Carol Erb evokes political and cultural trends in scenes of disaster she constructs using Photoshop and her own source images.

Reckoning with Nature

By Alyssa Coppleman

For Reckoning, her new series, artist Carol Erb constructs scenes of disaster and ominous landscapes. She began the series in November 2016. “I felt an emotional need to make this work in response to major shifts happening in the United States and abroad, both politically and culturally,” she says. “Add to that the worrisome environmental issues we are facing. Assuming that we continue on this same trajectory, it is pretty easy to imagine all sorts of cataclysmic scenarios.” 

Tempest and Sanctuary

She constructs each piece using two to six of her own photographs. The scenes form a narrative about disaster and its aftermath. They are not far-fetched: In addition to the tornadoes, floods, and fires Erb witnessed as a child, some of the scenes come from actual events in her life. “As a child, I dreamed our beloved summer cottage on Lake Michigan would be swept away in a storm, and it was. Tempest is a direct reference to that memory,” she says. Another time, “a neighbor was struck and killed by lightning. There is even a tragedy related to the waterfall in Sanctuary. At a young age, I understood that you could lose everything at any time.”

Twister and Flood Stage

Erb shot all her source photographs in daylight. To create the “unifying, dreadful darkness,” she digitally replaced the skies and altered the lighting. When a source photo wasn’t quite what she needed, she used Adobe Photoshop CC to create the desired element; for example, she fabricated the tornado in Twister with the Paintbrush tool and Motion Blur effect. 

Each of her images may incorporate five to 25 Photoshop layers; on average, it takes her a few days per image to complete the editing process and produce the final work. “My first step is to remove any unwanted elements from the base image with the cloning tools,” says Erb. “Then I compress the image into a square shape using Free Transform and the Crop tool. With a layer mask, I block out the sky and replace it with a dark gradient layer and perhaps a few clouds from another photograph. I add a Black & White adjustment layer, customizing the color conversion to make some areas pop and other areas recede. I add or subtract light with Curve adjustments. The final step is a sepia texture layer overlay.” 

Shelter and End of the Road

Until this series, Erb worked in color. She made these images in black and white as a challenge to herself and because “composing an image is much different without color as a tool for bringing attention to an area, or making an area recede. Also, the work is about something dire. Black and white seems to convey a sense of drama.”

Erb continues to produce images for this series, as there’s no shortage of inspiration. “Nature can be stunningly beautiful, but also powerful and terrifying.”