Details Matter
Richard Pahl--Full Of Surprises

Photo 1.
Photos © 1999, Richard Pahl, All Rights Reserved

The one thing that you can count on when you see Richard Pahl's images is that you're not gonna believe what you're looking at. The reason is that he's so darned clever with what he's done/doing, you're just never sure where reality ends and fantasy comes into being. He creates such a perfect blend, it just blows your mind.

My biggest surprise is all the things that he can find wrong in my portraits and the simple solutions he has to correct them. No, it's not my posing and lighting. It's more the tonal qualities, the contrast ratios, and details that I didn't know could be changed once the image has been finished.

Interestingly, Pahl comes from the background of being a portrait photographer. As a result he sees things that few other digital gurus notice. His eye, his mind, and his hands all work together to perform what seems to me to be pure magic.

Photo 2.

His digital refinishing and creation abilities are mostly performed in two programs--Photoshop and Bryce-3D. Let's look at some of his "outlandish" images and try to determine what was going through his mind as he set out to accomplish these unbelievable tasks.

In Photo 1, Pictures at an Exhibition, he built his own Mediterranean display gallery--over the water--completely out of his imagination. Starting with "primitive" shapes (squares, cylinders, spheres, and pyramids) in the Bryce program, he constructed the pavilion--complete with three-dimensional shadows and the like.

After adding some of his own pictures into the display walls, he felt that the color in them became a distraction. It was a simple matter to remove the color (desaturate) and come up with the resulting final composite of more than a dozen photographs and an unlimited number of shapes. Yes, there are more than a dozen pictures on display, but you can't rotate the wall in this flattened version to see the others.

Photo 2, Shogun, began as a large piece of redwood burl driftwood on the California coast. He separated it from its background with the Path Tool in Photoshop, rotated it 90° to stand it up, made a duplicate layer, reversed it, and merged them together with a flat seam down the center. When he looked at what he had, he noticed the very defined oriental design and immediately gave it the title of Shogun.

Photo 3.

Then, it was a simple matter of adding the framing to the design using layers, selections, and gradients in Photo-shop. I just learned how to construct a simple straight frame around my images. Viewing this frame was (for me) almost impossible. He says otherwise, of course.

The tones of all the component parts of this image strike me as being a strong factor in the effectiveness of the picture. On the other hand, as I think more about it, I feel that his imagination in seeing the potential in a piece of driftwood was more of Pahl's black magic prowess. "Black" because in Photoshop he overlaid the driftwood with a layer of black. That's what made the colors pop so beautifully.

Dry Run (Photo 3) is a hilarious distortion of fact when you really stop to think about it. What an apt title for sailboats floating across the desert sand! The image evolved from some serious surrealistic art work that he was doing at the time. It was a direct result of Pahl's passion for studying the works of Dali and Uhlman--people whose work, Pahl felt, had no boundaries and which encouraged him to stretch beyond his own boundaries, too.

Photo 4.

The "sails" were created in Bryce, as was the desert. The entire image is a figment of Pahl's fertile imagination. I know that I would never have thought about anything like that, but then I've never given much thought to what can be accomplished in the deep, dark back recesses of one's crazy cranium.

Sir Charles, the Great Blue Heron, (Photo 4) was a simple photograph of the bird in a neighbor's yard. The original picture was created through a 500mm lens on his Mamiya RZ camera (and on a tripod). He just kept moving closer and closer, exposing more and more film--until the bird had had it.

Pahl spent hours in Photoshop, isolating the bird from its background. His original scan was a 100MB file, created by his lab, Evercolor Fine Arts, Worcester, Massachusetts. With that large an image he could pick out each individual feather, achieving the incredible believability of this image.

Photo 5.

He then duplicated the bird layer, flipped it over and matched the two about 4" above the feet, so that it would appear as if the bird were standing in water. (It was actually standing on a fence when the picture was created.)

The circular ripples were created entirely in Photoshop. To show you the extent of Pahl's far-out imagination, he solved the problem of creating the ripples by starting with a completely independent file. He began with a tall rectangle, approximately 1/2" by 8" tall. With colors set for black and white, he went across the narrow width of the rectangle with the Gradient Tool, changing the line back and forth from black to white and then back again to black.

He then duplicated the layer, rotated it 90°, and flattened the two images to create a simple "+" sign. Using Filter/Distort/Rotate/Swirl Pahl created a spiral design and then crushed it to an oval with the aid of Transform/Distort. Whew. Talk about imagination and creativity. Then, it was just a question of bringing that image together with the heron.

The final "touch of magic" was Pahl's laying on an overlay of a transparent golden color over the entire image and adjusting it to the final color of the composition. Worth the effort? I would say so.

Trawlers, (Photo 5) was an exercise in selecting intricate details from their original background. The boats were first photographed by Pahl in northeast Florida. I don't know what went through his mind to place them on Lake Tahoe, but I do know that Tahoe is one of his favorite haunts.

The combination of those boats and Lake Tahoe is so incongruous, it's funny. Pahl has actually shown this image to residents of Tahoe. He enjoyed seeing their reaction when they looked at it. Certainly, that's Tahoe. And those boats are real. How could that be? Only you and I know that secret now. Seeing is believing, huh? Is it photographic evidence? Well, not necessarily.

And, finally, there's something here for everyone. Do you like pure fantasy? Pure imagination? Some-thing out of this world? Take a look at Free at Last, (Photo 6), the last image from Pahl (and one of my favorites).

Photo 6.

"One of the keys to this image," Pahl says, "is its simplicity. There's simply a total of six spheres. If you take any one of them out of the composition, the picture loses it."

Personally, I love the colors, shapes, and the incredible depth perception that's derived from the various sizes of the spheres. I'm just amazed that a mind can conceive such a complex image and then create it. I wondered if he had the final composition in mind when he began its creation. Pahl says, "Not really." He takes it a step at a time, makes lots of tries, keeps what he likes, and no one ever sees the rejected ideas.

He tells me that he doesn't see the spheres as such. Instead, he sees them as beings.

I've sort of given this last image a couple of other names: How about Up, Up, and Away or The Great Escape. Whatever it's called I want this one for my home.

A lot of people will want creative, unbelievable (perhaps) imagery to hang in their homes. I sincerely believe that a great deal of the future art that's going to be prominently displayed in homes will be coming from photographers who're familiar with what digital imaging can do to enhance their creative spirits.

Whether it begins on film or on a computer screen, who cares? No one. This may well be the future for many image-makers. No surprises.

Want to get in contact with Pahl? Drop him an e-mail at: I'm sure that he'd love to hear from you. Maybe, you can talk him into setting up a class for creative portrait photographers who want to go "all the way." Let me know. I'll be there, myself.