files were needed. (A few species, which the local Audubon Society insisted were in the pond–but which I’ve never seen in my years of photographing the site (they’re probably migratory, and I just missed their visits)–were represented by photos culled either from Wikicommons or Cornell.) The banners also include a number to call for more information about the bird depicted, including its call.
The banners were posted around the pond, and an “unveiling” held in late May. Because I’m a shameless self-promoter, you can read the press coverage by clicking here: Duck Pond Banner Project Takes Flight.
There are, quantum physics tells us (or so I choose to understand what little I can decipher of quantum physics, given my fuzzy-headed liberal-artsishness) multiple universes nestled all over each other; multiple realities generated by choices taken and untaken, each as real and tangible to itself (and presumably to those inhabiting it) as this particular one that our combined and interacting series of choices and accidents and consequences has created for us.
In one of those realities, the 19th Century never ended. Charles Babbage’s theoretical difference engine, funded in 1823, launched the digital age 150 years earlier than in our timeline. The power of steam was harnessed and perfected in unique and imaginative ways, resulting in a cacophonous proliferation of gears and pipes and flywheels powering everything from toasters and teapots to dirigibles and high-speed locomotives. With an inexhaustible supply of fuel, the Victorian Age ushered in a high-tech utopia of gleaming brass and steaming iron rather than today’s cold wasteland of silicon and plastics. Driven by a meritocratic devotion to the triplet goddesses Curiosity, Progress, and Science, unique new understandings evolved that discovered the realities underlying alchemy and magick, that, tamed and flavored by the Victorians’ cool-headed intellectualism, became just more aspects of Science herself.
My vision of that alternative world is Steampunk.
There is a sizeable popular culture built around various aspects, permutations, interpretations, and definitions of “steampunk,” including a diverse array of conventions and convention-attenders, costume-makers and -wearers , musicians, jewelry-crafters, accessory-makers, vehicle-designers, cosplayers, artists, and photographers. Diverse, yes, but almost all of them include some elements of Victoriana, gears, clockwork, a bit of leather, and a fair dollop of darkness. (For a flavor both of Steampunk and its diversity, visit the Facebook page of Steampunk Tendencies; the Steampunk Emporium; or the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrances.)
Personally, I’m having way too much fun with my new obsession, most recently evidenced by a series of photoshoots with models willing to play dress-up and adopt the characters of Victorian professors, scientists, and adventurers sporting some lovely clothing items I purchased along with an assortment of props, accessories, and gadgets I’ve created myself with a little spray paint, gears, and superglue. And as much as I enjoy these shoots for themselves, the real appeal for me is in manipulating the photographs in Photoshop to look like they’re Steampunk themselves: old, faded, and battered relics of a fabulous bygone, steam-driven Empire…
In these “antiqued” photos, the process in Photoshop was relatively simple, if many-stepped and a bit time-consuming. Basically, I initially reduce the original image’s vibrancy, creating a faded, hand-tinted look. I then proceed to use soft overlay to combine the original image with images, colors, and textures of wrinkled paper, parchment, rusty metal, and peeled paint, making adjustments to the different layers to reduce or enhance vibrancy, opacity, and contrast to achieve the effect of an old daguerreotype that’s been left in a desk drawer for a century, or a rare color photo that’s faded with age, or a valuable antique image thoughtlessly mistreated and used as scrap paper by misguided previous owners. Sometimes I overlay bits of handwriting, ink splashes, or other signs of exposure to the years. I really kinda like the results.
Not all of my Steampunk work is manipulated in post-production to that extent, of course. The clothes and props are really quite lovely, and sometimes a color photo shows that best:
So this is fun, and pretty, and affords me quite the creative outlet for my overactive, fevered imagination (and what some might refer to as a pathetic case of arrested development and a failure to act my age). It’s also multidisciplinary, since I frequently write captions for these photos in the style of passages from 19th-century publications, utterly taken out of context. In the case of photo above, for instance, this caption from The Quarterly Sociological Review:
Today’s modern Gentleman, whether of the landed, learned, mercantile, or military classes–and whether or not associated in any case with one of the several esoteric neo-scientific academies which open their doors to virtually any class — or even, these days, any gender!–is always equipped with the three essentials: a Mechanickal Walking Stick that features a variety of miniaturized personal and professional conveniences that we have come to expect (here a Phletzer-Spetzingham “Artemisian” with complete C.I.L. equippage for accurate communications, inspections, and locationary activities); a set of bespoke Aetheric or Select-Dimension Goggles that provide both enhanced observational technology as well as vital protection from the elements (and stray elementals); and of course a Weapon for the protection of himself and others. In this case, our Gentleman is equipped with a new model of Ransom & Mellidew’s Mark III Multicannon: a prodigious, effective, and highly persuasive piece of impressive Personal Armament.
Welcome to my (other) world.
So I’m just fresh off a photoshoot that got a little…dark, both occasionally in subjects and consistently in lighting. Sure, it’s great to be out in nature, photographing birds soaring around in the sunlight, but sometimes you’ve just gotta go inside, close the curtains, and enjoy the shadows. I decided this time to experiment with candlelight, which was fun, and yielded some interesting results. I also did some playing around with low-level artificial lighting for some nude studies, which also worked out extremely well given the blazingly pale physique of my talented model, Joe Filippone, which pops against the flat black backdrop. The lighting was provided either by several (unscented) pillar candles or by a single compact-fluorescent bulb using a white umbrella reflector. All photos were taken with my D7000, using a tripod and a remote (the remote was vital to minimizing vibration in Very Long Exposure shots–some exceeding 0.5, though most averaging around 0.033). Flash was generally suppressed, although sometimes it makes a nice stark lighting effect (see below).
The shoot involved three basic segments: The first involved a steampunked-out Israeli civilian gas mask; the second was a series of classic nude studies; and the third was a fairly creepy take on the god Pan, using horns, furry leggings (which pretty much disappeared in the low light) and bodypaint. The results are below; I’m pretty pleased with them, and with the low-light aesthetic in general. More samples are available on my website, EButterfield Photography (“implied nudes” are in the “Models and Conceptual” gallery; the other kind are locked away behind a password in the “NSFW” gallery, but I’ll probably tell you the password if you’re interested, and ask nicely.
Exposure: 0.167 sec (1/6); Aperture: f/2.8; Focal Length: 44 mm;
ISO Speed: 1600
Exposure Bias 0 EV
Flash Off, Did not fire
Exposure: 0.033 sec (1/30); Aperture: f/2.8
Focal Length : 30 mm; ISO Speed: 1600
Exposure Bias:0 EV; Flash Off, Did not fire
Exposure: 0.5; Aperture: f/2.8;
Focal Length : 55 mm; ISO Speed: 1600
Exposure Bias: 0 EV; Flash Off, Did not fire
Exposure: 0.017 sec (1/60); Aperture: f/2.8;
Focal Length: 22 mm; ISO Speed: 800;
Exposure Bias: 0 EV; Flash Auto, Fired