Splicing a cute little animal into a photograph doesn’t take more than a few seconds for anybody with a copy of Photoshop.
But Colorado artist Janelle Pietrzak spends hours cutting light stencils with a razor blade, then uses a shoebox and long-exposure photography to bring Bambi and other cuddly creatures to life inside her home.
“If you look at my photographs there is fantasy world full of mythical creatures, floating orbs, ghosts and goddesses, all created by manipulating light,” Pietrzak tells Cult of Mac. “The catch is that I hardly use any Adobe Photoshop. What you see in the images is basically what I saw on the back of my camera.”
Pietrzak has been shooting pictures since the age of 8 and continues to mine her youthful imagination for the fantastical in-camera effects she creates. She sews her own costumes and jumps in front of the lens, losing herself in the creative process. It’s more fun than staring at a screen.
“Yes, I could become an amazing compositor and do it on my computer, but for me the fun lies in the physical process,” she says. “Occasionally I do tweak things to improve the effects that are there already, but what you see is more analog and performance than Adobe Photoshop.”
During a brutal Colorado winter, Pietrzak, having just returned from trips to Mexico and Australia, was feeling housebound and uninspired. She found Flickr groups of light painters sharing how-to videos, encouraging and pushing one another with friendly competitions. It was fun and inspiring. Barred from having a pet in her small apartment, she decided to make an imaginary one.
“I found children’s Bambi coloring book pages online and these became the basis of my stencils,” she says. “I had a very specific process to size them and get them cut out of black construction paper using razor blades. Once the stencils were cut, I backed them with green tissue paper and attached them to shoeboxes. By cutting a hole out of the back of the box for my handheld flash, I was able to make long-exposure photos where Bambi appears ‘real.’ Each stencil probably took me six or seven hours to complete; it is a time-consuming craft project for photo geeks like me. Sure, I could have done it with Photoshop, but there is something that is so much more fun about building the stencil and making a real image.”
Her Bambi series, shot with a Nikon D90, is a treat for everyone’s inner child. Viewers get to invent a story to go along with the images, which were created by a photographer learning new skills and nurturing her imagination.
Pietrzak has upgraded to a Nikon D7000, fixed with a wide-angle lens. If shes yanks the light box out of the long-exposure shots quickly enough, she eliminates the need for heavy editing (but she does use Lightroom to adjust the colors and contrast of her RAW files).
She was raised on fairy tales and ghost stories, The NeverEnding Story and Labyrinth. The trunk of costumes she had when she was little is now a closetful; the princesses and warriors she became when she play-acted as a kid have become characters in her photography. Her work, from Bambi to the just-completed The Secret Garden, is as inspired by The Brothers Grimm as it is by her travels to exotic locales like the Himalayas, Mexico and Thailand.
“All of these places have deep cultural roots and traditions, many of which involve dark mythologies,” says Pietrzak. “I find them so inspiring, beautiful and, yes, magical. These are places where there are flying tigers, the dead come back to feast with the living, and fairies need their own houses so they don’t move into yours. All of this feeds my creativity and allows me to invent believable characters such as Bambi.”
Light stencils of life-size angel wings fell by the wayside when Pietrzak hit the road again. She hasn’t revisited the technique but says Bambi was a pitstop on her journey as a photographer, teaching her principals of long-exposure shots. Her photographic odyssey began long ago with a roll of slide film from her artist mother and has now culminated in The Secret Garden, with an exhibition in Aspen planned for winter.
Pietrzak is always on the lookout for other photographers who work in fantasy and surrealism for potential collaborations. Anyone with tips or questions should get in touch through Facebook or her website.
If you want to learn how to make your own light stencils we’ve got a how-to post written by Pietrzak herself.
Images: Janelle Pietrzak.