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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Travel photographers are taking epic nature photos using indoor optical illusions

A figurine hikes the cave of a paper bag. (Erin Sullivan for The Washington Post)
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As for most Americans, the coronavirus pandemic forced Los Angeles-based photographer, blogger and outdoors enthusiast Erin Sullivan indoors for the foreseeable future — and derailed her travel plans.

But with the extra time, Sullivan channeled her creativity inside her apartment. She considered her usual nature-photography process and how it could be applied to her new normal.

“I’m always thinking about how I can abstract something,” Sullivan said. “I might be looking at a mountain thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I can make this look like some trippy tie-dye.’ Now I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I can make tie-dye look like a mountain.’”

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Sullivan looked for what landscapes had in common with the things in her apartment, examining the many shapes, colors, shadows and textures she had to work with. The result: an epic scene of figurines exploring “ice caves” and waters made out of pillows and blue sheets.

She then posted a request along with her photos of a figurine (from a model train set) exploring her reproduction of the famous sandstone caves in Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, made with paper bags taped to a cutting board. Sullivan asked social media users to create their own indoor adventure and share it with the hashtag #OurGreatIndoors.

“I want to give [the challenge] to the world as a new way for us to look at our collective humanity, and our collective creativity, and the hope that we can bring to each other,” Sullivan said. “Seeing other people be excited about it and make it their own, or just enjoy it in whatever way works for them, gives me a lot of joy and makes me feel of service.”

Sullivan’s prompt joined a growing number of travel-themed social media challenges that have sprouted up during the outbreak.

The Getty Museum, in California, challenged netizens to browse its online collection and re-create works of art at home. Meanwhile, #stayhomegetout encourages people to document themselves “skiing,” “camping,” “paddleboarding” and “rock-climbing” in full gear at home. Disney fans are reproducing their favorite theme-park attractions under the hashtag #HomemadeDisney.

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Sullivan’s followers took to #OurGreatIndoors immediately. People around the world have staged bathtub waterfalls, book mountains and coffee sand.

At his home in Calgary, Alberta, Stevin Tuchiwsky took up the challenge. “With everything going on in the world right now, we’re all stuck inside and getting a little stir-crazy,” said Tuchiwsky, a civil-engineer technologist who shoots outdoor lifestyle photography as a hobby.

For Tuchiwsky’s creation, he, too, was inspired by ice caves. Both his process and his end result were totally different.

Tuchiwsky reimagined the otherworldly ice formations you’d find in the wild by dyeing water with blue food coloring, then freezing it in aluminum foil. Next, he illuminated his man-made miniature cave using the same techniques he practices in real ones.

“I think the biggest challenge is seeing how realistic you can make it,” he said.

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Since her own ice-cave post, Sullivan has debuted Great Pancake Canyon, Broccoli Forest, Nightstand Astrophotography and Sugar Sand Dunes. As our time indoors stretches uncertainly on, she, like Tuchiwsky, is planning on tackling more.

“As somebody who feels deeply connected to the outdoors and to the world through travel, I miss it dearly, but I know that this isn’t going to be forever,” she said. “So in this time where I can’t travel physically, then I have to see it as an opportunity to turn inward.”

Read more:

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