Every photographer has come to a point where he thought he did not have the right gear, enough budget, the team, or just the perfect idea to make a project come to life. There are those that then let an idea go and others, like Anthony Kurtz, that keep their ideas in mind until all the elements come together.
You've probably already seen Kurtz's name or work. One of his most well-known projects is probably his recreation of the famous painting, "Liberty Leading the People." He is back with another reinterpretation of a famous piece of art. This time, he chose Joe Rosenthal's iconic picture, "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," as his inspiration.
Kurtz had to delay the project for months because he could not figure out how to pull it off. The concept was to recreate Rosenthal's image, but with a group of survivors planting a tree on a landfill in a desperate attempt to save humanity, instead of the military raising a flag in enemy territory.
His first issue was to find the perfect tree. Buying one would have cost him over a thousand dollars and cutting one down from the forest would be against the very concept of his picture. Hypocrisy was not an option, so he had to find a solution that could fit his budget. The location of the shoot was the other issue he was facing — how and where to get a permit to shoot on a construction site. He spent months trying to find a solution to both problems until the day where everything came together.
While walking around in one of Berlin's parks, he found a bunch of cut-down, almost decaying tree trunks on the ground and thought he could use these to "build" his own tree. Building a tree is probably not something you would think of at first, but it's actually quite smart. Using the dead part of the trees he found, he then only had to find a couple of younger branches with leaves and tie everything together using metal wires. Anthony eventually decided to cut the trunk into two parts and build a mechanism that allowed him to snap the two pieces back together once on location. The first issue was solved, and he didn't have to sacrifice his bank account or his concept.
However, he was still left with the problem of choosing the location. He came to the realization that trespassing and shooting illegally somewhere would be both risky and stressful. So, he decided to use similar props to the one he used for his "Liberty Leading the People" shoot and make his own hill behind his former studio. What Kurtz had not realized initially was how enormous the task of creating a six-to-eight foot hill would be.
With a bit of luck, just a couple of days before the shoot, he found the perfect construction site just three minutes away. The hill he had in mind was just sitting there and had easy access, and so, he decided to change his plans. While building the hill behind the studio was still on his to-do list, he decided only to build 30% of it as a backup plan and instead, tried to shoot everything directly on the construction site.
The last part Kurtz had to figure out was the cast. He decided to ask his friends to model for him. The only rule he had was having people of the same size, but he wanted a mix of men and women, as well as different ethnicities. He wanted to break the "white hero" mold of older depictions.
Schedule of the Shoot
The first day of the shoot, Kurtz picked up the tree trunk from the park and went to a blacksmith to built a metal rig to create the mechanism that allowed him to separate the tree into two parts. He then worked on the styling and went to the construction site to shoot his clean frames of the hill. It's also interesting to note that he moved the props around to make the hill the way he envisioned it.
The second day, he finalized the tree by painting it so that it looked seamless, like the real thing. Then, the shoot with the models could begin. They started with the safe plan, shooting with the camera on a tripod at ground level (a similar point of view as Joe Rosenthal's original picture). It took Kurtz and his crew twenty minutes to get everything he needed.
They then moved to the construction site, but nothing happened as expected: The neighbors were watching and filming the shoot, the models were distracted, the light was flat, and the trees above were interfering with the tree they were using. Adding to that was the stress of having the police that could roll by anytime and decide to stop to see what was going on. Kurtz decided to cut it short as he knew he would use the first images they shot anyway.
The post-production was pretty tedious. Anthony ended up doing five different versions, but the more he worked on it, the further the result was from his concept and from the original image. It was becoming too dark, and the sense of hope the image was meant to give was almost gone. It was only after showing the different versions to one of his friends that he decided to go back to the first version and refine it. Well, "refine" it is a small word. He spent over twenty hours refining the first version!
What We Can Learn from Kurtz's Work
When Kurtz contacted me with this image, I was very interested. His work is very inspiring, but even more inspiring are his concepts and the work he puts into his projects. For this project, he spent a total of $70 and didn't even use his camera gear. It would be a great idea to give people complaining about not having the means or the equipment to achieve a project Kurtz's website.
Sharing was also a notion that he mentioned multiple times to me in the answers he sent my way. To thank and pay everyone that helped him on his project, he will give them a limited edition print. During the retouching project, he also showed friends his work to see what could be improved or had to be changed. This is very important. Oftentimes as artists, we get stuck with an idea, but don't see the issues before publishing it and getting feedback from the viewers.
Finally, something I used to do, but don't much anymore, is sitting on a project before releasing it. Anthony said that he's always waiting about a week or so before publishing a project. It usually helps to have a more detached, less emotional judgment of a picture. Having the ability to come back to a photo a couple of days after and just fine-tune a couple of details before releasing it to your public might be the difference between a good and a great picture.