“My images offer a kind of escape from everyday life–a departure into a fantasy world,” the photographer and digital artist Dirk Wüstenhagen tells me. Up In Smoke, created in the fall of 2020, wasn’t directly inspired by the pandemic, but he admits that perhaps the mini-series does speak, in some ways, to the collective longing for freedom and adventure we all felt after months of travel restrictions.
In each of the four images in the series, a solitary figure explores an otherwise ordinary world, while his mind turns to the fantastical, as illustrated by the starry plumes of smoke emerging from his head like interstellar clouds. A year after the Event Horizon Telescope made astronomy history by capturing the first-ever photograph of an “unseeable” black hole, Wüstenhagen invited us to explore the unseen contours of the human imagination.
We asked the artist (featured previously) to walk us through his process.
The Essential gear of Dirk Wüstenhagen
Wüstenhagen tells us,
“All the landscapes were shot a few years ago with my Canon EOS 760D and Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5 lens. The models were shot with the same camera and the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. All the RAW files are first edited in Lightroom and then exported as psd-files into Photoshop (PS). Within PS, I used selection tools, a variety of brushes, color effects, and the usual adjustments to create the final images.”
Phoblographer: You first embarked on your journey as a lens-based artist when you started using Photoshop to develop your style and sensibility. Do you consider yourself a photographer or digital artist? How do you define your practice?
Dirk Wüstenhagen: I tend to say that I am both. I love going out shooting photos and capturing nature, landscapes, and people. That’s something I really enjoy. I also dedicate a lot of time to digital art. For me, it is a wonderful way to be more creative and realize my ideas.
Phoblographer: How and when did the idea for Up In Smoke
Dirk Wüstenhagen: Looking back, I am actually not sure what initially drove me to create these images. I remember that I wanted to make something in the realm of digital double exposures. The main idea was to have something coming off of a guy’s head, representing something radically different from his actual surroundings. I liked the idea of introducing something colorful to contrast with these dull, monochrome landscapes. Thematically, I found it intriguing to combine an everyday scene with something very abstract and remote, like the galaxies and stellar nebulae that I finally used.
Phoblographer: Can you walk me through the process of creating these images? What was done in-camera?
Dirk Wüstenhagen: When I have a rough idea of what I want to create, I start searching for suitable images. In the case of these images, I looked for rather normal, dull, misty landscapes. In three cases, those landscapes were taken from my archives, though for the image Daydreamer, I only used a cut out of a model I shot and created the background from scratch.
All the other lone figures are self-portraits, but the character is meant to represent anyone, as I prefer to leave the interpretation up to the viewer. The smoke plumes are clouds or actual smoke I shot over the last year. I had created Photoshop brushes of some of these and used these extensively for the creation of the smoke plumes in these images.
Phoblographer: Did you shoot the original pictures knowing roughly what you would create with them, or did you hold onto them for a while and dream up the final result later down the road?
Dirk Wüstenhagen: I usually don’t go out with the intention of searching for suitable scenes for specific projects. Only in cases where I absolutely can’t find anything do I shoot something new and tailor-made for a project. Usually, I have an idea first, and then I search for suitable images in my existing archives. When I am out shooting, I find places that I know I can use later in many contexts. That was the case here. The backgrounds I used were created in my neighborhood. There is a small forest and park where I often take a stroll to relax, and I feel quite at home there.
Phoblographer: What steps were involved in post-production? What did that process look like?
Dirk Wüstenhagen: The images were created over the span of three days, and you can see the process layer-by-layer in the video above. I didn’t create any of these in just one go. I guess I started with one and stopped when I hit a problem, returning to it later. The smoke was a challenge because it was quite difficult to get the colors right. There is often a lot of trial and error involved. When I got stuck, I was able to take a break for a while and focus on other stuff before I started anew and found a satisfying solution.
Phoblographer: How did you create these starburst effects?
Dirk Wüstenhagen: After I created the smoke from the brushes I made, I added stars, dust, light, and color effects, referring to available images from NASA/ESA as inspiration. I must admit that these images are fascinating. I love to watch programs dealing with astronomy and learn about the origins of the universe, black holes, and our Solar System.
Phoblographer: You’ve discussed the role of solitude in your work in the past. You made these images during the pandemic, is that right? Did the isolation of this time influence the creation of this work in any way?
Dirk Wüstenhagen: By the time I made these images in September of 2020, the situation regarding COVID wasn’t that strict in Germany. You only had to isolate if infected. So the pandemic had no direct influence, but, of course, it was also something that one couldn’t ignore, so there might be some residual impact after all.