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Compositing Goshka Macuga’s Lost Forty tapestry (A Guide For Photoshop Geeks)

Last fall I was enlisted to make a Photoshop file with the artist Goshka Macuga which would be made into a woven tapestry and hung in one of the Walker’s galleries. Needless to say, I was very excited to be involved in the production of such an unusual piece. To clarify, this wouldn’t be made […]

Last fall I was enlisted to make a Photoshop file with the artist Goshka Macuga which would be made into a woven tapestry and hung in one of the Walker’s galleries. Needless to say, I was very excited to be involved in the production of such an unusual piece. To clarify, this wouldn’t be made by having ink from an inkjet printer sprayed on blank white fabric. The image in this case would actually be the threads. And it would be a large piece. At 48 x 14 feet, it is larger than the front of my house. Making it an even more involved project, it would have many elements from many sources which would need to be composited into a forest scene. In my position as Senior Imaging Specialist at the Walker, I do very detailed retouching and color-correcting on high-resolution images for publications. This would be a fun change. The finished tapestry, part of Goshka Macuga: It Broke from Within, is now on view in Burnet Gallery at the Walker.

My involvement with the project would be to assemble and produce the final file, in dialog with the artist, which would be given to the weaver. This would take place over a three-week period in January. During this time, there would be morning Skype sessions from Walker curator Bartholomew Ryan’s office with Macuga, who lives in London. The evening prior, I would save a compressed jpeg file of the work I had done that day and send it to the artist. Some of the issues that we were concerned with were relative placement and sizes of the figures and to accomplish a true sense of space and life-likeness for the viewers once it was hung in the gallery. In the end there were 22 elements that needed to be placed into the forest background.

The forest image was made from seven vertical images stitched together to form a panoramic. These images were made by Walker photographer, Cameron Wittig, using a 33mp (6726X5040 pixels) Leaf Aptus II 7 digital back on an Hasselblad camera and a 60mm wide-angle lens. Wittig traveled with Ryan and Macuga to the Lost Forty area of the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota. Wittig’s account of his experience will be posted soon. Below is Ryan and the camera set-up in the Lost Forty. The orange hats were needed to protect them from hunters.

We provided Macuga with low-resolution versions of several forest panoramics. Using low-resolution scans she gathered during her many trips to the Walker for research and images she made at various events, she started “sketching” in Photoshop.

Above is an early draft by Macuga using an image from a woods in Europe. This was made before she had access the panoramics following her trip to the Lost Forty.

The above three are some of the many versions that Macuga “sketched” in Photoshop.

Once the decisions had been made for who and what was going to appear in the forest, new scans were made at the highest sample rate for a given scanner. Image resolution for most of Walker printed materials is 300-400 ppi. I was relieved to hear that the resolution of this file would only need to be 30 ppi. But because of its large size (17423 x 5040 pixels), I still found myself zooming in and out, even though I have a 26-inch display. The tonal quality of all elements need to be similar. This was done through Photoshop Levels and Curves. Contrast levels and lighting needed to match closely. Of course there was considerable cloning of dust and scratches from these old photographic prints. I didn’t want to effect film grain sharpness so I stayed away from filters. The most consuming part was isolating the figures to be copied into separate layers of the master file. There were 45 paths and 14 alpha masks.

At left is Walker Art Center founder, TB Walker in 1927. At right is artist Macuga during the trip to photograph the Lost Forty in 2010.

Above is Walker’s first director, Daniel Defenbacher in 1951. This was one of the many places where brush had to appear in front of a person.

Once it was finalized which elements were to be used, full-size strips were printed on our plotter and hung in the gallery. Ryan made the photos of me on a lift placed at 30 inches—the height that the raised floor would eventually be. This can be seen in the installation image at top.

Another consideration was predicting were where the seams would fall on the tapestry. The maximum width the loom could do is just under 10 feet. We divided the file evenly into five segments, and marked them with guides so we could see in advance (below). The goal was to be sure a seam didn’t cut directly through a person.

The final file is 762 MB and has 83 layers. Luckily this was one channel only (grayscale). To have done it in RGB or CMYK may have required it to be sectioned with multiple files. The final flattened file is 88 MB.

Late in the process, sections were cropped and sent to the weaver in Europe for testing. We needed to see the overall tonal range, resolution, and how the seams worked. This would be the closest thing to a proof. A month or so later, Macuga saw them. She approved. In late January, the final flattened file was ftp’d to the weaver. By late March, the five rolls arrived at the Walker. Below is Walker Registrar, Joe King, moments after unrolling one of the sections in art receiving. My first reaction was amazement at the resolution and tonal smoothness, followed closely by relief that it had actually worked so well.

Below is a close-up of the tapestry and a seam.

Below are images made during the installation.

Quoting co-curators Peter Eleey and Bartholomew Ryan in their introduction to the exhibition’s publication, “Goshka Macuga uses institutional histories as the staging ground for complex proposals. For her first solo museum exhibition in the United States, the London-based Polish artist delves into the Walker’s past, foregrounding the institution’s early link to the lumber business in which its founder flourished while considering the forest as a metaphor for American democracy and freedom. Within an exhibition architecture of her own design—inspired by a rendering of a “town square” lounge proposed for the Walker’s 2005 expansion—Macuga sets elements from the institution’s collections and archives against a monumental new tapestry depicting the Lost Forty, an old-growth forest in northern Minnesota that survived logging due to a surveying error in 1882. Amid the gargantuan white pines, the artist has collaged individuals related to her research.”

More about the tapestry can be found here.

Below is a spread from the gallery guide that Walker Senior Designer Dante Carlos made. His post about it is here.

  • Scott Ponik says:

    Really great piece, Greg!