The Backstory to a Photograph

The thing driving me in art and photography is the aspiration to finding new.
If I can’t find it, I lose interest fast.
With LEGO I think I had reached a point after which I found it very difficult to reach that experience of newness a few years ago.
Gradually I had lost much of my interest to even trying, I guess.

The Big Cantina

I was talking with Boris of SiP about some other matters late last fall when it came up that I hadn’t really touched LEGO for a couple of years.
There had been some leisurely underwater photoshoots with the Lego City sets but with Star Wars there had been almost nothing.
I said I had had some ideas but I hadn’t invested in buying new sets to make anything of them.
Of those especially the big Mos Eisley Cantina UCS set no. 75290 had piqued my interest, I hadn’t seen it being photographed terribly much by then, I figured there’d be a lot to it that hadn’t been seen yet.
I have the earlier small cantina set no. 75052 but I felt it was really limited when it comes to photographing it.
So, Boris suggested I’d try the big one and generously offered me an opportunity to actually give it a go.

I got the big set in October 2021 and had a good window to getting busy with it in late Nov/early Dec.
I naively thought I’d just roll up my sleeves and make some epic images with the big set and be done with it.
The bigger the better, right?
But, alas, I got nothing.

First take

I spent over a week in trying to get one decent photo from inside the set and after several attempts I saw each of them coming up as flat and uninspired, they were just not ”it”.
The compositions and camera angles were mundane, I felt I had seen them all before.
It was just a feeling, not really things I had seen, but there was nothing exciting in what I had come up with.

It was a small shock to realise I couldn’t reach the level I had thought I would easily just sail thru. 

Thumbnails from my project folder, simple sketch photos and attempts to make them work. There’s even one with Santa Claus because I thought I’d finish this before Christmas.

Going back to Hoth

I decided to take a step back and try something I was fairly sure I knew how to do to regain my faith.
I took out the Hoth sets and made some snowy photographs with practice in mind.
To my delight it still worked.
I felt rusty but I was able to not only recreate what I’d initially done ten years ago, or more, but take it perhaps just a little bit further.
So, the problem wasn’t me losing what I’d had but rather thinking that I had had more than I actually did have.
You know

In the Hoth Mountains

Christmas and New Years’ came and went, then a very busy January with work.
I am a freelance illustrator, I work when I land assignments, they tend to take the air out of me and I don’t always have the oomph for things like these when they’re on.
Then came February and there was another window on my work schedules, I was able to give this another go.

The reference and joy

For reference I now looked closer to the images I had made with the small Cantina set earlier, the images that made me think this was going to be easy. I actually have two of those sets so I was able to expand the limited space of one set a little. I always felt these images were a bit cramped and small, I imagined the big UCS set would bring much needed air to photographing the cantina interior.
Smoky air obviously, but air nonetheless.

Images from 2016 to 2019 for reference, made with two Mos Eisley 75052 sets and some extra flat tiles to calm the floor in some of them.

This time the photoshoot was easier, not yet what I had initially expected but there was progress.
And joy.
I did finally find a good angle from which to shoot, it is essentially a remake of one of the earlier images, a little wider, a little bigger and it has a new character. On one of the first attempts I felt satisfied enough to dismantle the setup and feel good about my progress.
Only, after a little while I realised the photograph was perhaps not quite right.

The story and the focus

I had the focus on the coin in the Garindan’s hand as I figured that was the story.
The stories to my photographs are double fold.

First, they are the stories I have in mind as I set up to shoot the photograph.
They are not often finished stories at this point, just ideas, but I have to start somewhere.
Secondly the image has to talk to me when they are finished.
Quite often the story the finished image conveys is different to what I had when I set out to capture it in camera.
Sometimes I feel the photographs come to life in ways I didn’t think of and, as I read and write the story down, it can feel all new to me.
The stories that emerge like this are the best ones, they also tell me the image has that something special that I’m after.
So, the Garindan Gambit was now finished but there was an element of doubt; I wasn’t sure if the coin was the focus.

The Garindan Gambit.

The chase

At this point I realised what I was actually chasing with the cantina shoot.
It wasn’t a conscious chase, but clearly the images that worked for me from what I had done earlier had these distinct silhouettes in them.
The silhouettes are nothing less than reflections of this Ralph McQuarrie Star Wars concept illustration from March 1975.
It’s a magnificent piece of work from almost half a century ago, highly influential even today.
This is what I was thinking even if I didn’t know it. 

Star Wars concept art, Ralph McQuarrie, 1975.

I have to take the set apart in order to get the angle I want. I took down the wall next to the table these guys are sitting at, otherwise there’d be no chance to do this. The set was put back together after the earlier photo session, I took it apart again to test my hunch about the coin.

In these behind-the-scenes photographs you’ll see the red led I installed behind the little transparent red brick behind the sandtrooper minifig. In the earlier attempt I just lit it from behind with a pocket torch, it leaked light thru the seams of adjacent bricks. The led was much better. Blu-tac is great for this sort of tinkering

A word of caution

This method of photographing in thick smoke is not very friendly to the items on the table, by the way.
If you look very closely to this blowup, you’ll see tiny beads of oil on the coin.
The whole set is covered with them and after a while, after several sessions, the set needs to be washed thoroughly with warm water.
The oil from the smoke machine is water soluble and should be safe but it is nasty in large quantities.
I always wear a 3M half mask when using it but sometimes I fear what it might do to the camera

Oily coin.


I tried some variations, including switching seats between the Garindan and the sandtrooper.
If the Garindan was on the left corner it seemed like an underdog, I wanted it to be visually more commanding.
The version on the left just didn’t work. Having the two sandtroopers huddled closer together on the left side of the image made it feel like they were feeling stronger together facing an intimidating situation.

The Garindan Gambit alternate tests. I often try images with a simple black and white sketch shot just to see how it works.It actually took more than one attempt at this stage to find a way to the final.

I don’t usually go quite this deep into searching for the best available photograph of an idea. Sometimes it happens though, and I never know it before I start.

The Gambler

In the end I redid the previous photograph almost 1:1 but with the focus on the sandtrooper, TK-24/7, my regular in the back. He is the witness and storytelling viewpoint to this scene. After one more shoot, I made one last change and swapped the table to a different one from the opposite side of the cantina. The light table is way more interesting than that barrel-esque thing.

The Gambler, final image.

Now, the story with this one was a little different initially.
The working title of the image was “The Garindan Gambit”, it sounded great but in the end it didn’t make sense with the story that this turned out to have.
It is now just ”The Gambler”.

The story goes like this:
The big backpacks on sandtrooper armor weren’t just life support and cooling, they were a wallet as well. TK-24/7 knew it all too well having seen his squad leader carry these huge coins in his backpack. The coins were an awkward method of paying anything discreetly but since they were the the only method of payment on Tatooine, they had to do. The Garindan spy was not cheap but it was important, risk of exposure was smaller than the value if the information the Garindan could deliver. The most useful information was, of course, the winners for the next Mos Espa pod races. 

Only, I have a question to myself, did the last photoshoot with different focal point make this any better?
I’ll know it some day.
At the moment I couldn’t tell.
Staring at a photograph for this long makes you blind to it.
A little distance to it over time clears it usually.
We’ll see.


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1 year ago

Vesa, thanks for sharing this backstory with us. The Gambler is an amazing image on it own, but reading the backstory makes it so much more interesting.

We should start talking which set we should sent you for next year’s May Fourth, so the creative process can start slowly.

May the fourth be with ye!

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