Artist Oliver Michaels Composes Surreal Photographs Like A Geneticist Splices DNA

“I treat the photographic space as one I can take apart and reconfigure according to my whim,” he says.

Look closely at Oliver Michaels‘s black-and-white “Architectural Composites.” (Like nose-to-monitor close.) Only then do you realize that something’s amiss. There are no doors or windows into the buildings; they hew to the same square silhouette; and feature a jigsaw of materials, embellishments, and patterns.


While they appear to be quirky designs, none of the buildings physically exist as Michaels depicts them. Rather, he’s cobbled together details and surfaces from dozens of photographs shot in the same area and composed his own architecture. This is no cut-and-paste collage, however; Michaels creates as many as 800 different layers in Photoshop to achieve the realistic look.

Fred Ritchin [dean of the school at the International Center of Photography] links the breaking of the human genome to the digitization of photography,” Michaels says. “I treat the photographic space as one I can take apart and reconfigure according to my whim, in a similar way a molecular biologist reconfigures a sheep’s DNA.”

Preferring overcast days for even lighting, Michaels walks through neighborhoods and snaps images of interesting textures or features using a Canon 5D. He then imagines how the photos could be Frankensteined together with the notion that the composites should document an overall place rather than a facsimile of a specific structure. After figuring out the rough idea, Michaels begins the delicate work of sculpting the image. This includes adding signs of dirt and wear, correcting the perspective and angles, applying shadows, and adding imperfections you’d come to expect in a building.

“I wanted to make an image that was clearly fantasy but somehow functioned as a reliable index, like poetic documents of space,” Michaels says. “I imagine them being the possible result of putting Donald Judd, Gordon Matta Clark, Robert Smithson, the Bechers, and a Charles Jencks nightmare in a blender, and making a cupcake out of the batter.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.