Born in Germany in 1973, Christoph Bolten is a photographer who now runs Recom Farmhouse UK, a creative CGI and retouching house with offices in London, Berlin and Stuttgart, and also opening Recom Farmhouse New York, in 2012. The company serve a varied client-list including Volkswagen, Absolut and The Guardian, with images that stretch the imagination and our sense of what’s real. In a fascinating interview, full of great insight, this master of retouching believes, counter-intuitively, that every image needs mistakes!
IMSO: How did you become a retoucher and what are the three most important lessons you have learned in using image manipulation software?
Christoph Bolten: My background is in photography. I have worked and was trained as a photographer since I was 19 and I had the chance to assist a great variety of amazing photographers in all kind of fields. During those years I learned a lot of essential skills for a retoucher, but even more valuable once I started with CGI: lighting, camera lenses, depth of field, tonality of colours, reflections – the list could be endless.
It was whilst assisting that I had my first chance to professionally retouch images. I was working with Tim Simmons at the time and he asked me if I wanted to work in Photoshop with some of his portfolio work. I guess it worked out rather well as, after a few months, he offered me to also retouch his advertising campaigns. It was certainly a jump into the deep end, but I learned to swim well rather quickly that way.
During that period I also met Anton Corbijn and he offered me to set up a retouching suite for him. I remember I was spending all my time reading about colour management, fine art printing and scanning. At that time, since I was self-taught, I had a few rather idiosyncratic ways of doing things, but somehow I managed.
Three most important lessons I learned?
1) There is only a certain amount you can teach yourself, no matter how talented you think you might be. Only by working in a collective with some of the exceptional retouchers at Recom in Germany was I able to take it to the next level.
2) To reserve some time for just messing about – even with the simplest image you might discover a different, possibly more interesting way of getting a result and it’s dangerous to get stuck in your ways.
3) Every image needs mistakes! If you retouch out all mistakes (spots, pores, rubbish, weeds, scratches etc.) you also remove the soul of an image.
IMSO: Your company works across many European markets, and despite the global aspect image of imagery, there are tweaks in models, styling and messaging. Is this the case with retouching, do different audiences respond to different styling?
Christoph Bolten: Of course there are differences in style between different European markets and it becomes much more obvious when comparing it, for example, to the US market. A colour grade that might be considered completely normal in the UK might feel rather outlandish in the US for example. But bottom line I’d say that we are reaching a homogenization of taste across the western world and the difference in style from one brand to another is on average bigger than the overall difference between two countries.
IMSO: What’s your favourite piece of work (your own) and why?
Christoph Bolten: There are few projects that come to mind from the fire-balls in Australia to the landscape images in Iceland, but one retouch heavy project I really enjoyed, both in the process of making it and in the outcome, is the fireman series I did together with Holger Pooten for 125 Magazine.
After we brainstormed the project together, Holger shot the real model on location and we then spent a day in the studio of setbuilder Carmel Said, setting mannequins on fire. Since I’m a little obsessed with fire anyway, so it was a lot of fun although a five-meter high wall nearly collapsed on us. We kept putting mannequins on fire until we had enough flames to work with in post-production in order to retouch them onto the real model. I am still really pleased with the finished series after two years.
IMSO: There’s an ad you worked on for the VW Golf Cabriolet which has a mythic feel, the fresco, the golden light, almost religious! What kinds of retouching was involved, and how typical is that of car ads?
Christoph Bolten: I received a very beautiful cloud library from photographer Blinkk, one image for the backplate, about 25 images with lighting variations for the car (shot on a different location) and we rendered the headlights in Maya – so lots of elements which I had to clean-up and combine into an organic image that conveys a lot of emotions while still having the car as a hero. It certainly was a challenge, but Blinkk as well as Art Director Lisa Kirchner from Berlin are beautiful people to work with and most importantly open-minded.
IMSO: For work such as that for the Stuttgart Scorpions American Football team, was the work concepted with retouching in mind?
Christoph Bolten: Yes, but probably not to that extent. This project was partly commissioned by the Scorpions, but was also a portfolio project for Jean-Claude Winkler and we were given a lot of freedom during the post-production process. Our retoucher Davide Russo took the shots into an extremely filmic direction. The result feels like a beautiful mockery of Soviet Realism, something that wasn’t necessarily planned from the beginning.
IMSO: The pattern and contrast of the Nelson Mandela image you worked on with Anton Corbijn is spectacularly detailed, how did you handle it and work with Corbijn on the project?
Christoph Bolten: This image is around 7 years old and I didn’t have a studio yet, so I remember Anton was sitting on my bed next to the desk in my flatshare in Stamford Hill as there was no space for a second chair in my room. It was the first time we tried to create a lith-print effect in post – just as a mock-up as Anton still preferred to put the final image back out onto negative after retouching and then have a traditional lith-print done from that secondary negative. I studied the effect of lith-prints a lot beforehand in order to make sure the mock-up is as faithful to the real thing as possible. The patterns and details stand out so well because of the absence of 3/4 and midtones in a lith print. Although, I believe that Anton still might have ended up using the original negative, as he always preferred the beauty of chance mistakes happening during the traditional process over the predictability and control of digital retouching. It’s a trait I really admire about Anton, as it takes some guts to let go of control. It’s a gift that nowadays younger photographers don’t have as much, because they grew up with the control that digital photography offers.
IMSO: The emotional character of The Romanian Cup work comes from the feeling that it could have been drawn. Are there any different kinds skills you need to bring to this kind of work?
Christoph Bolten: The main challenge on this project was the tonality. Black and white images are much more sensitive when it comes to using curves and maintaining a high local contrast, so it took a lot of tweaking with curves and masks – quite similar to traditional dark room techniques really. Having spent many hours in the 90s reading Ansel Adams’ books and trying to achieve perfect black and white prints in the darkroom probably helped a fair bit on this project.
IMSO: Retouching and image manipulation is everywhere, and recently it’s been highlighted in the news when it’s gone wrong. Is there a danger of a backlash and how would that change your work?
Christoph Bolten: No not at all – I think this is a very healthy and important discussion. Retouching should be a creative tool – making a 45 year old woman look like 25 in order to sell that as the result of a skin creme is a completely different matter. In general I believe that most of today’s advertising images are over retouched and I always try to lead our clients towards a more natural approach to the image as I believe it will have a stronger emotional impact.
IMSO: What new skill would you love to learn to improve your work?
Christoph Bolten: I would love to learn Nuke and Mari as I believe there is a lot of potential there: ways of grading but also general workflow that goes beyond what Photoshop is capable of. But, they do have a completely different approach to image manipulation, so it will take time to master them.
IMSO: Where will this art/craft be in 10 years time? Gaze into the future, what will be the new tools and new challenges?
Christoph Bolten: Whilst the combination of still and moving images has been foreseen since many years, finally it has been the advent of tablet PCs that has given this combination a huge boost. So photographers will have to increasingly shoot moving footage and we will have to be able to grade and composite this footage too.
Photoshop will be probably replaced by “Please-Insert-Name-Here” as the main application for high-end retouching.
The retouching for CG images will move from 2d into 3d space as it has done so with moving images already and deep compositing will be common practice.