Rick Wahlstrom was a one-man Photoshop years before Adobe was founded. His reality blurring photography and retouching has been pushing the boundaries of the possible since the 1970s, from acetate to digital art.

Rick’s work in the commercial advertising space has won him numerous awards as a photographer and retoucher, including the Clio, ADDY, Epoch Center, Px3 (Prix de la Photographie, Paris), and many more.

Rick is currently freelancing as a senior digital retoucher for Restoration Hardware, while also accepting other assignments on a limited basis. You can connect with Rick on LinkedIn and view his portfolio at wahlstromphoto.com.

Rick lent us his unique perspective on the evolution of conceptual photography and digital art in this retrospective interview conducted in October, 2016.

Corona beer overlaid on island with greenery shaped like basketball

Corona advertisement by Richard Wahlstrom Photography in the 2000s.

How did you get started in photography and advertising?

I was in a Pre-Med program in college and had a personality conflict with a graduate professor at the time. This resulted in my decision to take a quarter off.

I didn’t want to simply take some job to pass the time, so with my interest in photography, I applied to The Chicago Academy of Fine Art. I was accepted, I stayed, and before my last year graduate program, I looked for an assistant’s job and found one. The assistant position then turned into a photographer’s position.

Chicago was my true learning experience. The company I worked for did some advertising work, magazine covers, food packaging, but the bulk of the work came from photographing Gulf Oil credit card advertising inserts. This gave me the opportunity to learn how to shoot practically everything.

After the five year learning process, I decided on California. I liquidated my belongings, found a Cadillac Eldorado that needed to be driven to California, and I was off. Once in San Francisco, I had no choice other than setting up a studio. One contact led to another in the Advertising agencies and before I knew it, business was good.

1980s pre-computer composite ad for Christian Brothers Brandy, with bottles as skyscrapers and man leaning against bottle

Christian Brothers Brandy composite image by Rick Wahlstrom in the 1980s, pre-computer.

What led you to transition into digital retouching?

Prior to Photoshop, my studio specialized in special effect imagery that was created with a pin registration system in front of the camera. Final images were created by combining multiple photos mounted on acetate. All unwanted areas of the photos were masked out, and one by one the isolated images were exposed onto 8x10 film.

All unwanted areas of the photos were masked out, and one by one the isolated images were exposed onto 8x10 film.

With the advent of the computer and Photoshop, that process became obsolete. I had no choice but to learn Photoshop. With all the experience I got compositing images over the years, retouching was a natural place to explore. One of my connections needed some help in his retouching department and brought me in for a few weeks. I stayed.

1980s pre-computer composite image, woman with hair thrown back and time lapse light streaks

Richard Wahlstrom composite image from 1980s, pre-computer.

Who were your influences?

Jerry Uelsmann, Phil Marco and Salvador Dali.

Where do you find inspiration?

In the past, when I was getting layouts from all across the country, the ones with the toughest problems to solve always interested me the most. My mind started solving every aspect of the image, considering the solutions and allowing the evolutionary process to happen.

But now, being mainly in retouching, my inspiration still comes from the problems presented, the complexity of the composite to transform a surrealistic image into reality. Or on a more casual note, running across a scene on one of my motorcycle trips that I feel I can alter and make more interesting.

Woman in black leather jacket and skirt wearing shades leaning against binocular meters, with UFO flying through sky

Digital cameras and Photoshop opened a bold new world for photography and retouching, as in this image from the 2000s.

Would you say you have a specialty?

I used to say “special effects,” but with the digital camera and Photoshop, special effects are now a common occurrence. I ended with the Vapor series which I happened upon on a location shoot in L.A. and spent almost a year creating the images. Then another photographer friend asked if I used the smoke filters to make the shots. I was completely surprised by the fact that a filter set was out there and also by the lack of his vision to see the difference.

I guess now it would be retouching.

I see you’ve won a Clio and a Px3. Awesome. Has any award been particularly meaningful to you?

The Clio was the biggest surprise and the most fun; the two Epoch Center awards were also exciting. The Px3 award in Paris started me on a personal path with the “vapor” series which in turn steered me away from commercial photography and into other ventures which finally landed me in retouching.

Vapor series from 2000s by Richard Wahlstrom Photography.

What type of work do you do for Restoration Hardware?

I basically construct and retouch a lot the catalog images with a very capable team of retouchers.

We receive the images from the photo studio, usually comped together with low-res files, and we create the final image with a number of the high-res exposures. Since final decisions on product and configuration are not made until all possibilities are shot, the photographers will set up the room sets in a progressive manner: starting with an empty room, placing product on the right, product left, and a complete set when possible. Then after much deliberation, the final low-res comps are given to us for digital construction.

What tools (equipment, software) do you use the most?

Fully loaded Mac Pro, Wacom Tablet, NEC monitors, Photoshop, Bridge, InDesign, and Capture One.

Favorite camera of all time? Favorite camera right now?

When doing commercial photography, the Sinar 8x10 was the best but the Hasselblad H1D was the last professional camera I bought, and it was a great all around commercial camera. Plus, the minute I put it in my hands, I had to buy it -- it was instantly a favorite.

Martini glass with olive branch curled around it

Richard Wahlstrom image from the 2000s

What’s your biggest time saver?

The digital camera. The first time I set up a shoot in the studio with my new Hasselblad H1D, my assistant and I started the usual setup the day before to get everything correct so we looked totally professional when the Agency showed up. The usual day-long process of testing the lighting and the film exposures ended at 10:30 a.m. after an hour and a half of set up. I looked at my assistant and gave him the rest of the day off.

The mystery of photography was starting to fade at that point.

What’s your workflow like for a concept piece, as opposed to traditional product photography?

I never really did traditional photography. There was always a twist, a composite, and a real but surreal quality about them.

The closest I came to product photography was when an Agency needed an inset shot of the product to go with the main spread. Needless to say, the workflow was considerably less intense for the traditional product image. You simply needed to come up with a beautiful background and light the product until it became a thing of beauty.

The concept images were more intense, starting with studying the layout and devising solutions. Once the initial solution was selected, location scouts sent out, prop stylists contacted and directed to necessary items or wardrobe, model comps compiled, sent and decided on.

Production starts with the initial direction as a guide and then evolves from there. I always enjoyed having it figured out, only to change direction when it became necessary. I found one must always be open to change.

1990s photoshopped ad featuring overhead view of planes and trucks pointed to a circular center

Image by Richard Wahlstrom in the 1990s, with computer.

How do you see the relationship between production and post? As in, what do you think should happen in front of the camera, and what in Photoshop?

There are nuances to an image that cannot be retouched, only enhanced.

I always and still do think that you need to accomplish as much as possible, on set, in the camera with the best lighting. There are nuances to an image that cannot be retouched, only enhanced.

Whether the shot is a combination of many images or a single capture, all have to be treated as the star attraction, so when they are placed the image is consistent. I have heard in the past, and even now, too many Stylists and Art Directors say, “It’s fine, they can fix it in post.”

If it can be fixed on set, in front of the camera, before the capture, do it. Too often, Photoshop becomes a vacuum cleaner for a lazy stylist and people do not realize the time it takes to do it right.

Are there any common misconceptions about what you do?

I used to be asked if I did weddings, that always started an interesting conversation.

The two most interesting misconceptions about my images were that they were real and not composited. This may be due to the fact I started before the computer and Photoshop came along.

They simply did not believe that the image was created and an elephant was not, in fact, riding a bike.

Composite image of elephant riding a bike

Composite image by Rick Wahlstrom for Hewlett Packard, with computer in 1990s.

The best misconception stemmed from an ad I did for Hewlett Packard. They wanted an elephant riding a bicycle. Seemed like fun, and it was. My assistant and I went to Marine World and set up a shoot with the elephant trainer. When the shows were done, I was able to get in the ring with the elephant and the trainer would get the elephant in all the positions that I figured out I would need prior to the shoot.

Needless to say the image worked out beautifully. So well, in fact, that there were a number of cards and letters sent to HP denouncing them for cruelty to animals. Most letters could not condone forcing an elephant to ride a bicycle, a female elephant not a male, an African elephant not an Indian. They simply did not believe that the image was created and an elephant was not, in fact, riding a bike. It forced HP to have an animal rights activist on set when I did the follow-up ad.

There was another related misconception where some Agency people wanted a bull to sit on a barstool between two ladies for a beer ad. They were concerned about how to get the bull on the stool, and I assured them that I had already researched the problem and came up with a wrangler that could get the bull in some positions that I could then make seem like it was on a stool.

I then mentioned that they would not believe the amount of stupid people that thought I actually got an elephant on a bike, and the conference call suddenly went silent. I broke the silence asking, “Did I just call someone stupid?” It was an awkward but amusing moment.

Overhead view of man casting shadow filled with his DNA sequence on rough red ground

The 1990s brought computing into the world of retouching.

How much do you collaborate with the client on concept? Do you have a lot of check-ins with stakeholders on the way?

With the client being the Art Director or Creative Director, I always collaborated as much as possible and agreed on as much as possible. I felt you had to listen to what they wanted and do your best to give it to them, but with your own interpretation. In the heat of discussion, I once said to an Art Director, “Do you want it your way or the right way?” I realized what I said a second too late. Luckily we had a history together, so a few words were exchanged and we moved on.

How much of the “original” image remains when you’re done?

When I first got into advertising photography, the Agency would give you “marker comps” (comps drawn with colored markers) and there was plenty of room for you to interpret what the final image should be: that was why you were hired, for your vision. The final image was mostly true to the original concept, but the photographer gave it life, and -- with the Art Director -- changed what they felt needed changing.

Now with computer comps which are compiled of ripped images off the internet, and subjected to much review by the client, the room for play in my mind is narrow. Clients want to pay for what they saw in front of them, not a surprise.

Perkin Elmer Wafers ad from 1980s, pre-computer

Composite image by Richard Wahlstrom Photography in the 1980s, pre-computer.

How has your work changed over these past 40 years?

That’s an interesting question. Has my style changed, has my method changed, or has my work changed my style?

I always felt up until the mid 2000s that I always needed to reinvent my so-called look or keep up with the technology and be on the bleeding edge. In regards to my work being my final output or image, I don’t think I have changed all that much.

Hourglass spilling blue clouds and water into bottom half, creating lightning storm that cracks glass

Modern tools like Photoshop expanded image possibilities dramatically.

Maybe a bit more subdued, no longer in the soft look and colors not as epic as before. Images have been visually simplified, but still can be the creation of multiple complex composites. I always enjoy a surrealistic reality.

I always enjoy a surrealistic reality.

What were people asking for in the ‘80s, and how does that compare to now?

The ‘80s was a period of massive experimentation with a lot of excitement. Agencies were open to many new things and allowed you to have fun with it. People didn’t know what they wanted, as long as it was exciting and new, but that too got redundant.

Tasteless images were being produced by people who didn’t understand the “Special Effect” concept. The mid ‘80s, grids and outer space started being everywhere. I remember telling my assistant, “If i do another grid, I'll die!" Well, I must admit, I did a few after that.

The ‘90s started the digital age. Computers and Photoshop had a profound effect, and as with the ‘80s, images of all levels were flooding the markets. Once again, a new look and technology was in an infant stage and needed to mature.

1980s style grid art with computer at center of a room and lasers projecting map of the world on wall

Grid image by Richard Wahlstrom Photography in the 1980s

Grid and space images were all the rage for a time in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

What is the difference between a project where you walk away feeling great, and one where you feel like external factors didn’t let you produce to the best of your ability?

Elation or emptiness and defeat. Luckily, I have experienced the emptiness and defeat far far less than the elation.

Having one’s hands tied by the client, not the Agency, was always a blueprint for disaster. This started slowly with the advent of computer comps and clients asking why they needed to pay for a photographer when the comp, in their mind, was fine.

You seem to be selective when it comes to you the projects you take on. What do you look for in an assignment? In a client?

I’m not and wasn’t that selective. Most of the time I receive some pretty good layouts, and I just try to do my best and have the most fun possible doing whatever project is presented.

One time I did refuse to do a national beer ad that consisted of a number of oversized iced-over bottles of beer with scantily clad females straddling the bottles. I just found that offensive. I truly enjoyed telling the Agency, ”No thanks.”

Where do you see art for advertising headed in the future?

Innovation has always been the key. Before I started in photography, the lighting was harsh and full of contrast. Then the bank light appeared and softened the look. The “Hosemaster” followed and started a short lived craze. “Photoshop” and “CGI” now is the predominant look with very few visual surprises.

Not knowing where advertising will go makes it that much more interesting.

But as with the past, this era will end and the new technologies that fuel these trends will mature and a new artistry will evolve. Not knowing where advertising will go makes it that much more interesting.