DPP Home Profiles Erik Almas-A Maker Not A Taker

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Erik Almás: A Maker Not A Taker

Erik Almás, renowned for his immaculately composited advertising and fine-art images, answers the question “How’d he do that?”

During the shoot itself, he prefers to use the most appropriate of his many 4x5 cameras, some of which are more than 50 years old. It’s a format he learned to love in college and during his years with Jim Erickson—but in an era when digital has become the norm, he finds it increasingly an uphill battle to convince clients to go with 4x5. “In the big scheme of things, I’m only asking for one extra day to process the film—probably only an extra one percent in the budget. But I have to fight for it every time now.” The photographer finds that the process of framing a shot upside-down through the 4x5’s glass helps him slow down and concentrate on composition without being distracted by narrative elements. He also appreciates “the natural falloff of 4x5s—the fact that they’re not as perfect as new and digital lenses; they bend the light softer; they have a more romantic quality.”

If clients insist on digital images, Almás still sets up his compositions using a 4x5, but switches out cameras when the crucial moment arrives. His method is to capture each element of the composition separately. Even if he’s taking a portrait of a subject in front of a landscape, he generally photographs the individual and the landscape separately, then digitally unites them in postproduction. “The light on the landscape,” he explains, “is only perfect for five minutes, maybe ten. I like to focus only on the landscape during that time and handle the person separately. It makes it easier for the compositing.”

Postproduction Perfectionism
Almás does almost all of his own retouching. He uses Photoshop to make his composites seamless, employing the same techniques that the rest of us do. He just does it better. Through compositing, he achieves effects that would be impossible under tight location budgets. For example, one of his images for a Puma campaign portrays what appears to be a group of European soccer players cavorting on the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover. In reality, most of the elements used in the final image were taken in Santa Cruz, Calif. “The Fisherman,” part of his fine-art portfolio, recalls the coast of Ireland or Wales, or perhaps his native Norway. It was shot at three different coves near Mendocino, Calif., then painstakingly composited from 24 separate elements.

It requires perfectionism, if not obsessiveness, to create pictures that are “more real” than reality. As Almás observes, “I always think, ‘Ah, what if there’s something that could make it better? What if I brought in this other element from a different photograph?’” He likens the idea to collage or assemblage in the fine arts. “It feels more artistic, like it’s a chance to actually create something new instead of just documenting something that’s already there.” In a sense, he’s a digital sculptor, using the data of ones and zeros as a sculptor molds clay: inserting one appendage here, massaging an-other piece into the correct shape there, reconfiguring raw materials until the finished work adds up to more than the sum of its parts. “I’m not a purist,” he freely admits. “I feel more like a maker of pictures than a taker.”


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