This time last year Carl Lyttle set the cat among the pigeons by claiming “the traditional studio photographer is about to die” (CR, July 09). Computer generated imagery is taking over from car and product shots, he said, and photographers in those sectors need to get with it or get left behind. He should know – as one of the UK’s leading automotive photographers he’s been working with wire frame models for years and he also co-founded Moofe, a company which offers photographic backdrops primed for use with CGI models. “We’re fast approaching the tipping point,” said Lyttle. “Photographers who aren’t moving into 3D won’t be around in three or four years.”
Fast-forward a year and Moofe is flourishing, providing downloadable backplates and High Dynamic Range Imaging files to everyone from BMW to Goodyear. But photography is still going strong too and CGI firm, Happy Finish, recently weighed in with a series of seminars called Photography Isn’t Dead. “We wanted to say ‘Look, CGI could be as much an opportunity as a threat’,” says Stuart Waplington, MD of both Happy Finish and Print Space, a professional lab based in East London. “Through Happy Finish and Print Space I’m in touch with commercial photographers and what they think and at the moment many of them are either not quite sure of what CGI offers or quite wary of it. Some of them take the attitude that they don’t want to know because it will take their job. I can understand their feelings because whenever a piece of new technology comes in you get lots of predictions on how it will change everything and do people out of a job. But there’s another, important story to tell about how CGI involves photographers and their skill and that’s what we wanted to do.”
The seminars combined photography and CGI in three different areas – fashion, car photography and the fantastical – to show photographers what can be done and talk them through how to do it. In the car shoot, for example, retoucher Christopher Peabody and Happy Finish’s CGI team dropped a CGI car into a location shot by car specialist Trigger. The fashion session worked the other way around, with an image of a model shot by Luis Monteiro dropped into a 100% virtual environment. The final seminar focused on an image somewhere in between the first two, with CG and photographic elements brought together to illustrate a tree growing out of a warehouse.
Happy Finish and Carl Lyttle are actually working on very similar propositions combining CGI and traditional photography. And Lyttle is by no means the only photographer to have taken the plunge. Advertising photographer John Parker has teamed up full time with CGI operator Clive Biley to create a new entity, Parker Biley, for example, while John Offenbach recently did a CGI test shoot with Happy Finish. Though pleased with the result, he’s cautious about the technology. “A lot of CGI is so unbelievable,” he says. “It has a certain look – super shiny and super real. Photography isn’t like that.”
Offenbach is now using CGI in a commercial project but, he says, where possible he’ll still get a real life model built instead. “I’m old-school,” he says. “I’m not necessarily excited about CGI but I can see it is another tool, something that in some circumstances may be the best solution.”
George Logan, another advertising photographer who’s worked on a test with Happy Finish, has a similar view. He’s used CGI to show a girl walking on a flooded path in Glasgow, an image that would have been difficult to achieve photographically as he wouldn’t have got permission to flood the walkway. “They [the CGI operators] did a pretty good job, but it was quite a process to get there and you’re still always wondering if that was how it would really look,” he says. “At the moment its possibilities are still to do with problem-solving, the next step will be for it to be used creatively [see p40].”
Dean Chalkley, meanwhile, remains a strong photography devotee. His aesthetic involves real-life models and spontaneous poses rather than heavily retouched or computer-driven perfection. “With CGI you can create a fantasy world, and that’s totally valid if that’s what you want to do, but I’ve never been interested in that stuff,” he says. “I like images that look real. Even if I’m shooting in the studio, I try to keep that sense of spontaneity.”
Plus, he adds, he didn’t get into photography only to spend his time sitting in front of a computer screen, “I want to go and do it and have that real, visceral experience.” And interestingly, advertising agencies know what he means. Nick Palmer at CHI and Partners, Ronnie Vlcek, a creative at JWT London, and Erik Kessels at KesselsKramer all say that that sense of realism helps convey authenticity in ad campaigns, which in turn helps consumers believe in a product. All three have used CGI, but warn it needs to be approached with caution. “CGI feels like cheating,” says Kessels. “No matter how good it gets, it always looks like a very slick cartoon. A heavily manipulated image often seems like a kind of visual lie, and that’s best avoided if you want people to trust your brand. Our approach has always been to make work that feels authentic, both in idea and execution.” Vlcek, meanwhile, compares CGI to make-up – always welcome, but best used sparingly. CGI is certainly making inroads but photography, it seems, is far from dying out.
Diane Smyth is British Journal of Photography deputy editor