Collective consciousness

The trouble with models, even the ones as stunning as the doe-eyed lovelies shot by Miami Beach-based photographer Chris Knight, is that their skin can be a little, well, boring. Take a photograph and process it through another designer's creative head space, though, and you've got a different proposition. Collaborate with a Photoshop genius like Justin Maller and skin doesn't have to be neutral at all, it can be an Escher-inspired black and white canvas, a riot of autumnal leaves or a red cyber-lizard print.

In the fast-moving, software-packing creative industry of 2009, photographers, illustrators, designers, typographers and Photoshop artists are no longer prepared to work in a bubble. They want to stretch the limits of their own art forms as far as possible, and if this means calling on the skills of fellow creatives, then so be it. Collaborating with others lets designers push their images into another dimension, adding another process to the finished product to make something truly exceptional.

At the end of 2009, nowhere is this aesthetic more apparent than within the virtual doors of the depthCORE collective. Formed by Melbourne-based freelance illustrator and art director Justin Maller in 2002, and described by him as "the best trip of my life", depthCORE has established itself as one of the most important, international digital art collectives operating today. So how did it begin? "When I started depthCORE, I had no idea what it would grow to become. I just thought it would be fun to belong to a collective, and to interact with a bunch of other artists in relative private," Maller explains. "I think it's fair to say that it's grown exponentially since then, but none of that growth was premeditated; it all occurred naturally, feeding on the enthusiasm of all the people involved."

Seven years on, and depthCORE has lived up to its lofty mission statement of "breaking design conventions and pushing the boundaries of artwork created or enhanced digitally," through an eclectic mix of contributors and members, working in creative fields as diverse as design, photography, animation and even audio. From innovative artists driving forward developments in illustration such as Matei Apostolescu and Helovon, to leading digital manipulators like Patrick Ahmann and Ali UZ, creative talent has been flocking to depthCORE, attracted by the challenge of collaborating with some of the brightest people working today.

Releasing its creative output every three to four months through roughly themed 'chapters', which contain anywhere from 50 to 150 works from different media, the depthCORE collective operates along meritocratic lines that endeavour to give "recognition to a member who has made an exceptional contribution to the group through their artwork and participation."

Maller himself has developed a unique style through the collaborations he has produced as part of the depthCORE process. He cites very strong, intimate relationships with the aforementioned Chris Knight and New York-based experimental photographer Holly Bynoe as the kinds of creative relationships that really sum up what depthCORE is all about.

"When it comes to collaborations with photographers, I look for someone who has a great eye and a unique style. Chris shoots so beautifully, with such a naturally classy and iconographic feel. His images are ideally suited to my innate desire to create experimental work, which I try to imbue with a timeless nature," Maller explains. "And Holly shoots pictures that are so emotionally rich; they always evoke a really unusual and generally pretty abstract response from me. I respect both of their styles so much, it always brings out the best in me artistically - I really have to pull out the stops if I want to keep pace with them," he smiles.

Keeping pace with your creative peers is a key part of the collaborative process, but what kind of skills does Maller think a designer needs in order to produce successful work through collaboration? "The only thing a person needs to be to make them suited to collaboration, is flexible; you have to be able to respond and tailor your visual response to the work sent to you. I like to come into a collaboration as the responder, and I always try to enter without any preconceptions or ideas, so that everything I add to the piece is in direct response to what's given to me," he says.

Maller's work with photographer Chris Knight is a case in point. The two collaborated recently on Maller's Black Salt Mezzanine exhibition, a stunning collection of work featuring Maller's dreamy enhancements of Knight's alluring images. "It's a very abstract process, how Justin and I work," Knight says. "Typically, I shoot what I shoot normally - commercial, fashion, beauty or body work - and send it over to him, and have him go to town on it. I work my end and he works on his. It's always exciting to see the finished product. In a collaborator, I look for someone who can really blow people away. Justin can do that. He can take an idea that you didn't even think of and run with it. That's the beauty of what he does."

Knight says the images Maller worked on for the Black Salt Mezzanine show were created independently, not specifically, for the exhibition. One of the most successful is Drift - a pensive high-fashion model shoot enhanced by Maller with some subtle black-and-white driftwood textures. "Like the other images, the end result with Drift was a surprise," Knight admits. "I wouldn't say the image has moved on, though. The same image exists. It's the same mood; the same feel. Justin has just enhanced it the way he does, and created a totally different version of the same vision."

"Drift was created with a lot of time and effort," Maller reveals. "The photo sent over was one of my very favourites from Chris' sets, and I really wanted to make something special. I spent a few days on the piece, trying to get the driftwood to really accentuate the mash of curves and sexuality present in the original."

Another piece the two worked on is Safe From Harm, which is a stunning reimagining of one of Knight's sumptuous model shots. For this collaboration, Maller says he was interested in changing the tones and textures of the model's skin - while making a nod to a classic Massive Attack tune that gives the piece its title.

"I'm definitely guilty of repurposing lyrics and track names as titles for my work. I usually try to use the title of my piece to refer to something in the art, or give it some emphasis - in the case of Safe From Harm, I was trying to add some kind of armour-like connotation to her skin, as though it keeps her safe from harm," Maller explains.

For Knight, his collaborations with Maller work because he is producing images "with one of the best in the world." The work comes together because the two are so passionate about producing great work, and creating outside of their usual comfort zones. So is there a downside to collaborative partnerships? "The worst thing about this way of working is trying to deal with people on the other side of the world," Knight says. "I live in Miami and Justin lives in Australia. If one of us wasn't an insomniac, we would never talk to each other." Does collaborating across different hemispheres throw up any technical problems? "Not really," shrugs Knight. "As far as technical considerations, with myself, I shoot on a 21MP camera, which gives everyone else a bigger canvas to work on. After my initial edit is finished, I send it over to Justin, typically in TIFF format, and then it's all up to him to pull it off and polish the final piece."

Holly Bynoe's original photographs are so striking, evocative and challenging before they go through the collaborative process with Maller that it's hard to imagine her wanting to see them develop outside her own creative horizons. Is this an aspect she finds difficult? "I don't usually collaborate on work," she admits, "but after conversing with Justin for some time a level of trust developed between us. After Justin is done with my work, he sends it back to me and most of the time I am either blown away or shocked: both very good reactions."

One piece the two worked on together - Sisters of the Southern Skies - provoked both reactions. "Getting the image back astounded me. Not only did Justin develop such a beautiful dual concept, but he also managed to provoke and infuse the images with a barrage of questions. To this day it is the seminal piece that I return to when I want to ponder and consider what collaborations really are. When (model and Bynoe's muse) Jayne saw the image her mouth flew open, and I sighed loudly," she says.

The two also worked together on a typography-led illustration called Conquest of Colour, which hellocolor's Pawel Nolbert inputted into as well. "I think that the way the image functioned in this design was a little bit more abstract and removed. It's a wonderful study in typology, density and dimension, and reminds me of Terry Gilliam and his movie Brazil. I see myself floating through this alphabet city being severely careful of my navigation skills," Bynoe explains.

"Pawel did all the 3D typography work on this piece," Maller recalls. "I took the brilliant beginning Pawel and Holly made, and simply elaborated on it with some fun 3D abstract work. I love the end result, but the genius in this piece is definitely theirs, not mine."

From wistful typographic cityscapes to stunningly re-engineered fashion and model photography, the mill of creativity represented by the depthCORE collective runs deep. "Matching creative wits with another person - it's an addictive experience," Maller concludes. "And having someone else bring an idea into the arena for you to expound on is an awesome way to gain momentum in the creative process." If you're looking to take your images to the next level, collaboration promises a range of new work for your portfolio.

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