Franz Kafka goes to Disneyland

Every year at tulip time, I try to get out and photograph the tulips. In Ottawa, the two nicest seasons, spring and autumn, are also the shortest. The fall colours last a few weeks, but the spring tulips last mere days.

One view I especially like is looking across the Ottawa River towards the Parliament Buildings from a tulip bed just below the Museum of Civilization on the Gatineau (Hull), Quebec side of the river. There’s a plaque there honouring Malak Karsh, the late photographer who produced spectacular colour images of Ottawa.

One evening after work I headed down there, impressed by the changing light as storm clouds moved in, but sun and blue sky kept emerging from behind them. I set up my tripod and tried a number of shots, often using a neutral density graduated filter, which darkens the exposure of the sky at the top to balance the light better with the ground below. This is especially useful when, as that evening, the tulips in the foreground were in shade, but Parliament Hill is in sun. I also have a few coloured graduated filters, and I sometimes use a mauve one to give a slight fantasy look to the sky.

I took a few multiple exposures for HDR (high dynamic range), another technique used to overcome a wide range between light and dark in a scene. You take multiple identical shots at different exposures — typically I do five ranging from much too dark to much too light. These are then combined on a computer to create a scene where there are no dark silhouettes or white areas of blown-out light. I got a few images I liked.

Tulips and clearing storm clouds, Ottawa

Tulips and clearing storm clouds, Ottawa

I also got a number of shots that were more ho-hum. One of these I had taken at five different exposures with the intention of doing an HDR. Suddenly, looking at one of the exposures, I got an idea. What if I showed the Parliament Buildings darker, as a silhouette, but lightened the rest of the scene just a little bit? It was one of the shots with the mauve graduated filter, so the sky had just a little bit of a dreamy mauve cast. I decided to play with a single image rather than do an HDR. I made only small tweaks — no fancy processing — and then I layered on the Parliament buildings from one of the darker exposures so they appeared as a silhouette. This was the result.

Dark fantasies, Ottawa

Dark fantasies, Ottawa

To many foreign viewers of my photos, our Parliament buildings often suggests a castle, with their neo-gothic architecture. I imagined a sinister castle, perched on a hill, the home of frustrating bureaucrats. It reminded me of Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle, which I read many years ago. Its about a surveyor who is never able to get satisfactory answers from the bureaucrats in the castle, who bungle his case and cover up their mistakes. Sometimes the workings of our government seem very Kafkaesque.

In one of the Flickr photo groups, Critique 2, I suggested the Kafkaesque nature of the picture. One of the group members, a fan of Kafka, agreed as far as the castle went, though thought the garishly colourful tulips were out of place for Kafka.

 “Maybe Kafka goes to Disneyland,” he suggested.

Despite some people finding it much too garish and suggesting I should desaturate the tulips to make them less colourful, the photo had a lot of positive reaction on Flickr in comments, and people selecting it as a favourite. It even made it onto Explore, Flickr’s showcase for the pictures it considers (according to a secret formula) to be the most interesting.

And yet, it’s one of the simpler shots. And despite the layering of the silhouette, it’s also one of the least processed of that day’s selections from the shoot. It’s hard to account for what people will like, but a simple image with interesting colours that evokes fantasy seems to be popular.

About Richard McGuire
Richard McGuire is a part-time photographer and photography enthusiast based on Ottawa, Canada.


One Response to “Franz Kafka goes to Disneyland”
  1. I think simple photographs often do make the best one, its good to think outside the box, but keeping it simple works. Personally I prefer your original photo. I don’t find it too saturated, the image simply works.

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