ELLSWORTH — It was early December 2017 when photographer Heath Paley set out to capture the comings-and-goings at Mike’s Country Store on Water Street.
“I’m standing there,” said Paley, “waiting for the cars to move out in front of the store. Someone comes running out and says, ‘Did you get it?’ Apparently, someone had robbed the store.”
Paley didn’t get the robber (at least not that he knew of) but he did get his photograph, and the striking result is on display at the Courthouse Gallery Fine Art through May 15, along with a number of the fine-art photographer’s large-scale aluminum-mounted images of Ellsworth.
Paley’s photographs fall somewhere between documentary photography and art. They’re a composite of dozens, sometimes hundreds of images, digitally stitched together. The Portland resident occasionally adds figures to a background (as in the case of Mike’s), and then, using heat, transfers the image onto massive sheet of aluminum via a technique known as dye sublimation.
“It’s a fairly odd process,” related Paley, who sends his work to a firm in Rhode Island for processing and picks the sheets up when they’re finished. “You’d never think that it would work.”
Paley began his Ellsworth series in 2017, after he and his wife bought a second home in the city. In the early mornings and late afternoons, Paley would pack up his gear and sit quietly, alone with his tripod. He was mostly attracted to the mundane: the glow of the Walmart sign, the front door of Flexit Café & Bakery, a reflection of the City Hall cupola. The final composite product, a collection of layered, stitched-together photographs, is anything but.
“The detail and depth of field mimic the way the eye/brain combination interprets what it’s viewing, in a way impossible for a single camera shot to do,” Paley explains on his website.
The former electronics chief operating officer and wind-chime maker said he sought to juxtapose old development in the city with new. “The original idea in Ellsworth was to contrast Route 3 with downtown,” he said. “The contrast in Ellsworth is quite stark because they’re in fairly close proximity and yet they’re very different.”
“It became obvious,” he said, “that downtown was changing quite dramatically.”
The end result is a series of exceptionally detailed, color-saturated composite photographs. Many of the images depict longtime staples of the city’s business community: Jack’s Barber Shop (now Elle’s), Home Depot, Charlie’s Pizza & Sub. By combining the in-focus areas of a range of high-resolution images, Paley is able to produce a final product that is crisp down to the last detail. A reflection of the City Hall cupola shimmers. Pockmarks on a curb pop, and the weeds growing at their base are a vibrant, singing green.
Most photographs lose their resolution when they’re enlarged, becoming grainy and blurry. But Paley is layering so many high-resolution shots that he is able to blow up his images to between 5 and 8 feet tall, while keeping them sharp.
Printing on aluminum, the photographer said, also means they’re lightweight and “pretty indestructible,” because the dye has sunk into the metal. “There’s a depth you get” with aluminum, said Paley. He began using the technique because it was more cost-effective than framing his images at the size he wanted.
Paley began taking photographs in earnest in the early 2000s, when he and his wife tired of spending thousands of dollars for pictures of the hanging glass wind chimes they were making. After attending a Photoshop World conference (the world’s largest conference for the Adobe software) in 2005, he decided he needed a way to set himself apart.
“I generally shoot urban scenes,” said Paley, along with “some landscapes. It became obvious that there were a lot of people doing that.” So he started stitching, merging and layering, using longer and longer lenses, trying to get as much granular detail as possible. “There’s not really anybody doing close-up stuff like I’m doing.”
Paley uses a panoramic tripod that allows his camera to swivel, moving up and down and side-to-side a tiny bit each time. He shoots in a grid, slightly overlapping each image. Then he loads the dozens or hundreds of shots onto his computer and sets to work. There may be 40 or 50 layers in a single final piece and dozens of images. But he is able to line them up so precisely that it’s impossible to tell that it’s anything but a single photograph.
With a landscape, the work is often relatively straightforward. But urban scenes — Paley’s preferred setting — present a challenge. People are walking by. Cars are moving. To knit a slew of those pictures into one still image is a feat.
“I spend quite a lot of time on each image,” he said, sometimes several days at the computer, merging, layering and stacking. The goal is to bring forward a final product that enhances what the normal eye takes in. “To take things that people normally see but do them in greater detail.”
Paley’s work will be on view at the Courthouse Gallery through May 15. An artist reception and talk will be held on Thursday, May 9, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. For more info, call 667-6611 and visit courthousegallery.com and heathpaleyphoto.com.