Reinventing the past:

an interview with digital art photographer Lou Oates.

by Simon Maxwell.

From my limited but enjoyable exchanges with featured Pixiport artist Lou Oates, I have discovered that photography is truly experiencing a renaissance. Lou is proof of that. I would consider myself lucky to go on approaching my photography with the same degree of passion and involvement that he clearly enjoys, having apparently retired five years ago! Lou has wholeheartedly embraced the new digital technology available to photographers and is now applying it in exciting, thought-provoking ways.

While his website HYPERLINK "" is alive with all sorts of images, both colour and black and white, his Pixiport gallery represents his latest work, some very original photo-montages or “digital composites” to use his term, which need to be seen! In fact, they defy description – so why not visit Lou’s gallery, then read the interview and, as I did, enjoy getting a little closer to the originator of this very interesting material, a master-puppeteer of the surreal and a very entertaining man to learn from.
SIMON: Lou, you describe yourself as having returned to photography on your so-called retirement in 1999. How have the past five years panned out and are you approaching photography any differently than in previous years?

LOU: I got back into photography after I sold my last business about six years ago. I attended a local camera club meeting hoping to find some used darkroom equipment. I had my own darkroom until 1972, the last time I was active in shooting. The guys (many around my age) in the club looked at me like I was crazy. They had all gone digital years previously after taking Photoshop courses at the local college. Since I was fairly computer literate I ended up taking the same track. And no more hypo smell!

A year later when I began to spend a lot of time in Arizona, I took some landscape photography courses at ASU with Mark Klett plus some digital imaging courses there with Stephen Marc. All this time I was shooting every day and spending many hours at the computer.

In the last six years my work has changed dramatically, from your basic scenery shots where location was the driving force (all the "tripod holes", cliche AZ locations) to making due with ideas that come from everyday situations. Much of this change was due to seeing many more good photographers and their work. Seeing how they approached various topics helped me a lot. I saw that some otherwise mundane subjects came alive with the right ideas. Those scenic destinations had much less allure to me and I began to really look at things much closer to home. Even at shot-to-death locations I liked to think I saw something different.
SIMON: Is photography an enjoyable pastime or something that you are almost driven to doing?

LOU: Definitely driven. Almost like needing a fix. If a day goes by without a decent image to work with I can't stand it. I'll go back and rework an old image in a new way. Or simply jump in my car and go somewhere, anywhere where an image may be lurking.
SIMON: You mentioned amusingly on your site that in response to your "traditional-photography friends who look upon the digital process as unworthy of serious artistic consideration", you "now view film as an undesirable coating on one's teeth"! As one who has clearly persevered with and mastered the art of silver-based photography, was it a difficult decision to move into digital? At what point were you able to say that digital met your criteria for it to be considered a serious technical and possibly artistic tool?

LOU: For the first few years I shot only film, with 35mm, then Pentax 6x7 medium format, scanned for Photoshop. In 2001 I decided that the Minolta Dimage with its 6mb format could serve me better and reduce the frustration of scanning film that had consistently been butchered by the film processing services. I finally got fed up with the dust and scratches with the attendant hours of touchup time in Photoshop and sold all my film cameras and lenses on Ebay. Now it's the Canon D1s, raw format, all the way!

That was also a huge turning point in the quantity and quality of my work. Besides the much "cleaner" work flow, I found that shooting digital allowed me to experiment much more. For the first time I "knew" that I could accomplish capturing the image that the situation presented. I joked about film being something on one's teeth but I honestly can't come up with a reason to go back.
SIMON: Do you have a preference for black and white atall? Do some subjects seem to merit it or do you shoot in colour and then convert it to mono if that feels like the way to go?

LOU: I sometimes pre-ordain one way or the other. When I started working with the Copper Basin RR for example, it was always with the black and white idea, as it was in some of the shots in my "favorite black and white" pages on my web site, especially the motel room ones. On the composite shots I often find that the black and white also work really well but that color in this case is the real payoff. Several other digital artists use black and white composites and they are fantastic, but for me the color composites have always been what I eventually present. In many cases I might visualize in color but later change to black and white when I start working with the image. It just feels better in black and white. I love the freedom of digital to bounce back and forth from color to black and white and to less or more saturation/balance of color. To me it's a much more arty feeling to be able to change the image as the mood dictates.
SIMON: Your website includes a fascinating and broad selection of genres and self-initiated projects. I have to say this but the series of images that you are exhibiting on Pixiport seem markedly different from your more representative work. You've clearly taken the digital technology to a new level of expression in these pictures. Where do you look now for photographic inspiration?

LOU: I love taking images way out there in my imagination. So much is gained in storytelling like this. An example is the "Cousin Sadie Tried To Enlist" composite. All it was at the beginning was a girl around the middle/late 1800’s, posing with a prayer book for a First Communion or Confirmation portrait. After I colorized the girl I put in, among other things, the Confederate Battle Flag, the musket and those cute designer hand grenades (some kind of designer fragrance bottle I found on the web) and the Confederate States of America CSA belt emblem. The prayer book became "War for Ladies". I'm sure some gal like this existed somewhere in my family tree.

All fantasy to be sure. But great fun.

SIMON: What brought this about this shift in direction towards the composites?

LOU: The whole composite images thing started with Stephen Marc in his digital imaging class at ASU. I thought, what a great way to salvage those lousy images hogging space on my hard drive! Hard drive farming I call it. Sometimes a tomato sometimes a rotten squash. Later I realized that here was a whole other universe in images - a world where reality can be bent to suit my whims. Lately I'm trying for more subtle results that require a bit more study. “Bobby Asked About Darwin” hits you between the eyes. Sadie seduces you with realism at first before the "Oh, I get it". I like that.

SIMON: I am intrigued by the rather surreal imagery, and the question-begging titles of the composites; it's like watching a single tableau held for a moment by actors on a stage, and then being left to imagine what the play is about. This may be rather private territory, and perhaps the challenge for us viewers is to "fill in the blanks" and invent our own possible narratives around the subject, but would you like to give us some clues as to the ideas behind the images? 

LOU: I like your description about leaving viewers to "fill in the blanks". My clues are in the titles. Let the viewer take it from there. Sadie is my favorite composite so far. I've had all kinds of response from people when they see these composites. Much more so than the more "straight" images. I guess I really like the feedback and the involvement folks have in the images. I also like to think that these long gone folks would enjoy seeing themselves in the little stories. A touch of immortality perhaps?

SIMON: It seems that much of your work is about turning our preconceptions of reality upside down; wittily but deliberately subversive juxtapositions of human and animal imagery and other amusing devices that remind me of the playful (but nevertheless serious) strategy of the Surrealists. Are you playing with our minds too? And, if so, to what purpose?

LOU: No, I'm not trying to play with anyone's mind other than having them discover some playful meanings inherent with each composite. What this series will end up being is maybe 24 images along the lines of "Our Family Album, Black Sheep Edition". I hope that folks will relate to their own family's quirks. As an example, the composite "Aunt Adele Collected Sheriffs", prompted one buyer to request the hand written caption to read "Suzy Followed The Law". It seems her sister had dated only police officers and she wanted the picture for a gift. Of course I made the change for her. Money is money.

SIMON: On a more formal level, I particularly like the way you frame your images into tableaux; at first sight they seem to be historic hand tinted photographs or daguerreotypes which came in their own ornate mounts. It's as though your images are marrying up the formal poses and structured compositions of turn of the century studio portraiture with the creative montage possibilities of digital; how much homage are you actually paying to the past in your work? Are there any sources of early photographic imagery that appeal to you?

LOU: The old paper frames I find in antique malls or on the web. I usually throw the pictures away and edit out the studio name. I will probably keep this frame idea for a while.
The great thing about those period portraits are the poses. That alone "sells" the intent. So stodgy. So Three Stooges hits the socialite with a pie. So much easier is the contrast to my ridiculous additions. And they are instantly real to the first glance. And because of the costumes, backdrops, authentic frames, and other props that can be manipulated to otherworldly effects, fooling the eye is possible for just a little longer than if using a more modern portrait as a starting point.


SIMON: There is a feeling that in your digital composite work you have a created a world with its own strange inhabitants; where do you look for material and ideas now that your work does not have to limit itself to so-called reality? Are there any artists' work that you find your own images resonating with?

LOU: I love Maggie Taylor and her use of bits of old photos. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a digital workshop in Santa Fe NM last May and hear her motivations and methods. Her work is truly surreal. And fun! Mine nibbles around those same edges. I dislike the "oh so serious" tone of featured photographers in many of the current photography magazines. So much is simply ugly for ugly sake.

SIMON: As you describe your work, I do pick up the feeling that you are indeed having fun - and why not! There is an underlying wit going on in many of the images. Even pictures like "Uncle Joe Took Up With The Wrong Woman" contain a darkly humorous edge. Would you consider yourself a comic artist, and do you think that comedy can actually be a quite a powerful tool because it is deceptively light but makes a serious point in a roundabout way?

LOU: I don't consider myself a comic artist because that would imply that the comedy is the end point. It also sounds crass. It is more like your description of using it as a tool to reinforce some other point. Try to analyze a joke. I can't. Sometimes funny is just funny. Uncle Joe is simply illustrating that family member everyone has that chose a mate unwisely. Just carried to a ridiculous length. To me that's humorous. So maybe I am a comic artist after all. Have I come full circle? My brain is freezing up. I just hope that the humor I inject doesn't just come off as odd. Maybe that's the test.
Also you must understand that I occasionally wrote one liners for comics. Phillis Diller and Joan Rivers have bought my work. Maybe some of these composites are really one liners at heart.

SIMON: It also feels very much that you are presiding, magus-like, over a puppet theatre, pulling the strings as it were of the characters in your tableaux. Would it be fair to say that the advent of digital has made such photomontage work a real possibility now?

LOU: There certainly is a feeling of power over those people I choose. I hope it's a benevolent dictatorship as I'm not that controlling in real life. In my work flow I first study the person's portrait. The person then seems to suggest an approach. Maybe it's their resemblance to others I have known. Maybe it's the props. Maybe it's the background. Maybe it's the booze. Just kidding - I don't drink. In any event, ideas pop out of the portrait, like strings in your puppet analogy and I gather them up.
I can't even imagine this process in the darkroom world. Digital has certainly made much more possible in this area of control. For the first time you have total control over every pixel. There is simply no darkroom technician alive or dead that ever had that power. You can even change facial expressions. It is much like painting in that there are an unlimited number of options for every picture.

SIMON: Yes, digital does seem to present hundreds more possible options for a shot; I imagine you regard that as an exciting rather than an overwhelming prospect.

LOU: Because of the quick turnaround between image capture and final print I find that I can accomplish much much more. Those fleeting bursts of intuition we all have while in the field can be instantly indulged in a finished product. I'd guess that I shoot five to ten times more than with film. That's not just more of the same; bracketing and "insurance" shots. I'm talking about shooting the same scene dozens of ways. I'm amazed at how many times those last few "what the hell" shots are the keepers.

The quick turnaround also keeps me fresh. Did I get it? Yes or no. I know now. Then I move on.

I recently had a lively discussion with an excellent photographer who disdains digital because of the fast turnaround. He argued that he needed the time between shooting and printing to fully digest the image. I believe that this reinforces the digital advantage because it is so much simpler to revisit and rework the image.

SIMON: Given the growing potential of digital, should we perhaps be considering a new definition of photography, as more a way of constructing surreality rather than simply recording reality. Is photography being challenged to become a more imaginative art form?"

LOU: I do think that photography is challenged to become a more imaginative art form. Or more specifically, the galleries and other sales venues are the challenged ones. So many are afraid to venture into the digital based non-traditional realm. High school and college photography teachers are possibly the worst obstacles. Instead of embracing the "vision" of photography right in Photography 101, they drag students back into the Dark Ages in the school's darkroom. How much better to teach the creative vision first?

SIMON: Finally, thanks very much for talking about your clearly creative vision; can you give us a hint of where your photographic journey may take you (and us!) in the future?

LOU: Composites are where the excitement is for me. I still love to do the traditional work that's digital but doesn't show the digital aspects. But people are more drawn to my digitally transparent work. That's very satisfying. And it has begun to SELL. So the IRS is satisfied as well.


One wonders whether in years to come there will be imitators of Lou’s style of imagery, who seek out historic images of you and I to reassemble into new and unlikely forms; will we enjoy the immortality he speaks of and find ourselves cast in strange new scenarios? It’s a weird thought, but, like Lou’s characters, I imagine I would enjoy seeing my image being incorporated into such a creation! Lou’s art is important because it sheds light on the experiences of life, at times by metaphorical means, at others via satire. One is aware though that there is a genuine warmth to the way he records these little stories or slices of life with which we can all perhaps identify. He may well enjoy the power that comes with the director’s chair, but you get the feeling that he also loves his actors.