Model Life

August 31, 2010

Model Life

Model Life

Using only spices and other common household products, Matthew Albanese recreates the natural world on a coffee table in his living room. He tells Jeff Meyer about this passion on precision.

AP readers can see more of Matthew’s work on his website at Or you can visit his fan page on Facebook at for up-to-date information on his projects.

When bored at work, most of us seek solace on the internet and wonder to ourselves just what people did during their lunch hours in the days before it was invented. Others, like Matthew Albanese, flex their creative muscles.

A web photographer by day for the US luxury department store chain Barneys New York, Matthew is used to getting in close to capture detail on a smaller scale than most photographers. Yet shooting close-ups of small gadgets gets boring after a while, he admits. ?One day I discovered a tub of paprika in our studio and began spreading it out and shaping it on the tabletop that I used for photography,? he says. Eventually he noticed that it looked like the surface of Mars ? and then an idea took hold.

Gathering all manner of household items, Matthew began experimenting with methods of recreating the natural world. Inspired by photographers like Gregory Crewdson, Matthew is dedicated to precision when constructing alternative realities, taking time to build his models in a way that affords the viewer a forced perspective.

?I give myself one month from inception to shooting the final result,? says Matthew. ?Before I even begin building a model, I have it all mapped out how it will work. The models have to be built so they?re smaller in the background and larger in foreground. Perspective is very important to making the image look real.

?All my ideas are based on emotion,? he adds. ?My starting points are never other photographs or anything I?ve seen. Usually it?s a feeling I?ve had or a song lyric that for some reason evokes an image in my head.?



Mathew?s first step in the process involves meticulous research. ?I print out about 50 pictures of tree species or examples of how ice interacts with light and use these as a guide as to how I should build the model,? he says. ?Each element in my image is individually researched, and sometimes I have to test individual items, such as trees or clouds, before putting them into the scene. This usually happens if it?s a model that I can shoot only once, such as a waterfall or burning room, where I only have one chance to take the picture.?

While the construction process varies, Matthew tries to keep it as straightforward as possible. He aims to build his models, which are about 4ft deep and 2ft-3ft tall, in one piece, but sometimes circumstances dictate that he build the sky first and shoot that, then build a foreground and shoot that, and finally the middle and backgrounds. This was the case, for instance, with his image of a forest fire that stretched to nearly 6ft tall. He then stitches these images together in Photoshop, but that?s the extent of his use of the software. Even common adjustments, like brightness and contrast or matching the lighting in the sky and foreground when stitched together, Matthew makes certain he gets it right in-camera.

?Sometimes I take up to 1,500 shots of my model trying to get it right,? he says. ?Matching the lighting is one of my big obstacles. I don?t do this in Photoshop; I go back to the model to do it, otherwise the illusion breaks down. I find Photoshop tends to flatten things and your eye doesn?t want to linger as long. I?d rather get my hands dirty in my studio.?



At other times Matthew will find that he has the scene lit in a certain way, but because he originally envisioned shooting from a particular angle, the light may not fall in the right places when seen from that view. So there are lots of adjustments to be made throughout the process. ?Strangely, though, whenever I break away from my original ideas and it doesn?t work, I always go back to my original idea,? he says. ?Something else I find interesting is that with each model I learn something new ? a new technique, a new material, a way the light reacts ? and then I add these to the mix in my next piece. I am basically trying to outdo myself every time. I have a lot of ideas that would be easy to do, but I am trying to incorporate everything that is shocking and surprising about this type of photography.?

Matthew also uses a ?junk? camera as he builds his model to get an idea of how it will look when fiinished. It gets messy very quickly in his studio (a tabletop in his living room), so he keeps his Canon EOS 5D Mark II as far away as possible.

Despite how elaborate his dioramas appear, Matthew spends very little money when putting them together. His cheapest landscape has cost him a mere $20 (about £13) and his most expensive ran to $150 (about £96). His materials are all common items like spices (great for creating soil and hills) and Brillo pads (used for treetops and shrubbery) that he either finds at home or can pick up cheaply in a shop.

?I use a lot of particulates ? powders that are lightweight, but can be held together easily when wetted,? he says. ?I use a lot of tile grout, which is probably my most versatile ingredient. It is extremely fine and lightweight, and it dries rock hard. You can also shape it. I use it for a multitude of things, including hills and rock formations. Meanwhile, cotton wool can be used for clouds, fire and texture.



Matthew?s lighting isn?t overly sophisticated, either. He uses simple slave flash units and household light bulbs as his primary sources, which he then often reflects off tinfoil or diffuses with umbrellas. Sometimes he uses Cellophane to colour the light, as he did when creating an aurora borealis (for which he also used some theatrical fog from a party supply store shot against a black curtain). ?Very simple and inexpensive is my goal,? he says. ?I?d rather put my time into the positioning of the materials than sourcing them.?

Matthew typically shoots as wide as possible, at around 10-14mm, but he also likes to use a 50mm prime lens. ?With a longer lens I have to move away from the model, but I?m more confident that I?m getting it right when I?m up close.?

Generally, Matthew shoots at a downward angle because it forces perspective. For this to work, everything must be in focus, so he sets his aperture to ensure maximum depth of field. Likewise, he keeps his exposures consistently long to give time for elements like smoke and fog to fill the spaces in his frame. Long exposures also help in creating waterfalls, for which he simply sprinkles salt that blurs together in the end result.

?It?s all about experimentation,? he says. ?You have to have patience to find the proper angles and get the right measurements of light. I use both my eye and a ruler, and being a product photographer certainly helps. I know how things will look through a lens, particularly small things. Often people will walk in to my studio and see what looks like a pile of rubbish on a table, but then I?ll guide them round to look through the camera and they see what I see.?



Matthew?s image of a volcano is mostly an illusion, he says. Built on a glass coffee table, Matthew positioned the lighting underneath the glass, about 5in below. On the tabletop he sculpted tile grout, sprayed it and let it dry and crackle. Next, he put a light bulb in the volcano and hung cotton from ceiling, which the light shines through to make fire.

How to

How to – Tending the Fire

These images show how, by carefully angling warm lights at plastic he hung in the background, Matthew was able to create the effect of a forest fire. To create the trees he used Brillo pads and sticks, while the water is made of cooked sugar. He hung cotton balls on fishing line from the ceiling, which reflect the light and appear as bursts of flame in the image.

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