From Ordinary to Epic: The Fantasy Digital Photo Collage

Fantasy Parade Photomontage for Roy Z by digital artist Nancy Gershman

Pro and Con parade for OJ by digital artist Nancy Gershman

So you want to make an epic photo gift. Oddly enough, you can start with the most ordinary of photographs– say, of objects, buildings, people and pets. But first, you need the epic story. The answer will drive exactly the kind of landscape you’ll need, and all the elements you’ll need to populate it.

 The epic story is what gives your fantasy photo gift that really creative z-i-n-g. But where on earth do you find an artist who can help you combine all these photos into one picture? An artist you can talk to personally, instead of ticking off checkboxes on a shopping cart form?

Forget “artistic service companies” if you want an epic photomontage that makes everyone do a double take. Instead, find yourself a visual storyteller, schooled in digital photo manipulation, who specializes in nothing else but special order, digital  photo collages. In my studio Art For Your Sake I listen; I conceptualize; and then I wow you with ideas for an epic story.

The first step in making an epic collage is concocting a story that stars the person you’re giving the photomontage to. It’s about turning that family member or friend or sweetheart into a hero of epic proportions. But surprisingly, it can start with the most ordinary photos taken right from your hard drive and photo albums. They can also be photos you stage right at home with a digital camera. In fact, if you’re a smooth talker, your subject doesn’t even have to know that you’re posing them to fit right into their own photographic collage. The idea is to make this “Dreamscape” look like somebody just snapped the picture and everything in the picture was already there. Here’s how I do it.

What Pictures Work Best in a Fantasy Photomontage?

Take the case of Roy and his sister, Jenniesther. These siblings have been in a jesting feud about the OJ Simpson decision since 1995. Each thinks the other is totally wrong. Jenniesther has even gone so far as to dream up a special punishment for Roy if OJ’s ever proven guilty (he’ll be forced to eat chocolate). Roy, likewise, has his own punishment for Jenniesther if OJ’s ever proven innocent a second time around (she’s got to eat Flipper or some other exotic meat).


In Jenniesther’s words:

“I used to joke with Roy, about OJ being Roy’s hero. For 15 years Roy’s been obsessed by OJ’s innocence. He followed the trial religiously. He’s convinced that OJ is set up. I believe OJ is guilty as sin.”

Roy looking business like

So all Roy and I had in the beginning was this kernel of an idea: to make his sister a one of a kind birthday gift in the form of a roast about OJ. The way we started thinking about this photo collage creation was to imagine it as a play, with real props, players and good scene design. Creating the players came first, with Roy posing for somebody while his kids snapped his picture.


Jenniesther with her dogs

Next came Roy posing his sister and her dogs and then snapping her picture -without Jenniesther ever knowing what it really was for.How Do You Create Wishful Reality?

Props came second. The photo collage illusion for this Legal Battle would involve two opposing armies, one pro-OJ and one anti-OJ. The prop list included:

    • A pro-OJ button on Roy’s lapel
    • Under Roy’s arm, a lawyer’s briefcase stuffed with briefs
    • Behind Roy an army of pro-OJ demonstrators with identical placards depicting a smiling OJ
    • Roy’s own son and daughter waving pro-OJ signs they made themselves
    • Jenniesther wearing an anti-OJ T-shirt
    • Next to Jenniesther, one dog chewing up a pro-OJ placard
    • Behind Jenniesther, two anti-OJ placards made out of a Newsweek cover
    • A giant Hershey bar ready for Roy to eat when he loses, and
    • The courthouse from The Back to the Future movie set sitting in the background to set the scene

In fact, that courthouse was one of the most intriguing props in our epic collage.  Jenniesther later told me:

“I knew I’d seen that courthouse before, but couldn’t figure out from where. It was killing me; it looked so familiar!!”

In the end, all Roy had to provide me, the photo collage artist, were 4 photos: one of himself, one of his kids, one of his sister, and another close up of the dogs on a tight leash! The rest of the illusion would be supplied by me.


Is An Artistic Photomontage Affordable?

Absolutely. A fine art digital masterpiece is affordable but only if you know the secret to keeping the costs low. If your digital artist charges by the image as I do, the trick is providing me with photos taken all around the same time, in the same lighting conditions. This greatly speeds up the process of doing color corrections.

You also want a digital artist that doesn’t charge you full price for cloned images (i.e., one image repeatedly used in the artwork, such as the pro-OJ placards). In my studio,  clones are part of the basic charge.

Not All High Quality Photomontages are Epic

Can an online photo printing service come up with a conceptual idea like this? Would they spend time finding you the exact kind of historical photos you need for your concept, without charging you an arm and a leg? Would they automatically take it upon themselves to restore, retouch or augment your photos if the photos needed it, without charging you extra? Not likely. Would an online photo service company slip in a stock photo background behind Subject #1 and Subject #2. Happily.

But for a high quality photomontage to be epic, you need a Storyteller, Photo Curator, Photoshop Expert and Art Director all rolled into one. That’s because an epic collage is really about good storytelling. The more convincing the reality, the more likely the person on the receiving end is going to feel like Jenniesther did:

“I was thunderstruck. I stared at it. And stared it. I could see all these different scenes blended into one. What a creation! I couldn’t believe somebody could create a story about us.”

Let me dream up an epic photomontage for someone you love.

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