My Journey to Create a Composite Image

My Journey to Create a Composite Image

We all love a good composite, don't we? C'mon! You're probably going "No! They're all fake. It's all Photoshop, therefore it should be easy and shouldn't be a genre of photography at all! While some bad composites do exist, why not look at the other side of Dali's surrealistic, time-melting deserts and analyze the way it makes you feel when you study these types of images? How about we dive into the rabbit hole head first and find out what it takes to create a composite image?

And if that fails, here's my account of how I got into creating composites.

Growing up, I remember being fascinated by my older brother's oil paintings on canvas and his sketches using charcoal on paper. When Dial-Up Internet finally reached the South African shores in the early 90's, we rejoiced! My brother's painting went from an oil paint and charcoal based medium to a digital playground filled with new toys and new pursuits complemented with an undo button. I remember him messing around with snapshots of his friends in an earlier version of Photoshop where he superimposed arrows, piercing his friends' heads while they somehow managed to happily brandish a composited sword in their dominant hand. While he saw it as a form of parody, I felt some sort of spark inside. I was just waiting for the miracle to come.

When I eventually reached my teenage years, I started mimicking my brother's work and decided to push the boundaries of what's possible in Photoshop. This eventually led me to the discovery of photography and retouching which are the things I specialize in today. But besides that, I found music to be another big influence. Anything dark at the time (damn teenage years), from Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar to the German electro band, Diary of Dreams. The music they produced raised the hairs on my arms and neck and visuals of the images I wanted to produce flooded my mind while listening to their albums.

However, I still found it difficult to find my place in contemporary photography. While at college in my twenties, I failed most of my photography assignments in college due to never feeling any connection to the subjects I photographed, but somehow I still felt at home while holding the camera in my hands. At the same time, I found myself stuck in a rut with no idea how to get out of it.

Until the day when my lecturer handed me a Photoshop assignment. The assignment was free of any bounds, as long as it was a composite of some sort. Most of the students produced double exposures and some kind of composite (mostly adding the moon into their shots). I felt I needed to do something that resonated with my likes, my fears, my dreams, and nightmares.

I inserted one of my favorite CDs into my Hi-fi and pressed play. Moments later the melodies being fed through the speakers reached my ears and suddenly, as the song's chorus grew closer, I started feeling that spark.

I wanted to express my dreams, my thoughts, and feelings in a way conventional photography didn't allow me to. While looking at my fellow students' work, I realized I wanted to do something different. I wanted them to think differently. At the time, I hated their work for being so ordinary but at the same time, I doubted myself for doing something that they weren't doing.  

Although, as the chorus grew closer I found a glimpse of inspiration in the dark. While most of the students did multiple exposures and added some fake makeup to the models in their portraits, I thought "Hey, why don't I just twist it around it a bit. Make a beautifully terrible portrait?" I wanted the viewers to hate it but in a way, they couldn't stop looking at it. So the idea to create a composite using humanoid figures came about. I decided to create a composite, using myself as a model. The legs twisted in the wrong way, arms up in the air, and hands for heads. I never thought it would work, but after the initial hatred from the viewers, I managed to get them to look twice. Suddenly they started liking it. They started discussing it, and they started asking questions.

At the time I recognized hands as being extremely visually expressive after a guy flipped me off in traffic (but that's a story for another day) and thought that it would be interesting to replace facial expressions with hand gestures just to mess with people's minds and perspective. I wanted to make them feel uncomfortable and think about the photo instead of just taking it in as just another pretty photograph. I guess I have many years of X-Files, Aliens, Stephen King movies, and my brother to thank for that.

Once I found a place I felt comfortable in the realm of photography, I discovered other influences such as Dave Hill, Renee Robyn, Felix Hernandez, Fredrik Odman, and later on, Nicolas Bruno. While I'm nowhere close to the level of skill they are, I was influenced by them nonetheless.

There's just something about a composite (even though most would view it as fake) that just makes you do a double take. Isn't that what most photographers want from their viewers? Instead of looking at the millions of pretty landscapes, food, and cat pictures on Instagram, go "Oh wow! let me look at that image again, analyze it, and maybe, just maybe ask a question or gain some inspiration from it."

Composites give you the chance to explore your reality. The way you see it and the way you want to change it. What could've been and what is yet to come. Once you have a strong concept behind it, who's to say you're not the next Dali? And how could that be a bad thing?

What are your all-time favorite topics when it comes to conceptual/compositing work?

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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[Isn't that what most photographers want from their viewers? Instead of looking at the millions of pretty landscapes, food, and cat pictures on Instagram, go "Oh wow! let me look at that image again, analyze it, and maybe, just maybe ask a question or gain some inspiration from it."]
Yes, exactly! I'm tired of pretty pictures, I want to see pictures that make me have a conversation with my soul.