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 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.
You might not guess it looking at his recent work, but a decade ago, Auckland-based Mat Baker made his living shooting fashion for the Australian and Asian editions of Elle, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. “I shot respectfully and beautifully,” he says, “but after six years of fashion, I got bored relying on models to do standard poses. I tried pushing things, but the magazines only want to push it so far.”
Since then, Baker, 35, has made a living shooting heavily manipulated images for commercial clients. In the name of selling product, he’s turned ghastly-looking men into even ghastlier-looking women, stuffed a skydiver’s mouth with a bird, and planted a giraffe atop a tree. “Ninety-nine percent of the time we get hired for funny stuff, and we love it,” says Baker.
The “we” is Baker and his younger brother Karl. They work as a tightly knit team, with Mat taking the photos, using a Phase One camera system, and Karl doing the Photoshop work. “We can go on location and give the clients a finished image before we leave,” says Mat, explaining that they routinely turn hotel rooms into post-production suites. “We spend the day shooting and the night creating the image in Photoshop. The clients see the image coming together, they get excited, we get excited, and new ideas start percolating.”
That excitement translates into a relentless search for new techniques and ideas. A recent job for the Okuma fishing gear company (see below) had them turning babies into weathered old seadogs to illustrate the company’s tagline “Born to Fish.” The facial hair and tattoos were ’shopped, of course, but the brothers used the lighting on the original photo to make the faces of their 6-month-old models appear convincingly lined and aged. “We just threw everything at it,” says Baker, “a beauty dish with a diffuser, ring flash, umbrellas, stripped soft boxes, polyboards. There’s just something lovely about using everything.”