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Photoshop Collages of the Los Angeles River

By Alyssa Coppelman

For her series Sublime: The L.A. River, photographer Elena Dorfman has conjured lush and glistening landscape photographs from an unlikely subject: the often dried-out cement conduit that is the Los Angeles River.

From 2013 to 2015, Dorfman shot approximately 20,000 photos along the entire length of the river, during every season and in varied lighting conditions. To make each final image, Dorfman used 50 to 350 of her own images; she also incorporated the occasional archival photo. While the final constructions look like they could be found along the river’s 51-mile length, most are in reality complete fabrications that she composited in Adobe Photoshop

Explaining her process, Dorfman says, “Considering the number of images I was working with, I needed to be highly organized, so the ability to group my layers was extremely important and helpful. I used blending modes and masks constantly, which allowed the highest level of control over every element of each picture. I could not have achieved the sophistication of these collages without Photoshop.“

The first image above is Sublime: The L.A. River 1 in its entirety; the second image is a detail of the same piece.

“The technique of collaging allows me to compress space and time and the reordering of events as I’ve observed them,” she adds. “The painstaking process of conceptualizing and working out each image is demanding both creatively and intellectually, and I like that. I also like that the layering process offers depth and dimensionality akin to how the human eye actually perceives information, making it a richer visual experience for the viewer.”

For the uninitiated, the 52-mile-long L.A. River is not exactly a lush wonder of nature. It officially became a river in 1825, when a flood caused a dam to burst and what was previously swampland finally flowed into the sea. Despite disastrous flooding in 1938 that led to all but a few areas being paved over to help control water flow, water levels are usually low to nonexistent. The river runs from the San Fernando Valley, through downtown Los Angeles, and finally reaches the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. The most desolate sections will look familiar because of the many movies filmed there, perhaps most memorably the drag race in Grease.

This image is Elena Dorfman's Sublime: The L.A. River 2

Sublime: The L.A. River 2

With Sublime: The L.A. River, Dorfman references the landscape traditions of the Hudson River School of painters. No casual observer would equate the romantic works of that movement with the L.A. River, but, coincidentally, both were born in 1825.

Describing one of her references, Dorfman says, “While collaging the landscapes I often looked at the work of Thomas Cole, specifically his six-part series entitled The Course of Empire, which chronicled the rise and fall of an imaginary city and serves as an allegory for the cyclical progression of a civilization from a state of barbarism through advanced social and cultural development, and eventual descent into ruin. Cole’s paintings often mimicked what I experienced in my wanderings along the fifty-two miles of the L.A. River.”

This image by Elena Dorfman is entitled

Sublime: The L.A. River 3

This image by Elena Dorfman is entitled

Sublime: The L.A. River 5

Sublime: The L.A. River opened November 19 at Robischon Gallery in Denver and will be on view through the end of 2015. The work will also be on view in January 2016 at Modernism in San Francisco.