PPD Readers Pandemic Projects: Mel Curtis's "Circles of Confusion"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday June 30, 2020

Mel Curtis adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic artistically.

For the past five years, the Seattle-based photographer has been working on a personal project called “Circles of Confusion,” which features out-of-focus imagery shot at twilight. The original intent was to explore formal aspects of color and light, "looking for the moment where realism meets abstraction,” notes Curtis.

“The work," he says, "was heavily dependent on light sources from the head lights and tail lights of vehicles, and other point light sources. The images were made to be playful and colorful.”

Curtis’s intent changed this spring. “When the pandemic hit, I decided to use the same technique to investigate the twilight landscape that was largely devoid of cars, largely empty, something more haunting,” says Curtis.

Curtis notes that he was, at first, reluctant to venture out alone at night with an expensive camera.

“Finally in early May I asked a friend to drive me around so I could photograph from the safety of my car,” he says. “For most of the previous work, I was on foot. Being in a moving car changed the dynamics a bit. I had to respond quickly and initiatively. But it also allowed me to cover more ground.  At first I stayed near my home, about 5 miles from downtown Seattle. One rainy night I decided to head downtown. All I can say is that it was eerie — a ghost town, yet beautiful in a haunting way. It was like wandering around an amusement park at night after closing. Lights on, nobody home.”

All the photographs were made with a Nikon D750 and a 24-120mm zoom lens, shooting at ISO 1250 with an aperture setting of f/4. “The images are underexposed to preserve highlights—the 'circles of confusion,'” notes Curtis.

The biggest difference between the older and new work, says Curtis, “is the lack of human activity.”

“All the work still conveys a sense of order and beauty,” he says. “What has struck me these past few months is that for all the bad craziness that has been going on, there is still beauty in the world, both natural and urban. I walk my dog in a beautiful park down the street from me and all seems normal. Then I turn on the television or internet and have this disconnect. So I use my camera to try and make sense of it all. To somehow bring order to a chaotic world.”


  1. D. Lindemann commented on: June 30, 2020 at 3:45 p.m.
    Mel does beautiful work...I like "Public Mark" and most of his very over the top showy work on his web page. However, I fail to appreciate the lack of focus in the other shots in this article. Too pretentious. If the streets are empty, we should see the streets.

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