I can't believe these magical optical illusion photos aren't paintings

Oil painting photo optical illusion
(Image credit: Tarryn Goldman photography)

There's been so much attention given to the fantasy worlds created in AI art recently that it's refreshing to come across a reminder of how powerful photography still is when it comes to creating truly magical imagery. And how it can create stunning fantasy scenes.

Some of the South African photographer Tarryn Goldman's photographs look like optical illusions. At first glance, you would think they were paintings, but look deeper and you see that the image comprises entirely real people and objects (see our pick of the best cameras if you want to try to recreate your own favourite artwork).

Goldman began photography in her 30s after her father passed away, and she soon got hooked. "I've literally dunked my head under the sea of photography for the last 12 years, and I still haven't come up for a breath," she tells us.

Like many photographers, she has passed through the phase of trying to define her style, and struggling to find the words for it. "I used to try different editing processes, and different lenses, but I think it actually all boils down to an aesthetic every person has," she says. "You can see it in the way that I dress, or in my decor in my house, or in my editing... I lean towards the cooler range of colours and I love clean lines and although I'm very colourful, I am also pretty classic.... and a little bit of hippy on the side."

In Goldman's 'Painted Girl', painting and photography collide with surreal results. The photographer painted her model, set and props using an impasto technique, building up layers to create depth and shadow to make the photograph look like an oil painting (see some backstage footage in the post above). 

It's an interesting play on the concept of art capturing reality. For a moment, we think we're looking at a 2D photograph of a 2D painting of a scene, but actually, it's a photograph of a 3D scene made to look like a 2D artwork.

The Painted Girl was shortlisted for the Africa Photo Awards back in 2020, and Goldman has continued to create magical images, including pieces of digital collage that place her models in fantasy worlds. She told us she was inspired by growing up with fantasy, from David Eddings to Roadl Dahl and the NeverEnding Story ("I'm a crazy only child, so I grew up inventing worlds around me"). Meanwhile, her love of fashion led her to "mix fashion and fiction". 

She says that sometimes here work is "just a case of wanting to create something beautiful to look at" and at others "a way of seeing things differently to anyone else". The images below were taken on a shoot at an abandoned hospital with costumes that she made herself.

"I came up with an idea of what it would look like in the world if we, as a human race, carried on the way we were," Goldman says. "I based it on Fast Fashion and how ridiculous it is that we have 52 bloody fashion weeks now instead of the 4 we used to have."

Much of her work has a depth and beauty that generative AI art simply can't compare with, but Goldman tells us that she's amazed by the possibilities offered by AI art generators and doesn't feel that they're a threat. "I know people are freaking out with what it can do to our world as visual artists, but I think there will always be a need for photographers," she says. 

"The cameras we use, are attached to our hands and our brains and although AI is jumping along in cognitive leaps and bounds, it hasn't yet managed to master actually being a person... and to me that is the most important part of being a photographer or artist - your humanity... and all that comes with that."

You can see more of Goldman's work on her website and her Instagram account

If you're looking to develop your own photography work, see our pick of the best website builder for photographers. We also have some top photography tips, iPhone Pro camera tips and a piece on how to use photography in design.

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Joseph Foley

Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He writes news and features, updates buying guides and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to accessories and office supplies. A writer and translator, he also works as a project manager at London and Buenos Aires-based design and branding agency Hermana Creatives, where he manages a team of designers, photographers and video editors who specialise in producing photography, video content, graphic design and collaterals for the hospitality sector. He enjoys photography, particularly nature photography, wellness and he dances Argentine tango.