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When Neon Ruled the Skies

One day I ran out of pictures to take. Maybe something like this has happened to you. You feel creatively exhausted. You’ve run out of portraits to paint. Gotten writer’s block. Discovered that current circumstances have dried up the well of inspiration.

 In order to take fresh and exciting pictures in Florida, I find I have to travel. Case in point: Roadside architecture. This genre includes attention-snatching installations like gigantic pink dinosaurs and drive-in movie theaters. I’ve already done the sauropods. (In fact, I’ll be doing a blog posting about the Brachiosauruses of Spring Hill, FL. And yes, there are more than one.)

Here are some Florida drive-ins I’d like to photograph:

Unfortunately, the Swap Shop Drive-in of Fort Lauderdale is 242 miles away. COVID-19 put an end to visiting that, for a while at least. To travel there, I’d have to stay in a hotel and eat in roadside restaurants, hardly a casual undertaking these days. So regrettably, I had to put a hold on that genre of picture taking. You too may face similar limitations on your art. Or even your art consumption. (Walked around many museums lately?)

So what can you do? I was going stir crazy. One day I was reorganizing my picture library using my photo-cataloging program. For you photo geeks out there, I do it with Capture One Pro, an alternative to Adobe Lightroom.

I rediscovered photographs I’d taken five, even ten years ago that I hadn’t worked on because they seemed, at best, uninspired. Some were cluttered with distracting backgrounds. Others were poorly color balanced. So I decided to repurpose them.

Humdrum Shot of Wonder Bar Pizza

The above photo is one I took of a sign in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was probably put up during the 50s. It is an okay neon sign with a lackluster sky and distracting background on the right. What I dislike most about it is that it’s a neon sign. In the daytime. I thought it had potential at the time and vowed to return some night and photograph it lit up. But I never did. So I liked the idea of the image, just not the photograph. It sat on my digital shelf these past 10 years. Then I started watching Ken Burns documentaries with their dynamic still photographs. You’ve seen them. A figure in the foreground appears to move slightly across a background, revealing something that wasn’t there when the picture was taken. How’d they do that? I thought. I also learned about animated GIF photographs, mostly from Facebook. Both of these techniques looked eminently learnable.

I thought, “Here are more technological advances. Now it’s possible to tweak old photographs and make them . . . move.”

The Ken Burns process is called “2.5D parallax photography.” (I don’t think he invented it, or even calls it that.) It’s called “2.5D” because it’s not quite 3D. (Get it?) Label it photographic legerdemain, an illusion of 3D that doesn’t require you to wear those red and green tinted glasses. You accomplish it via Photoshop. Simple effects are possible, like illusory motion. If you’re ambitious, you can even add an audio track or two.

But before I show you what I did, here’s a different take on the picture itself. I thought of it while working on the 2.5D parallax photo.

Now Called The Erasure of Memory


New life for the tired old image? Here’s the one-minute 2.5D parallax video I did recently, using the altered rejected photo. Don’t get too excited. This is not about me showing how to do it. That’s already been done, and by my technological superior. See the YouTube video link at the bottom of this article.

This new trick has given me a new tool with which to approach old photographs in a fresh way. It also means I can take new photographs that have no other purpose other than to be fragments within older, altered ones. Did you see the evening crescent moons flash on the screen in the video? Took them about a month ago in Little Harbor, Ruskin. Such photo-shards can be incorporated into larger assemblages to produce entirely new effects.

So what if you’re stuck indoors? If you’re a photographer, try to see your old shots in a new way. Reverse their colors. Solarize or “posterize” them. Distort them. Cut them up and put the pieces in other photos. If you’re something else and the virus is inhibiting your work, try to think up other ways to mix it up. See what new stuff your colleagues are doing. When photographer August Sander was prohibited from taking documentary pictures of people when the Nazis took over, he “retreated into the landscape” like many other photographers and took a few memorable shots. Composer Anton Webern put his radical explorations on hold and orchestrated Franz Schubert’s piano works.

Nothing has completely slammed the doors of creativity in our faces. Yet.

For More Information on the 2.5D Parallax Photo process. run this:


Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog Stylus.

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  1. Signe Kaleel Signe Kaleel

    Peter ,
    I found an interesting book called The Photographer’s Playbook the last time I was at the Getty.
    It is a jump start of ideas for the photographer. Even tho I’m a fiber artist I found it translated well to other artistic venues.
    Plus it’s fun to get into the heads of hw photography teachers.

    • Hi Signe,
      Thank you for the kind suggestion. I’ve looked up this book and am impressed with its suggestions. Will recommend it to others.

  2. Edie Tepper Edie Tepper

    So exciting to see you find a new and altered life for your wonderful (and not so wonderful) photos from the past. I look forward to seeing what you do with your experiments.

    • Thanks as usual Edie. There’re are a few more in the pipeline. I hope you and Barry are staying safe.

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