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Photoshop for the Birds

By Alyssa Coppelman

At first glance, Cheryl Medow’s highly detailed images look like real landscapes, but it soon becomes apparent that something more unusual is going on. To create her ongoing series Envisioning Habitat, Medow first photographs birds and landscapes in the United States, Africa, Europe, and South and Central America. Then she constructs an entirely new reality out of those original photographs, resulting in the art you see here.

Medow’s images recalls the Hudson River Valley artists, who worked from memory and field notes to produce romantic compositions. Medow places birds in foreign habitats and tweaks the scale, making them so large that they’re reminiscent of prehistoric landscapes. “As an artist, I became less interested in the reality and more interested in telling a story,” she says, “breathing life into the characters by making them larger, placing them near images and shapes that are similar to them.” 

Cattle Egret and the Grasshopper; Grey Crowned Cranes; Great Blue Heron With Chicks Revisited. All © 2014 Cheryl Medow.

From left to right: Cattle Egret and the Grasshopper; Grey Crowned Cranes; Great Blue Heron With Chicks Revisited. All © 2014 Cheryl Medow.

Because Medow photographs birds with a 600mm lens, which has a shallow depth of field, the backgrounds of her original bird photos are completely blurred. This inescapable reality of photographing distant subjects with a long lens led her to Envisioning Habitat’s composited images.

“Initially, I tried to restore the missing backgrounds with images taken from the original landscape,” Medow explains, “but realized I could put my subjects anywhere. When I altered the scale of the new environments and the subjects’ relative size in them, something magical happened. The ordinary was transformed into the extraordinary; what was hidden in plain sight — the fantastical, fragile, timeless beauty of these creatures — became not just apparent but visceral.” 

From left to right: Saddle-Billed Storks, White Ibis with Fish. Both © 2014 Cheryl Medow.

From left to right: Saddle-Billed Storks, White Ibis with Fish. Both © 2014 Cheryl Medow.

Medow can take two weeks to a month or even longer to achieve a final image. Her software of choice is Adobe Photoshop. The Layers tool is fundamental: “The transparency from one layer to the next is essential.”

However, the Masking tool is the “most important, tedious, and fun,” as she carefully extracts each bird from its original background. “To create the total effect, I like using the Gradient tool,” she continues. “To help create more contrast and depth, I use Curve and Saturation, which have effects similar to photographers burning and dodging in the darkroom.”

Medow hopes her work inspires the viewer to care about our environment, which is increasingly at risk of disappearing. She says, “If my work touches the viewer with a sense of the beauty of nature, it's my hope that that awakening or reawakening sense expands to an embrace of our environment. When you love something, I believe you take care of that someone or something.”

To see Medow’s work in person, visit Camerawork in Portland, Oregon, from November 28th through January 2016. 

(If Cheryl Medow’s composited images have inspired you to try it yourself, this tutorial on masking out part of an image is a good first step.)