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Animal Instincts

By Alyssa Coppelman

The magical constructs of Carol Erb’s series Animal Intensions (not a misspelling) channel elements of fairy tales and the wild kingdom to communicate something deeper about the relationships between humans and wild animals.

Erb, whose work I saw at Filter Photo Festival portfolio reviews in September, started out as a painter but became hooked by photography after attending Digital Darkroom, an exhibit in 2011 at the Annenberg Space for Photography. She bought a camera, started learning Adobe Photoshop, and began creating her own digital composites.

Erb gets her ideas by moving around composition elements. She says, “Although I am trying to preconceive more, I find there is something very satisfying about combing through my catalog of images and putting things together, like solving a puzzle. I try all sorts of permutations, and then there’s that eureka moment when everything comes together in the perfect combination.”

This composite image of giraffes in a building is by Carol Erb, who constructed it using original photos and Adobe Photoshop.

It takes Erb a week to a month (including time off to let ideas percolate) to make an image. Each image usually has between 20 to 40 layers, most of which are adjustment layers on top of the five to 10 photographic elements. She keeps the number of compositional elements low so the viewer is able to focus on the animal, which is the central focus in each of these images.  

Describing her technique, Erb says, “After making changes in Adobe Camera Raw, I open my backdrop image in Photoshop and save it as a smart layer—I’m a big believer in working non-destructively. I photograph rooms that I find interesting, especially small rooms with a window or door with light coming through. I alter the size, scale, and shape of the rooms in Photoshop with Perspective Warp and Content Aware Scale. I may hide furniture, curtains, and wallpaper on a separate layer using the Clone Tool or Paintbrush.”

Artist Carol Erb created this photo composite using her own original images and Adobe Photoshop.

Erb uses only her own pictures as source material. When photographing animals in the wild and in zoos, “it can be really challenging to get the right lighting and pose,” she says. “Wire fences and glass enclosures can affect the quality of the image. I don’t have much patience when it comes to waiting, so my animal images are usually heavily manipulated.”

Bear is a good example. Erb originally captured the grizzly bear standing with its front paws on a rock. To achieve the final result of the bear on the sofa, Erb used Photoshop’s Puppet Warp to reposition the front half of its body. 

This composite image of a bear is by Carol Erb, who constructed it using original photos and Adobe Photoshop.

Separating the animals from the photos’ original backgrounds can take a long time. She says, “I start with the Quick Selection and the Quick Selection Mask tools. Then I use Refine Edge and Edge Detection, painting around the animal with a brush just large enough to capture the length of the fur. Then I output to a layer mask. I typically go back and forth in different areas to refine the mask. Once it’s perfect, I feather the entire thing at between 1.7 and 2 pixels, which blends the object into its surroundings.”

Placing animals in human environments may seem whimsical, but that is not Erb’s objective. “Contrary to what we are taught as children, wild animals are not our friends or playthings. We need to think about the way we treat animals, which are sentient beings, and strive to reduce the suffering animals experience at our hands. What I hope to convey with my images is that the animals we use for food, entertainment, education, and research should be treated with care and respect. We need to make every effort to minimize any suffering that is the result of our exploitation of them.” 

This composite image of an echidna is by Carol Erb, who constructed it using original photos and Adobe Photoshop.

Erb’s work will be in a group show at the A. Smith Gallery in Johnson City, Texas, from January 8 to February 14, 2016. 

Ready to make your own photo composites? This tutorial explains how to create and use masks to hide or reval part of an image.