Paintings Meet Photography: Todd Baxter Photography

Todd Baxter’s photography is twisted and sublime. You can’t ignore it. His images are closer to paintings than they are to photography. His stories are modern day fairy tales, packed with mystery and adventure.

Some have compared his work to Wes Anderson’s style. This comparison is what led me to contact him in the first place. Did Wes Anderson inspire Todd Baxter? Or was it the other way around? The answer took me by surprise. As it turns out, Todd Baxter may be Wes Anderson’s secret muse.

Todd Baxter

I was struck by the similarities between your work and the work of Wes Anderson. Do you get that a lot?

I’m definitely a Wes Anderson fan. I really love his style and film structure. I am definitely influenced by his work.

The comparison really kinda piqued when Moonrise Kingdom came out. I started seeing people on Facebook saying that it looks like my photo project Owl Scouts.

Owl Scouts came out way before Moonrise Kingdom, correct?

Yeah, a couple of years before. When I saw the trailer, I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I couldn’t even wrap my head around it. Then, it really bummed me out when people would see Owl Scouts and assume it was inspired by Moonrise Kingdom.

Tell me about your project Owl Scouts.  It starts off optimistic but then takes an unexpected turn. Is that flow intentional?

I like the idea that it’s about two kids trying to navigate through the world and getting their asses kicked. The world is much more powerful. It’s a good parallel to having relationship troubles.

Owl Scouts is very linear. The kids have several challenges and they fail every single one. It’s funny, because I started this series a few months after my divorce. It wasn’t like I thought, I’m going to make a piece about the divorce. I just started with these kids lost in the woods.

I like the idea that it’s about two kids trying to navigate through the world and getting their asses kicked. The world is much more powerful. It’s a good parallel to having relationship troubles.

 

In the first challenge, they try to retrieve a flashlight from the owl burrow. They are unable to get the flashlight and the owl bites the kid.

Todd_Baxter-Owl_ScoutsThey try to cross a river, but he falls in and almost drowns. Shortly after, she gets sucked away by a tornado. He loses his partner, and he’s on his own.
Later, the boy finds a bear. I like the idea that they could be friends. Because, in children stories, you’re sometimes friends with animals. It turns out that bears do what bears do.Todd_Baxter-Owl_Scouts

The bear thing is interesting. I see it two ways; first, it’s the awfulness that goes with the end of a relationship, but also in a more buddhist way, it’s letting go. I wanted to make that scene as beautiful as possible — not gross. Even though it’s such a horrible thing, it seemed cathartic for me, saying goodbye, letting go, moving on. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning of the next phase.

How did you get started with this style?

Todd_Baxter-Concept

When I started switching from painting to photography, I came up with these shot ideas. One of the first pictures in this style was for my sister’s band. It was a girl in a forest, next to a blue vintage record player, with a bunch of birds on it. Her band was coming to town and it wasn’t possible to find a forest scene, so it made more sense to shoot her in a studio setting and then build the scene around her.

What’s the story behind Spoon: They Want My Soul project?

“She starts realizing that everybody is in on it, except for her.”

Our main character is a girl being yanked right out of childhood.

Her day starts out normal, but then a bird crashes in from the window and lands in the dollhouse. Todd_Baxter-SpoonShe puts it in a little box and goes down to her mom’s room. The inspiration came from a movie still, where there was a woman on a bed with a towel wrapped around her head.

We created the image of the three-eyed lion as the symbol of the bad guys. It turns out, the mom is part of this group.

She heads off to school and somebody hands her a book on how to disappear. This image is based another still from a 1940s film. She starts realizing that everybody is in on it, except for her.

I really want to shoot the video so we can flesh out the story.

What inspired the Spoon project?

“Growing up in the 70s, there were a lot of cults. When I was young, it gave me a creepy feeling. Looking back at it as an adult, it’s fascinating to me.”

I’ve gotten really into creating worlds. With the Owl Scouts, I spent so long designing logos and patches for the uniforms. The Spoon project happened much faster. I didn’t have time to obsess about the details.

The point was to make an album cover, but then it became a much bigger storyline.

A lot of my ideas come from a folder of clippings. I went through these reference folders and found a section on 70s films. Growing up in the 70s, there were a lot of cults. When I was young, it gave me a creepy feeling. Looking back at it as an adult, it’s fascinating to me.

Do you still shoot in a studio environment and then illustrate around it?

“I have this vision for what I want and it’s impractical to create it.”

Even today, as I get more established and have more funds, I think about building the sets for the scenes. I never do. I have this vision, for what I want, and it’s impractical to create it otherwise.

You just have so much more control. When you’re putting in the background you can be like, I want the house there, I want the tree there, etc. On location you don’t have that control.

Todd_Baxter-SpoonWhat’s your secret to directing talent?

I’ve always been attracted to artificial and frozen moments. It probably relates back to my painting background. When you’re doing a portrait, you have the person hold their pose. It’s fun to bring that limitation into photography.

How do you edit your pictures?

It’s a lot of trial and error. I duplicate a layer and play with the median filter. It helps create a nice smooth highlight, which makes the skin look like wax. A gaussian blur would just blur everything together.

Sometimes, I create a layer and bring the levels all the way down until all that’s left is a little bit of highlight. Then, I set it to screen in order to pop the shine back out. Sometimes, I just paint over the face.

Where do you get the background images?

For the Owl Scouts, I went to different forests. Some backgrounds were taken in Kentucky, Chicago, Michigan, and Oregon. For Project Astoria, a project I’ve been working on since 2008, I’ve been shooting tons and tons of different environments. It’s gonna have snow environments, deserts, forests. I’ve been collecting thousand and thousands of shots.

Was there ever a time when you felt like giving up?

At one point, around 2004, I was done with painting and drawing. I couldn’t do it any more. It’s such a struggle. I couldn’t find any place to show my art, and if I did, nobody went to see it. It’s such a bummer. I kinda just stopped.

Right around that point, I bought myself a Canon digital camera and started doing these really small jobs. I had no intentions of doing anything artistic. It was just a way to make money. I was taking pictures of shampoo bottles.Todd_Baxter-Early

I met up with a photo representative. I included a few strange shots of people with animal masks on. She pushed everything away except the strange ones. She said, “Now, this is unique.” I didn’t think anybody would want that. I started making more shots like that and slowly got better and better jobs.

Do yourself a favor and follow Todd Baxter on Behance or on his personal website. His commercial work is just as impressive. Also, if you’d like to read more articles like this, please follow Creative Babble on Facebook and Twitter.

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