Building Other Worlds with Photoshop

By Alyssa Coppelman

In his photo-composite series “Building a Universe,” Jacob Watts tells an elaborate, mysterious story where the vintage and the futuristic intersect. People wearing hazmat suits and gas masks investigate an otherworldly landscape that combines elements of science fiction, the post-apocalyptic, and environmental devastation but leaves enough gaps to allow your imagination to run wild in search of the complete story.


When Watts was 12, he spent a summer detasseling corn in northern Illinois and saved enough money to buy his first computer. His parents gave him Adobe Photoshop 7, and he says he "...would basically lock myself up in my room all night, grab whatever photos I could find online, and put them together.” Those early composites used just a couple of images.

After working with existing photos for a year or two, he grew frustrated that he couldn’t find the exact images he envisioned for his compositions and began to capture his own with a small point-and-shoot digital camera. He developed his shooting and compositing skills throughout high school, and, no surprise, majored in photography in college.

After graduation, Watts assisted on photo shoots, sometimes working as second shooter, and was a retoucher off and on set. Eventually, he turned his personal photographic practice into client work. 


There are 40 images in the “Building a Universe” series. The characters in the hazmat suits are actually self-portraits Watts shot in the studio. He took about 100 shots of himself in various positions, matching the lighting as closely as possible each time, and using Adobe Photoshop CC, he composited the results into groups of Hazmat-suited people interacting with each other and their surroundings.

The series title comes from the Polaroids within the image entitled “Inventor’s Book Page 9.” As part of a sculpture related to the Big Bang that gave birth to our universe, Watts constructed the actual cube pictured in the Polaroids out of two-way mirrored glass. In the context of this series' fictive reality, anything placed inside the cube is reflected an infinite number of times, and once the plants are placed inside, the cube starts to glow, split, duplicate (as in “Inventor’s Book Page 10"), and give birth uncontrollably to the other floating cubes seen throughout the story—like cells splitting.

“Inventor’s Book Page 9” is on the left; “Inventor’s Book Page 10" is on the right.

The Inventor, who we never see, has left behind his notebook with instructions on how to fix this multiplying cube that has run amok. Because his experiment failed terribly, the Inventor is in hiding, and it’s why he’s not seen in the project. The only evidence of his existence: the notebook and Polaroids.

The spaceship that features prominently in the serie, is an actual object located at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. “It's called the Bubble Chamber and is a giant structure that was commissioned in the 1970s for the Fixed Target Program," Watts explains.

"It has this perfect sci-fi junk feel to it: something technologically advanced but looks like it could fall apart, like all its weird pipes and tubes were duct-taped together. I photographed every angle I could, knowing I would need it years down the road.“

“An image will often start with a landscape shot that catches my attention, and I’ll start filling in some trees here, some rocks there, to slowly build out the scenery,” Watts explains. “This scenery will determine the angle, colors, and lighting of what I need to shoot in the studio. For example, one image starts out with a field in Wisconsin that I shot five or so years ago. The clouds were from a different shot a couple years later. I used a lens flare to add in a sunset and changed the colors of everything to match.”

Some of the completed works contain as few as three shots; others as many as 400 individual photos. But, says Watts, “no matter how crazy or complicated an image looks, masking with Photoshop's Brush tool is still my bread and butter. That one tool accomplishes so much of an image." To help the pieces form a convincing whole, he also relies on Transform tools and Blend modes. "I can use the multiply blending mode with a shadow I shot on set, and it will fall into new scenery and look great.” He used Photoshop's 3D tools to place the cubes within his scenes.

“Making all of the cubes explode in 'Finale' [left] was challenging simply because it took so much time," Watts says. "I had those layers merged into one layer, and I would take the Lasso tool, make a quick selection, and then move that selection. I did that about a billion times for every little shard you see.”


Outer space has a gravitational hold on Watts's imagination. “Space feels like a grand secret to me," says Watts. "We spend most of our waking lives in daylight and can take the night for granted. If we just look up at the sky, a universe infinitely larger than our world will present itself to us, and then will go back into hiding when daylight comes. I think it's the mysteriousness of space and this repetition of it coming back to us every night that is so interesting.”

Space appears in works other than the “Building a Universe” series. One of these, “Spaceman” (left) was completely unplanned. “I was walking through the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago when I happened to look up and see a full astronaut suspended from the ceiling."

"It caught my attention and I photographed it, figuring I would use it for some full-body outer space image. When I started dropping out the background and playing with different crops, I realized it was going to be a portrait. I played around with different backgrounds, and when I tried summer clouds I was intrigued. Why is this astronaut, fully suited, out on a nice day?"

Watts built the reflection in “Spaceman” from several images. "I made a separate image of a spaceship, using a miniature model shot in the same museum years before, blasting off through the clouds," he says. "Once I had that image, I masked it to the shape of the glass part of the helmet. I used the Transform Warp tool to bend it on the sides just like the glass does, and I lowered the opacity to let some of the natural reflections from in the museum show up. Adding in the reflection of the spaceship really brought the meaning to this portrait. To me it’s a sad image. Someone missed their flight.”

May 3, 2018

All photographs © Jacob Watts and courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago. He can be found on Instagram @jacobwattsphoto.