THE DREAMY, LONG-EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY OF VASSILIS TANGOULIS
The evocative long-exposure photography of Vassilis Tangoulis maintains a magical balance between stasis and volatility, at once commonplace and strange. He prefers to work in monochrome, inviting comparisons with the images of Ansel Adams. But rather than conveying the majesty of the natural world in realistic detail like Adams, Tangoulis conjures a surreal, minimalist realm that hovers on the edge of our dreams, serene yet disquieting.
A chemistry professor by profession, Tangoulis was born in a small town in the mountains of Greece and now lives in the seaside city of Patras. He draws inspiration from his homeland’s unique countryside, but he rebels against the practice of cranking out tourist postcard views of Greece. Instead, he chooses unglamorous subject matter (fishermen, decaying freighters, lonely trees) and uses long-exposure photography to add the sense of the passage of time. He calls it the “projection of a four-dimensional scene onto a 2D surface.”
Tangoulis realized early on that he wasn’t out to capture “the real thing.” Since that first epiphany, he says, “My landscapes turned out to be dreamlands separate from the reality we experience and inhabit.” Tangoulis says he dreams in black and white, and those dreams always consist of simple figures, objects, or artifacts placed in large negative spaces.
He finds that black and white gives him the power to focus the viewer’s interest on his subject—whether a tree, a seascape, or a small house on a hill—without the distraction of color. This helps to free viewers to create their own dream-story as they wander between negative space and his main subject.
Tangoulis takes great inspiration from Greece, which offers plenty of the water scenes and abandoned artifacts he is so fond of depicting. “I love to capture Greek landscapes using my personal viewpoint and thus present a unique view of Greece.” An unexpected feature of the Greek landscape plays a surprising role in his photography: “In some parts of Greece, snow is the main problem in winter.”
Capturing a static photograph of a landscape or object is not the end of Tangoulis’s process. He employs a number of techniques—some in-camera, some in-computer—to transform a raw scene into a representation of the dreamland he has envisioned.
One aspect of the experience of dreams is that time often doesn’t flow in a linear manner. Time may stand still, or we may feel we are witnessing an event at multiple points in time simultaneously. Tangoulis found that he can bring this time-out-of-joint feeling to his dreamscapes by using long exposures, sometimes as long as four or five minutes. Anything in motion in the scene, whether an object or a fluid, becomes blurred and indistinct (Tangoulis uses neutral-density filters to reduce the amount of light entering the lens so the image isn’t completely over-exposed).
Tangoulis explains that, while a photograph is inherently a 2D representation of a 3D scene, it’s possible to add a component of the fourth dimension—time—as well. “The power and magic of a long-exposure photograph comes from the fact that the dimension of time, as an extra dimension above and beyond the spatial coordinates of the scene, can be monitored and captured.”
Adobe Photoshop CC plays a major role in enhancing Tangoulis’s images. “The first photograph I capture in the camera is only about 30 percent of the final image,” says Tangoulis. “The rest of it is the result of the processing in Photoshop combined with my previsualized scenery, which is driven by my artistic vision.” Indeed, because so much of the character and emotional content of Tangoulis’s images comes from his post-processing, he eschews the term “photos” for his creations and prefers to call them “artworks.”
Tangoulis first decides which portions of the image he wants to draw the viewer’s attention to. In Photoshop, he creates and saves selections for those areas, and then adjusts the tonality and contrast of those areas. The portions of the image he wants to recede into the background receive minor applications of the Gaussian Blur filter and little to no contrast adjustment. He says that adjusting light conditions in parts of the image can also add to the feeling of depth.
Photoshop is also indispensable for his compositing work. Sometimes his imaginary dreamscapes can be realized only by the combination of multiple images. He begins by processing each image in Adobe Camera Raw for basic exposure and distortion corrections, noise reduction, and conversion to 16-bit and 300 dpi. He saves the results in TIFF format. In Photoshop, the TIFFs then undergo a basic conversion to black-and-white. He also adjusts the luminance of key parts of the image using luminosity masks.
For the compositing, Tangoulis loads the images as individual Photoshop layers and uses layer masks to hide parts of each layer. Next, he uses gradient masks to add light to some areas or to enhance the dark areas. (He spends a lot of time dodging and burning.) Because these are local rather than global adjustments, he sets up layer groups to save the various selections required.
Other Photoshop features come in handy, too, such as the Patch tool and Gaussian Blur (useful for taking care of color banding that may result from the processing). He also uses blend modes when combining layers, especially Screen and Darker Color. As a final touch, he adjusts the contrast of the composited image.
Although Tangoulis concentrates on unpopulated landscapes, a subset of his work does incorporate people. He confesses that “adding the human element has been a challenge for me,” precisely because of his love of long exposures. The human figure ends up blurred, which he says “gives an abstract feeling to the human element.”
In the course of producing his collection The Gathering, Tangoulis tried a new technique: He composited an unblurred figure of a human into a long-exposure image. He admits that he was surprised by the success of these images. Tangoulis now feels that he has overcome the challenge by finding the harmony between his minimal, silent landscapes and the shape of the human body. Implementing this solution involved finding a way to process the image so the human doesn’t draw too much of the viewer’s attention, so that it becomes “a part of the landscape in harmony with all the elements of nature.”
Tangoulis doesn’t produce black and white images exclusively. Color plays a role in about 20 percent of his portfolio. “I am always pretty sure from the beginning if a photo is going to be in black and white or color,” he says. The choice is driven by the feeling he’s trying to capture.
Tangoulis admits that although he loves working with color, it’s not as much of a challenge as black and white. He admits that black-and-white photos require more imagination on his part, and because he has to work harder at being creative, he feels like he achieves things he might not have accomplished in color.
Tangoulis manages to balance his prolific output of fine-art photography while holding down a full-time job in the sciences. He sees no conflict between the two: “Being a scientist, one of my main challenges is to discover new and exciting phenomena through experimentation,” he says. “Somehow, almost subconsciously, I felt that long-exposure photography is a nice translation of my scientific world.” He sees the technical aspects of setting up long-exposure photographs, including calculating the time of exposure and the number of neutral-density filters to use, as “a multi-parameter equation I have to solve and an enjoyable mind-game I am willing to play.” As in so much art, works that at first seem to spring directly from the creator’s inspiration conceal a masterful command of hard-core technique.