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Are They For Real? Photoshop Can Keep You Guessing
A contest winner explores existentialism with Photoshop.


Nils Orth


Nils Orth


Nils Orth


Nils Orth


Nils Orth



While creating a completely new individual by combining body parts from assorted people is not a new idea in photography, Nils Orth's carefully composited portraits created with a Nikon DSLR D70 and Adobe Photoshop were fascinating enough to position the 24-year-old as a winner of the 2006 Adobe Design Achievement Awards.

Grabbing the top title in the photography division, Orth, a student at Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia competed against 1,800 students from 24 countries. The annual competition recognizes the world's most promising artists and their skill with Adobe software.

"I've always been very interested in portraits," said Nils from his studio. "Capturing them well is the fundamental of photography."

After a year studying abroad in Rome and several years in working in a surreal style with a huge tableau and elaborate settings via a medium-format camera, he decided to get back to basics with portraits. Capturing portraits made him feel like he was returning to personal work, work that evoked feelings in him.

"I've always been fascinated with people and people-watching," he said.

In the beginning, he had no plans to composite. He saw up to six models a day and shot 100 to 150 photos of each. As he amassed a large body of images, a new direction for his project began to take form. Orth noticed the "perfection" of the capture of a singular body part on a model. Perfection being a relative term, Orth, for instance, thought the reflection in one model's eyes was great in one shot, but wished her nose was pointed up more or that her lips were open in that same shot. As he admired certain features in certain captures of his work, he decided he couldn't call back models to reenact his vision but he could create art.

Out of hundreds of faces created over hours and hours, only a few made the cut in the end. They had to look realistic and the effect had to be seamless.

"I wanted them to create feelings in the present based on the viewer's personal history. I wanted them [viewers] to reflect on someone who doesn't exist," said Orth.

Although the images intentionally show imperfections, the photographer said the faces were not designed as an antidote to the classic portrait or as a result of rebellion. Rather, the artist wanted to communicate to his audience on many levels. "It's easy to see the conventional beauty in people. And then it's easy to discard it," said Orth. "I wanted these portraits to catch the viewers' eyes. I wanted them to see something more alarming than beautiful, glistening people."

According to Orth, judges at the competition selected "Untitled Faces" because it made an impact on them and caused them to return to the exhibit over and over.

Since the portraits are not specific to an individual, the work raises the question of individuality. This is intentional by the artist. Most faces contain both male and female parts, but only a few faces look androgynous. Some parts, such as eyes, are the result of marrying several of the models eyes together. "By challenging the terms on which identity is defined, the image's relationship [to the viewer] varies with experience," the artist said.

The images transform the familiar into the strange, leaving their beauty subjective.

"It's a comment on identity, beauty and gender. I want people to see that labels are so limiting." For that reason, all the photos are untitled.

To make the photos, he initially interviewed the models and learned about their personalities in order to make them feel comfortable for his close-up shots, usually taken within 12 inches from each model's face. He used a digital camera and strobe lights.

Adobe Photoshop was the sole program used in the final image production. Through the use of many layer masks, he composited several features from various individuals to create a singular face. He selected actions such as overlay and masking to reveal and conceal and blended at various capacities. Even within a feature, such as eyes, he combined a percentage of more than one model's eyes.

Once the features were set in place and he was satisfied with the composite, he converted the images from color into black-and-white through Adobe Channel Mixer. Although many layers and masks are used to get to the final image, the result is a seamless portrait of an individual.

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