Photographer Todd Baxter doesn't try to capture real life in his photos. He's a narrative artist whose medium happens to be photography. "I have these ideas for a scene—like two kids looking into a glowing hole at night in the woods ("Owl Scouts") or the aftermath of a burglary with a couple tied up in their living room ("Bound and Gagged")," he says, "and I try to make them happen." His photography isn't photorealistic: It's staged, slightly off-kilter, and just a bit surreal. He uses a camera, but his work is less photojournalistic than it is painterly.
Baxter's 2010 series "Owl Scouts," a narrative series that depicts Boy and Girl Scout kids getting lost in the woods, reveals how adeptly photography can be used to evoke fantasies rather than to capture real life. Nothing about the series is "real": The "Owl Scouts" don't exist, nothing depicted in the series actually happened, the two children are actors, and most of the work was done in the studio (or in post-production). In an email to Co.Design, Baxter described his process:
For "Challenge 1: Owl Burrow—Reaching into Hole," I built a cross-section of the ground in my studio, cutting through an owl burrow hole, and shot the boy reaching into it on set. (I shot the girl the same day, but separately, as I was not yet sure exactly where I wanted her in the final image.) But I also shot a lot of exposed earth at construction sites and other details outdoors, which I used to make the cross section in post-production. (I edited in Photoshop). Because I wanted these images to be rich in detail and printable on a large scale, I really focused in on what viewers could discover if they spent a little time with the piece. For example, in the owl hole, over to the side, there’s this little (real) mouse skeleton I ordered off eBay, shot, and composited in. I’d like to think it’s how all the little details add up that make the final images feel very real, even when they clearly couldn’t be.
The series has more in common with the movies of Wes Anderson than they do with most photography series: They are painstakingly staged, and every detail is obsessed over. "I take advantage of the medium I’m using to manicure as many elements of a scene as I like—placing individual plants, sometimes even blades of grass, where I want them," says Baxter. "It’s kind of crazy, really, but it all adds up to that real-but-not-real quality."
Baxter says he's not surprised that his images are often classified as painterly; "I learned to create scenes on a canvas first, so I often fall back on the rules of formal composition when composing a scene photographically," he explains. He embraces digital manipulation and often "hand-paints" with digital tools to achieve the texture he wants. "The options are almost limitless," he emphasizes.
Baxter's new series is called "Project Astoria." Like "Owl Scouts," it uses photography to capture a slightly unreal world—in this case, a sci-fi environment with retro-inspired space explorers and alien landscapes. The grass has a blueish tint, and scenarios tilt to the unreal or to the grotesque, with space monsters, glowing organic crystals, and improbably interstellar vehicles. Yet it's all done with photography. About Project Astoria, Baxter says:
It’s a narrative in the sense that there’s a bigger story happening (which my wife, Aubrey Videtto, is writing), but the photos won’t always read like a frame-by-frame narrative like Owl Scouts did. We’ve created this whole world and a pretty detailed back-story that only we know. And I'm planning to have multiple shows a year with several ongoing series installations in each show.
The first chapter of Project Astoria debuted in Chicago at Lula's Cafe in December, and Baxter is currently in the studio continuing his work on the piece.