Viewing this photo set, one might think that Robin Bartholick was born in the wrong century. In this world, men still wear homburgs and bowler hats. Women are still seen with petticoats and parasols. Circuses are still the greatest shows on earth.
His subjects seem about as grounded in old-fashioned reality as can be – until you notice that most of them are doing impossible things in unreal dreamscapes.
Bartholick's early-20th-century look, however, comes from cutting-edge, 21st-century technology, such as Photoshop and the Canon EOS-1Ds digital camera. Each photo is painstakingly assembled from several other images, manipulated digitally and then stitched together to create a believable tableau of often-unbelievable scenarios.
"I worked on them like a painter, dealing with the proper perspective, getting the right lighting," says Bartholick of the black-and-white images, which sometimes require several days to complete. "One of the hardest things is keeping the light even for all the various elements."
The photographer, based in Bellingham, Wash., is hardly limited to black and white. He also has an extensive stock collection of more traditional color images, potraying modern, tech-savvy people in a dynamic, wide-angle style. During his 23 years as a professional shooter, Bartholick has expanded his client list to include some of the biggest local and national companies, including Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, Hewlett Packard, Intel, Infiniti, Ford and many others.
Part of the reason for the sepia-toned milieu is purely aesthetic; Bartholick just likes the vintage look of black-and-white, which tends to fit the weather and the muted tones of the Pacific Northwest. "In the Northwest, it's always cloudy," he says. "It's kind of a haunted place, I guess."
But this shooting style was a conscious business decision, as well. "If you use images that look like today, using today's fashions, they would look dated in just a few years, but the old-fashioned look never goes out of style," he says. If they go back far enough in time, the images become more universally recognizable, which gives them a longer shelf life on the stock-photography market.
"I always wanted to be 'artsy' and still work in the commercial world," Bartholick says. "But usually the more artsy you get, the less money you make. I went back and forth on this issue a lot. This kind of black-and-white series was about as far as I could push on the artsy side."
The process of creating some of these conceptual images can be relatively simple, as it was for the photo of the man in the bowler hat. Bartholick took a straight 35mm film portrait, drum-scanned it and composited it onto a separate image of the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round at Seattle Center.
Most others in the series, however, took much more work, most notably the dream-like balloon photograph, which was made from several layers of images and used both studio props and digital manipulation. To achieve the illusion of flight, Bartholick ran a bar across two lightstands and attached a wire from the bar to the back of the man's jacket. He asked the model to jump, then captured his leap in midair, so that the model's feet would dangle in a believable way.
The trickiest part, he says, was getting the angles and the cars in the background in proper perspective. Starting with a photo of a Seattle street, he added in model cars and arranged them to give the photo more depth.
The man knocking over the domino-like stone monoliths (above, right) was one of the first images in Bartholick's series.
He combined at least four different elements into the photo: a background shot from Utah's Zion National Park, a man in a suit pushing against a street sign, grass for the bottom half and the stones themselves, which were about a foot long. "That took a long time to find the right ones," he adds. For the two circus-themed images, Bartholick created some parts in the studio and invented others entirely in Photoshop.
The contortionist, balanced precariously on the elephant's trunk, is Bartholick's wife, Ketsiri, who goes by the name of "Pum." The final image of her is actually a composite of two separate photographs – one of Pum standing up and bending over backward, merged with another of her lying on the floor, kicking back her legs. The crowd shot and the elephant were added digitally.
To ensure that he had even lighting for the weightlifting tightrope-walker, he shot the model standing outside on a flat surface, next to the side of a church. The tightrope and the barbell (made from pieces of scrap metal) were both real props, but the crow's nest in the background was made of Photoshop pixels.
Both circus images, which are useful in illustrating how clients can do the seemingly impossible, have sold several times, Bartholick says. (In fact, on the day he spoke with PhotoMedia, the weightlifter image sold to a client in Norway, he adds.)
"What I like about Photoshop is that it allows you to work like an illustrator," he says. "If I get an idea in my head, I know I can make something pretty close to what I had in mind originally."
The hedge maze image is a good example of how Photoshop can take very simple elements – a man in a suit and an image of greenery – and transform them into virtually any shape imaginable. "It's almost like making a logo," he adds.
Born and raised in Bellingham, Bartholick began working in Seattle in 1983, spending most of his professional life working out of a studio in the Belltown neighborhood. Last fall, he gave up his studio and moved back to his roots in Bellingham, but he still keeps ties with Seattle for location shots.
In September 2006, Bartholick's work was exhibited at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in upstate New York, where he first learned his craft. By the end of the show, he had sold about half of the images that were exhibited, he says.
Currently, Bartholick is "really pushing hard for stock" and experimenting more with color and wide-angle photography.
Recently, he signed on with Corbis and UpperCut Images for his stock work.
For more information on Bartholick's photography, including his color selections, visit his web site at http://www.bartholick.com.