From images whose colour palette reflects the glamour of the Kodachrome age, to integrating ‘giant’ women into cityscapes, award-winning retoucher Rainer Usselmann is a master craftsman. In the second of our series on the Art of Retouching, Usselmann tells us about collaborating with photographers, working with CG elements, and the coming disruptive technologies which may shape the direction of retouching
From sexy, charismatic fashion images for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar, to surreal and idea-driven ads for Traveler’s insurance and Clarks shoes, retoucher Rainer Usselmann’s work with photographers such as Norbert Schoerner and John Offenbach is an elegant choreography of color and tone. Usselmann trained as an advertising photographer in Germany and studied Photography in the UK at Bournemouth before taking an MA in History of Art. He has since collaborated with students, photographers, art directors and ad agencies worldwide on award-winning fine-art, editorial and commercial projects. He works with Happy Finish post production agency in London.
IMSO: How did you get into Retouching?
Rainer Usselmann: It seemed a good idea at the time. But seriously, as retouching is an ever more important extension of image making, it seemed only natural to learn my ropes in post-production after I finished my photographic apprenticeship.
IMSO: What are the three most important lessons you have learned in using image manipulation software?
1) Know your tools and keep on learning as they evolve
2) Never stop being diligent
3) Keep it real
IMSO: What’s your favourite piece of work (your own) and why?
Rainer Usselmann: I would probably opt for the Palm Springs Harper’s Bazaar story with Norbert Schoerner. Norbert is always an inspiration and great pleasure to work with and his images are everything a good fashion image needs to be: well choreographed, sexy, stylish, evocative and intensely cinematic. For this story I think we created a colour scheme which complements Norbert’s photography very well and ads a contemporary feel as well as fitting collection and location.
I think the images have so far aged well which is always a good sign. Often, after an intense period of project work, one needs to re-appraise again a bit later whether everything works as well as one thought it did at the time. An outstanding piece of work will stand the test of time. Fingers crossed that the Harper’s story will continue to please!
IMSO: In different ways, the work for Clarks and Harper’s Bazaar demand an acute sense of composition and scale. What were the challenges?
Rainer Usselmann: The challenge is always to translate creative issues into technical ones and then identify the best problem-solving approach. In the case of the Bazaar story we wanted to create a colour scheme which had echoes of the Kodachrome age – but with a modern twist – whilst keeping the fashion element reasonably true to colour. This and the required consistency between all 20 or so images necessitated a whole palette of colours and tones which worked across the board and not just on – say – two or so images.
On the Clarks project, the technical challenge was that we needed to make sure that the girl was photographed and graded in a way that would integrate her well with the cityscape. Working with a photographer like Norbert Schoerner is always a privilege though since his mastery of technique is complete- so replicating location lighting in the studio didn’t pose a problem. Norbert also looks at the process in a much more holistic manner than most in that he will involve all the key players at an early stage in shoot-production to make sure that everything is working for all elements to fall into their place. This isn’t usually always the case.
IMSO: How difficult is it hitting the right tonal notes? I’m thinking especially of your fashion work
Rainer Usselmann: Colour is of course intensely subjective – which makes discussing grading ideas and issues a very delicate process. For example, one person’s idea of ‘fresh’ may involve Cyan whereas another one’s may veer more towards Yellows. At any rate, retouchers don’t always get given complete freedom to explore possible grading solutions for a project. Quite often, due to commercial pressures, the clients’ brief would be very prescriptive. In my experience though, the best art directors, clients and photographers will always create the space for everyone to bring something special to the table. They appreciate that we may have ideas for grading which they haven’t explored and yet are open-minded to let you experiment.
IMSO: Could you tell us a little about the John Offenbach Traveler’s Insurance project?
Rainer Usselmann: The award-winning Travelers project with John Offenbach has been running and running with the same family of collaborators for some 5 years now – which in itself is highly unusual in the fast-paced ad world we operate in. Essentially, Travelers are one of the biggest insurers in the world and they constantly look for ways to sell particular, often very specialist, insurance products to the market. Hence there has been a pretty steady stream of ads which John and I get involved with. The gist of all Travelers ads is to highlight ‘risk’ in subtly humorous ways, create mildly calamitous situations which make you smile and – ideally, like all good ads – make you want to find out more about the cover available. The concepts usually vary from extremely challenging comps to relatively straight forward ‘all-in-camera’ scenarios.
On many occasions, restrictions to what can be shot on location on the day mean that what we receive to work with is not always what we planned to receive! Which is why, over the last 18 months, we have employed more and more CG for creating shot elements, often a more cost-effective and flexible solution than traditional model-making. Integrating CG elements into John’s trademark ‘pure’ photographic look poses it’s own challenges in that it always tends to be easier to make things look airbrushed and much harder to make them look photo-real.
Creating and maintaining the Travelers look is an on-going process which John and I enjoy very much, translating a certain sense of polaroid-hued, sub-urban innocence and humour into a palette of subtly warm and high-key tones.
IMSO: What new skill would you love to learn to improve your work?
Rainer Usselmann: I’m currently planning my first feature film grading project – lots to learn, so watch this space!
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?
Rainer Usselmann: First of all I think it is great that there should be a public dialogue about retouching. Unfortunately due to the various stake-holders involved, it is not very likely that we will be able to have an informed and open public debate about what CAN and what often IS done to images before they appear in the public domain. As a different sort of remedy I would suggest that visual literacy could play a much greater part in education curricula, thus empowering people, especially youngsters to see straight through when faced with the most improbable of consumerist perfection.
As to whether there will be a backlash against retouching, I doubt that this issue will ever become so serious as to change the way our industry works, but who knows? There will probably continue to be from time to time some high-profile cases which will attract attention before the issue then disappears again from view. In terms of my own work, I wouldn’t feel particularly threatened as I am not a proponent of the more heavily retouched school anyway.
IMSO: Where will this art/craft be in 10 years time? Gaze into the future, what will be the new tools and new challenges?
Rainer Usselmann: The then head of IBM in the 1940s famously predicted that there would only ever be a market for a dozen or so computers in the world… so I’m trying to refrain myself from making too sweeping predictions. However, a number of points:
1) In the short term, new disruptive camera technology such as retrospective depth of field could have an impact. The first cameras to hit the stores will be out within the next 12 months
2) The democratisation of traditional image retouching will continue (ever easier to use tools)
3) In the medium term there will be a considerable amount of convergence between stills and moving content
4) In the medium to long term, there will be a considerable amount of convergence between 3D and 2D image manipulation