Photomontage comes of age

Ever since the launch of Photoshop, photomontage has been evolving for commercial applications and experimental personal work. Charlotte Rivers digs up the latest trends and techniques

As we head into the second decade of the 21st century, the craft of photomontage has retained its appeal for creatives and clients the world over, across advertising, motion graphics and editorial design. Besides the omnipresence of Photoshop, its sustained popularity is also down to the availability of photographic assets themselves - whether they're directly from a client, photographer, stock library, or self-shot using increasingly affordable high-end equipment.

A broad range of illustrators and designers specialise in this diverse area, collaborating with fellow designers and photographers as necessary. The results range from sexing up a client's product shots for advertising use to dreaming up stunning surrealist landscapes and everything else in between. The creation of such imagery allows for much experimentation and exploration, and the results are always unique, as New Delhi-based visual artist Archan Nair attests: "Photomontage illustration has more variety of scope with which you can experiment," he believes. "You can play with surreal or abstract environments, creating images that have a much stronger impact because they combine surrealism with realistic beauty."

Photomontage illustration itself may be nothing new, but its popularity is still growing and adapting to meet demand - and it's maturing as an artform, with many of the most successful practioners combining traditional techniques and textures with the digital tools that are now second-nature.

"The younger generation has grown up with Photoshop, and find it quick and easy to adapt to new programs," observes London-based designer Max Spencer. "And with the growth in micro-stock image libraries over the past five years, it's now easy to find a supply of low-cost images that can be used to compile images together." Sweden-based Niklas Lundberg, aka Diftype, agrees: "Stock image libraries are growing by the day and so is the digital art medium, so it's much easier to get into now," he explains. "There's so much talent out there nowadays, it's getting really hard to compete unless you have a very clear style and a good set of contacts."

With an impressive client list that includes Nike, Nissan and MTV, Lundberg keeps his own photographic archives, but also sources images from stock libraries for both client and personal work. He works with a Wacom Intuos 4 tablet, and uses CS5.

Lundberg's distinctive style is more influenced by architecture and fashion than his fellow illustrators: "I don't tend to look at other people's work," he reveals. "To be honest, I'm usually inspired by something other than digital art - I try to maintain a discipline of my own style, even when I'm experimenting with totally new elements."

Photoshop is the tool of choice for the vast majority of photomontage artists, and for designer and illustrator Nik Ainley it's irreplaceable: "Photoshop is where I'm able to really make an image sparkle," he enthuses. "I use it for all my work, sometimes entirely, other times just as a composing tool for 3D work, but either way it's essential to me."

Preferring to collaborate with a photographer in order to obtain a bespoke image, as opposed to trawling through stock libraries, Ainley also attributes advances in technology to the growing photo-manipulation trend: "Good digital cameras, combined with relatively easy access to software, mean that it was pretty inevitable that the photomontage style would become so popular," he reasons. "Constantly improving technology allows you to create high-quality images very quickly, and these images are absolutely everywhere. Sometimes it's obvious, but in other cases most people would never know they were looking at a manipulated image."

Emeric Trahand, aka Takeshi, is a Paris-born, New York-based digital artist and creative director whose innovative use of colour and organic elements makes for a highly-distinctive, surrealist style. Trahand works on a diverse range of briefs, from editorial to advertising to web, with clients including Nike, EMI Music, VH1 and the English National Opera. "Obviously for client work I'm hired to create images in a certain style," he points out. "The brief and art direction can change, but my work process stays the same. Very often clients will provide the assets for the work, and sometimes they will organise a proper photoshoot for this process. Working with a photographer is a very efficient way to obtain exactly the right material you need for a photomontage, but saying that, deadlines in the industry are often short and unfortunately it's not always possible to collaborate properly with a photographer."

For self-initiated work, outside the tight grip of briefs and deadlines, creative collaborations are often more common. One such example is The Wait. A joint effort between Max Spencer, Australian art director and illustrator Justin Maller, and photographer Justin Lopez, The Wait's sole purpose was to experiment. The stunning results were displayed via Depthcore, an online collective of photomontage specialists with a global membership, founded by Maller.

As a pioneer in the world of digital montage, Maller was among the first to blend photos with illustration and digital effects. "Photomontage is increasingly popular as it offers enormous scope," he reflects. "When you start with a photo, there's a wonderful basis to move on with and develop. There's something magical about having a very real image, juxtaposed with fantastic elements: it makes for some impressive results.

"From early experimentation by myself and other Depthcore members, it has grown and developed as people realise the potential and possibility of the style," he observes. "It's used to showcase the talents of artists alongside the products of companies, predominately in the advertising world, while in editorial it seeks to enhance and emphasise the traits and appearance of the subject. It's a wonderful style for bringing imagination and connotation to real life."

When not working on commercial briefs for the likes of Nike, Sprite and Hyatt Hotels, Maller's co-collaborator Max Spencer greatly values the input of fellow creative pros, and highlights other points in favour of using bespoke photography: "I stopped using stock images as a base for my illustrations roughly half a year ago now, mainly because I hated the lack of control, the lack of exclusivity and the fact that these stock images would lead to people trying to copy your work," he reveals. "All of my textures now are shot or scanned in by me, or are a specific collaborative effort, which helps me to avoid all of that."

Although working predominantly in Photoshop, adding in an element of the hand-drawn gives an image a personal touch, which fellow London-based designer and illustrator Mike Harrison also favours: "I think that every artist needs to put a stamp on his or her own work. I try to do this myself, and it's perhaps more evident in some pieces than others," he admits. "I'm a big fan of adding in hand-drawn touches and elements, and for me, that's the main thing that makes it stand out. It gives my illustration that personal touch, and makes it totally unique to me."

Harrison's blend of sketches and photographic assets fuses the traditional and the digital in a fluid fashion, a distinctive style that's netted a string of high-profile dream commissions from Nike. "Photomontage work is a lot of fun once you've found the images you want to use," he says. "It's popular because it's easy to pick up and start creating something quickly. All you need is a basic knowledge in cutting out images and then positioning, rotating and scaling them into a composition. A lot of photomontage work is very surrealistic, which allows artists to explore the (sometimes pretty dark) depths of their minds, and create whatever they like without having to worry too much about criticism. Of course, that changes with commissioned work, and you'll often have guidelines in terms of whether they want you to use a particular image or not."

Archan Nair shares Harrison and Spencer's love of mixed media, yet another indicator that the modern photomontage scene has matured well beyond fancy digital filters and effects: "I'm working with pencils, pens, watercolours and acrylics as well as Photoshop," he explains. "Using such a wide range of media gives me far more scope, so I can clearly express what's in my mind."

Heavily influenced by the rich culture, abundance of colour and age-old traditions of his Indian homeland - which he describes as "embedded within him" - Nair believes that art is all about expression: "It's very much a personal experience," he says. "I create illustrations to express my feelings and emotions about all that is close to me."

With a folio including commissions from Sony, Vogue, GQ, Canon and Microsoft, Nair believes that a mutual understanding is crucial: "It's important to share a similar vision for a smooth creative process," he believes. "I collaborate with clients on projects that excite both of us." Like most of his creative peers, Nair generally collects assets from various sources for his illustration work, including stock libraries, self-shot photos and client-provided images.

Of course, as with all such creative disciplines, compromises must sometimes be made to suit available time and budget. Dutch digital artist and photography enthusiast Rik Oostenbroek believes in working with bespoke shots wherever possible: "Searching through stock libraries can be terrible from time to time," he suggests. "If clients supply their own high-quality images for me to use, then that helps gives me a direction to aim for - if not, I always prefer to use my own shots if I can."

Created with Photoshop, Illustrator and a diverse selection of scanned images and textures, Oostenbroek's personal work tends to be more abstract and experimental than his client work, which is predominantly photo-heavy. "For me, the key to good results is a good-quality image to work with, but it depends how you work with it," he reasons. "My background's in art, not design, which I think gives me a different edge. Working in Illustrator allows me to create cool typography and awesome shapes, then adding my own textures keeps my work unique."

Now that Photoshop is as much a part of a designer's daily workflow as a pencil and paper, the photomontage scene has truly come of age, evolving beyond flashy effects for their own sake and fusing traditional drawing skills and tactile textures with imagery from a wide range of sources. From glossy sexed-up advertising work through to edgy, surrealist masterpieces, the possibilities for fusing the two exciting creative disciplines of illustration and photography are truly endless.