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The Dude Motel

by Andrea Henderson about a year ago in editing
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Neon and black/white

Creativity is a funny, elusive thing. I had always considered myself a creative person, but I had no outlet for it, no creative product I could point to. I play the guitar badly, with no sense of rhythm, and singing was out with my inability to carry a tune. My drawing and painting skills never progressed beyond simple stick figures. But writing. I wanted to be a writer, yet when I tried to put pencil to paper no words would come forth. I would sit quietly, feeling the story, the feeling I wished to capture, but it remained elusively out of reach. I was consumed by fear and couldn't move forward.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes "We all know that fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun.” My dreams were desiccating such that I could feel the sharp edges of the word desiccate in my mouth, it's hard thorny cactus-like edges creating a dam of my creativity.

And then I discovered photography and the dam broke, the water crashing through the barrier of cactus, flooding, creating a verdant valley where once the desert stood. I had an outlet, I could create an image, and I had no fear. And when the dam broke, my words flowed forth as well, riding the current made way by the gift of photography.

And now I am driving back to a cabin I had rented outside of Yellowstone, my day spent snapping photos in Yellowstone National Park, attempting to catch the colorful nature of the many hot pools with their vivid blues, oranges, and reds. I had planned my outing to end at sunset, to watch the sun decline over the Madison River. I pull into West Yellowstone as dusk is spreading through the town.

I am immediately struck by the neon lights at some of the old motels, the ones looking like a step back into the time of the 50s and 60s when the family vacation was a road trip in the station wagon where the kids didn't wear seat belts. One motel actually advertises that they have color TVs, a strange statement in this age of smart phones and iPads.

A particular hotel catches my eye with its colorful sign, Dude Motel, with its neon outline of a cowgirl. Or perhaps it is a cowboy with the slightly curvy hips and heels on the shoes that lead me to a sexist assumption. I pull over to capture the image. After parking my car, I cross the street and began snapping pictures. I know many photographers pause and plan the perfect shot, creating a visual story through the lens. Me, I don't have the patience for that and I don't trust my eye, so I take multiple shots of the subject. Maybe 20-30, with each shot moving slightly to one side or the other, five steps up or down the sidewalk.

For this shot, I start at the corner, stopping every few feet to snap another few pictures. Satisfied that I must have captured something good, I head back to my cabin.

I am always tingling with anticipation after taking pictures, anxious to see them, like looking forward to a present that is yet unopened. Sometimes I sit in my car immediately and load my pictures on to my iPad so I can see them. Today I wait until I get back, where I can fully work with them.

I use a Sony a6000 for taking pictures, and I love it's lightness and the way it fits into my hand like an extension of my arm so that my picture taking is seamless. When I am done, I load my pictures onto my iPad pro. I have a process I always follow. I don't select photos from my camera to upload preferring to look at them all on the bigger screen. Once loaded up, I sort through them and I select the photos I will upload to Lightroom, my preferred photo editing app.

Once I have my pictures into Lightroom comes the fun part. Cropping the pictures is my favorite, where you can make the shot come alive. I love the feeling I get, the sense of rightness, when I have framed the picture that captures the essence of the image. It's almost like I can feel it click into place, like a puzzle piece.

After downloading my shots of the Dude Motel I am pleased that several of them have potential and import into Lightroom the best one. I like to crop my photos close eliminating any extra space around the focus of my picture.

For this picture I first crop out the red minivan and stop sign in the lower left-hand corner which are completely superfluous to the picture. I also cut out the bottom of the photo and bring it up. Next I move the photo to get the right placement. While the neon sign is the focus, I want it in the upper left-corner with the roofline of the motel balancing down the right-hand side to create a sense of flow.

After I get the photo cropped the way I want, it's time to play with light and color.

I snapped the photo at dusk so I need to make decisions with exposure and light. I use a very laissez faire approach to editing, I simply move the tab back and forth until I feel that internal click of rightness like being a the eye doctors office and they ask you if you can see the letters clearer with A or B. I approach my editing the same way. Do I like version A or Version B better.

With this photo I decide the exposure needs little changes, so I just increase it slightly. I also bring out the whites and blacks in the photo. Yet I am still unhappy with the lights in the motel and the little bits of color that detracted from the sign. Then I have an inspiration: Why not selectively edit the photograph to make all of it except for the neon sign black and white? I use my finger in broad brush strokes to essentially paint the color out of the photo, then using my apple pencil to paint the fine detail around the sign.

At that point I have an existential crisis. I have just obliterated, diminished, the woman sitting in the lower right-hand corner. I wonder how she felt about being erased and thought about what she added to the story of the photo. She didn't fit my image of how I dude should look sitting in front of the Dude Motel. In the Webster's dictionary, "dude" is defined as a man extremely fastidious in dress and manner or a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range. This woman, in her t-shirt and leggings sitting smoking a cigarette, was not a dude. Interestingly the word "dude" is derived from "doodle" that is perhaps from the song Yankee Doodle Dandy, which has nothing to do with this story other than I found it interesting. Returning to my editing, I decide to leave the woman obscured. She may have a story to tell, but not now, not in the image I was creating.

Next I play with the color, as I really want the neon sign to pop against the black and white background. I bring the hue down in the red while increasing the luminance and saturation. I do the same with orange. With the yellow, I decrease the luminance to create a deeper, darker color. I am happy with the results, but did wonder if it looked over-edited. But, I decide to leave it as is.

Last, I tackle effects. I decease the texture to further blur the lines of the motel while at the same time decreasing the clarity as well. I want the motel to fade in to darkness serving only as a prop for the sign. For the same reason I increase the dehaze feature. Then I increase the vignette just a tad to bring more darkness around the edges. I satisfied with the results. The picture tells a story of an old motel on the corner of a tourist town, a beacon promising adventure for those seeking the experience, the beauty, of the west.

Editing the picture put me in a state a flow where I seamlessly worked to create the art, the image that pleased me. I had no fear of what other people might think, no fear of judgment, only the wonder of creating an image that gave me joy to look at. My dreams were desiccating no longer as I became a the creative person I had always longed to be.


About the author

Andrea Henderson

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