When taking a photo with a long shuttertime, all bright parts that move relative to the camera, draw a trail. Pete Mauney is a master at making photos in which fireflies, airplanes, traffic and stars all draw their light trails through his images. I've been a fan for years.
There are no fireflies where I live. But there is another interesting family of animals, one that nearly invisible navigates around us: Bats. When I studied biology (1 year) we went into the fields and a teacher pointed them out to me. I noticed I was able to hear their communications (not their sonar). Spotting bats while biking around at dusk, became a sport for a while.
Above the canals of Amsterdam, countless bats feast on the mosquitos, eating thousands of them every night. I was decades older when I moved to Amsterdam I so I was no longer able to hear the bats. In 2011, I made a bat detector out of a kit. That's a device that translates the sonar of the bats from ±40.000 Hz down to ±1.000 Hz, making the sonar very audible for older humans.
You can hear them closing in on their prey, their sonar getting faster and faster:
"Tee tee tee tee t t tttttrrrrrrt!"
I always thought bats flew erratically. But through the bat detector I learned this is not true. They fly in gorgeous curves. I wanted to record this. I wanted to make curves they fly visible. Pete advised me that shooting video is the way to go. I got to work to try and pull this off.
A composite of several exposures shot in succession, is called a chronophotograph.
The method is to shoot video, then load a few seconds of it into photoshop. There, I stack the video frames on top of each other. The algorithm is this: Pixel by pixel, each frame is checked. The darkest variant of that pixel gets to be in the output layer. Then the next pixel is evaluated in the same way. My old laptop takes a long time to process this, especially if use all 500 layers photoshop allows me to use at once.
In general, I keep a few backgroud frames, that use a different method on. Here, I take a mean of these frames. This reduces the noise. I got this trick from the astrophotographers. Most images shot at dusk, are a hybrid between these two process.
I first used my photo cameras to shoot the videos. But they only shoot in "full HD". And then I realized that I have one camera that can do 4K video: My phone. Not before long, these images led to an exhibition in the US, where my Dark Trials were presented accross the room from Pete Mauneys Light Trails. It was Stephen DiRado who invited is both. I'm very proud and I had the best of times there.
So here I am, shooting these huge analog cameras, and the camera that got me to go accross the ocean, was my phone. To be fair, my phone is my most expensive camera.
Bats and birds
While figuring out how to record bats, the local jackdaws kept flying through the frame, and they became my test pilots.
I went out shooting video every night at dusk. The trick to get usable footage, is to walk around with the camera mounted on a tripod, while it is recording. I can compose real fast, but if I were to hit record as soon as the camera was set up, the seconds the camera takes to start recording would make me miss the fly over time and again.
When I heard crows, jackdaws (a smallish corvid) or bats, I quickly composed the view, anticipating the animals to fly through the frame.
Jackdaws are stinky, but really nice. Within the flock, they fly in pairs. In the daytime, they spread out, but at dusk, they gather in the trees in the village where I live now. The offspring keep begging for food with their parents until they are so old I can not tell them apart from the older birds.
I also noticed that they beg for food from crows. The crows are able to pull worms from the ground, that the jackdaws can't. The crows live in much smaller groups, nuclear families, but they like the company of the many jackdaws. There are often a few crows flying along with the flock of jackdaws. The crows can be recognized in the Dark Trails, because they, contrary to the saying in English, do not fly as straight as the jackdaws do.
Also, jackdaws "kiss" in mid air. If you see double trails in my image, you can bet it is a pair of jackdaws. They should become an icon for love.
While processing a bit of video of seaguls, Ryan walked in, and backwards out of the frame. I decided to keep her in the image. From this point on, I included humans in the frame, pushing the birds to the background. This also led to many self portraits. Easy to do, the camera is on a tripod anyway.
Once I biked under a tree with thousands of starlings. I got shat on.
I'm so thankful that Clark University invited me to be a part of their exhibition. It was an honor and a crown on my work. I got to give a talk, a lecture, discuss the work of students, and to meet so many great people I previously only knew through facebook. It was such a magical time!
The jackdaws were never really the goal, though I have been pre-occupied with their chatter for decades. I was friends with a small group of them when I lived in Scheveningen from 1996 to 2005, after I saved one of them from a cat. They liked to sit in the tree in front of my house especially if I was on the balcony. Their waves of vocalisations inspired me to use the boids algorithm in my music to have a flock of guitar notes from each single plucking of a string.
After I nailed that red bats photo, I had calm down from listening out for the jackdaws. Not from the dark trails series, but from these birds specifically. It had became a fixation to scan the audible field for the local flock. I had done so for a year, to be able to set up the composition in the camera quickly enough. I could hear where they were from miles away, and I could tell if they'd come near or not, and it alerted me instantly. I had to give it a rest. It took me over a month or so before I could shake it off.
I still have a metric tonne of footage that can be converted into trails. I have processed some of these since. I have been talking with a programmer to make an app for this process. I think I will revisit it then. In the past year and a half, my process went from fully manual, punching holes in layers, to largely automatic. This was not a time saver, though. The time I saved was put to use to make better selections in the video, better choices in frame rate, better handling of the noise, but not in more hours of sleep.
Looking back, I think there is poetry in the red bat photo in the sense that the jackdaws and the odd apartment buildings are still there, but in the background. If you listen to the footage, you can hear me saying the above statements to Ryan.
I nailed the ultimate goal of this project, just before I went to the USA with this work. I'm very proud of what I had accoplished and that is was recieved so well, too.
Two photos have been published in magazines: One in the Juniper Rag, and one in a Dutch photo magazine, with a nice explanation by Eduard de Kam.