Best Buy Cyclops © Dimitri Daniloff
© Dimitri Daniloff
Cubism © Dimitri Daniloff
© Dimitri Daniloff
© Dimitri Daniloff
© Dimitri Daniloff
© Dimitri Daniloff
© Dimitri Daniloff
© Dimitri Daniloff
PlayStation 2: Mr. Potato © Dimitri Daniloff
© Dimitri Daniloff

Every photo you have ever seen was altered after the shutter clicked. Although photographers who strive for meticulous realism in their images might eschew airbrushing, most probably can’t keep their hands off that Levels tool. Then there are those who actively tamper with the facts, whether the results are subtle (airbrushing out wrinkles and love handles) or baroque (putting Oprah Winfrey’s head on Ann-Margret’s body on the cover of TV Guide).

Herewith, American Photo presents five visionary photographers (click to see all of them) who are taking manipulation to brilliant extremes. For each of them, post-production is as important as camera work—and each discipline intimately informs the other. None of this work could have existed before Photoshop, none of their subjects exist in real life, and we find the whole thing terribly exciting.

For how-to’s on creating your own manipulated images, see “Software Secrets of the Pros” in the March 2012 issue of Popular Photography. —Eds.

In 2003 Paris-based Dimitri Daniloff scored the photo manipulator’s brass ring: He became a go-to guy for PlayStation. His debut ad was built around a photo of a woman giving birth to a man in his thirties. Things got weirder from there. “Because of the company’s target—males between 15 and 30 years old—they wanted me to push the envelope,” says Daniloff, who says his university degree in physics comes in handy for planning complex images.

“The Mold,” 2005

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In the end Daniloff, 40, delivered a plethora of award-winning images, including a mishmash of body parts­­—arms, legs, ears, hands­ and so on—engaged in an orgy, a woman cracked open like a giant eggshell and goonish creatures molding their own heads out of putty (see below). “It was a time for going crazy and trying everything,” says Daniloff, who shoots with a digital-backed Hasselblad and gets deep into Photoshop, laying as many as 30 real elements into a single image. “PlayStation was one of the first to do it, but now we have brands like Nike and Motorola doing ads in this style as well.”

While Daniloff continues to traffic heavily in the world of manipulation (for a 2012 Campari calendar project, he turned actress Milla Jovovich into a constellation with liquefied hair) he sees himself going in a more restrained direction. “I’m moving into something a little more realistic,” he says, acknowledging that realism is relative. “There’s post-production, but it’s not the point of the ad.”

“Hourglass,” 2007

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He singles out a recent job for Best Buy. “The Cyclops in a bus shelter was about mixing things together in a natural way,” he explains, adding that he snagged macro-shots of eyes, jammed the costumed model into an intentionally cramped space, and captured all the details (dirt, cracks in the sidewalk, the bus-stop sign post) as digital images that were massaged into the photo. “Keeping it looking real makes the post-production more challenging. Right now my goal is to make images that look real within the context of being completely unreal. That’s where you go after you’ve made things as edgy as you possibly can. ”