While we all are living among the 7 billion people who inhabit Earth, we each understand the meaning of life through an individual version of reality. Our everyday observations and experiences become the foundation for the unique way in which we view the world to be.
Atlanta-based photographer Patrick Heagney was inspired by a philosophical concept called Constructivism and brings the idea to life in a mixed media project he calls Paper Thin. Constructivism is the belief that all knowledge and meaning is “constructed” as it arises from human perception and social experience. For his project, Patrick combined paper dioramas and photography as a way to visually represent the emotional worlds inside our minds.
I had recently learned about constructivism thought a very literal interpretation of that would be a fun visual to play with.
Patrick professes that he was always an artistic child, and remembers making construction paper dioramas in shoeboxes while in elementary school. When considering avenues for this project, he thought the literal creation of construction paper worlds would play off the definition of constructivism simply and humorously.
I’ve worked on this project off and on for a long time, but it started as an image in my head of a man floating in a newspaper boat.
All the images tell semi-autobiographical stories of betrayal, loss, love, and finding new hope on the horizon. He feels that the characters have all encountered — or are in the process of encountering — new information that does not fit into their worldview, and as a result, their surroundings experience a change.
Some characters are frightened or upset at the apparent flimsiness of their surroundings while others seem to enjoy the freedom this revelation brings
The bright colors of the construction paper contrast with some of the darker themes and emotions to draw one out of the reality of those feelings. Patrick’s somewhat juvenile and simple artistry acts as a metaphor for the overdramatized thoughts that can plague our worldview. If we compare our deepest thoughts to a world made of paper and wire we can deconstruct and rebuild them to our liking.
To create the intricate scenes, Patrick first cut the paper shapes, taking time to build the set piece by piece. He would frequently step away from the work table to photograph the unfinished stage, letting the process unfold one detail at a time. Once the paper was in place he carefully noted the camera angle and lighting so he could match the settings while in the studio.
It’s a challenge to match angle and lighting when scaling up from a set that’s tabletop-sized to shooting a person in a studio.
Patrick allowed himself room for trial and error when playing with the details between each set. While the project is composed of many parts, he relaxes into the process of crafting each image, taking the time to feel for the elements that will seamlessly blend the portrait and setting.
Sometimes some things don’t look right and I have to trust my instincts to change focal lengths, angles, and lighting until I’m satisfied.
For a conceptual project, it helps to have talent who can add emotion to a setting that they’ve never seen. The subjects were all interested in the unconventional nature of the shoot and listened to Patrick’s directions as they brought his imagined creations to life.
Most of the time I know exactly where I want them in the final image and what I want them to be doing and expressing.
Some of the younger children featured in the series moved about more organically in the studio. Patrick went with the spontaneity of the moment and was open to capturing them candidly rather than directing them to pose. While this changed some of his original paper designs, it provided him with a more authentic snapshot of a child’s world to use in his series.
I work with kids commercially and there’s always an element of herding cats to it. Sometimes by being flexible I’ll end up with a pose that’s even better than what I had planned originally.
One of the reasons Patrick was drawn to this project is that it allowed him the flexibility to work around his busy schedule as a commercial photographer. By crafting out of his home he could come back to a diorama in his spare time to make cuts, arrange pieces, or sketch the next scenario.
I would sit on my couch to sketch and cut the paper shapes out, then I’d assemble them wherever there was room – usually the kitchen table.
While Patrick has always been drawn to art, this was his first experience in having complete creative control in composing all the elements that went into an image. Conventional photography is often limited to available locations and talent, forcing the envisioned idea to fit within the elements at one’s disposal. This project gave him that unattainable taste of freedom that artists use when building from their imagination.
The scenes can be any environment, any perspective, and I don’t need to concern myself with how hard finding a location will be, travel, permits, or the laws of physics for that matter.
Like other artists, Patrick used this project to express some of his own life experiences that were happening at the time. While some of the images portray feelings of loss and pain, he also built a world of romance to mark the moment he met and fell in love with his wife. By channeling his emotions into these constructed sets, Patrick creates worlds that others can resonate with and use to challenge and change their outlook on life.
Photographer: Patrick Heagney