Double exposure photography has come a long way over the years. What began as “spirit photography” is now extremely commonplace. Back in the age when digital cameras were not yet a thought, double exposure photography was either done in camera (with no way to rely on post-processing), or in the darkroom. Regardless of which method the photographer relied on, it was much more difficult to create a beautiful double exposed image before the days of digital photography.
Nowadays, some higher end digital cameras can create beautiful double exposures right in the camera, with an LCD screen that shows you the result as soon as you take it. There’s no guesswork and no laboring away in the darkroom. If you aren’t lucky enough to own one of the cameras that can do it for you, Adobe Photoshop makes it extremely easy to layer images on top of each other with a couple clicks of the mouse. From Gjon Mili and Duane Michals in the age of film to newer photographers such as Freeman Patterson and Tamara Lichtenstein, the use of multiple exposures doesn’t seem to be going out of fashion anytime soon.
An Albanian photographer known for his years of contribution to Life magazine, Gjon Mili is most well-known for his photographs that illustrate human movement through the use of external flashes. He was one of the first photographers to use stroboscopic photography – the use of a specially timed external light source to capture a sequence of motion. Many of his photographs have an eerie quality to them, one that seemingly could only be created through the use of multiple exposures. Gjon Mili is unique in the sense that although he didn’t use multiple exposures to create his images, he was the inspiration for many photographers who became interested in double exposure photography after him.
Duane Michals is an American born photographer who uses the technique of double exposure to create images that are dreamlike, whimsical, and a little eerie at times. His fascination with the dream state also extends into his fascination with creating and preserving memories, a theme that is seen in one of his well-known books, Sequences. In this book, his photographs and double exposed images are coupled with hand-written text that reveal more about his life and what the images mean to him.
It is very likely that you have come across the famous surreal portrait of Salvador Dali jumping in the air while water flows across the composition and cats seem to be suspended in mid-air. This portrait was due to the artistic mind of Philippe Halsmann, of which Dali was a favorite subject. In collaboration with Dali, Halsmann created an entire book entitled Dali’s Mustache, in which he cuts up negatives, enlarges portions of images, and uses double exposure to create unusual portraits of the surrealist artist.
Freeman Patterson takes an interesting, unique approach to double exposure photography, straying away from the eerie and surrealist qualities of the technique and instead using it to create photographs that look like Impressionist paintings. Impressionism is a style of painting that originated in the 19th century, and was used to attempt to capture the changing effects of light and color over a period of time. Patterson uses two exposures of the same image, layered on top of each other yet shifted slightly, to give the same Impressionist feeling to his images.
Lee Kirby, like Gjon Mili (although much more modern) does not actually use the technique of double exposure in his images, yet the images themselves are inspired by photographers who have used double exposures in the past. Instead of layering images on top of one another, Lee Kirby uses a projector to actually project the second image onto his subjects, in a sort of real life double exposure. In many of his photographs, Kirby combines the use of projection with blurred movement to create images that sometimes look more like paintings than portraits.
Tamara Lichtenstein, a modern double exposure photographer, focuses on taking portraits that are filled with happiness and beauty and youth and sunny days. Her double exposures are dreamy and full of beautiful, bright colors, qualities that have made her quite popular within the Tumblr and Flickr community.
Christoffer Relander’s photographs are a prime example of what we can do with modern technology. His series of photographs, We Are Nature, are a series of stunningly beautiful double and triple exposures that are (almost unbelivably) done completely in-camera, with post-processing only being used for some tonal changes. We Are Nature is a series of portraits of humans that seem as if they are slowly changing into different ferns and trees.
Yanzhou Bao combines different photography techniques, including the use of multiple exposure, long exposure, and colored gels to create photographs with bright pops of color that play with motion and light. Many of his models wear loose, ethereal, futuristic clothing that only intensifies the dramatic quality of his portraits.
Have you played around with double exposure photography? There are still plenty of older film cameras available that allow you to create double exposures in-camera (and allow for a wonderful surprise once the film is developed), and will give you an idea of how the professionals used this technique in the past. Whether you want to go the old-school route or prefer to create your own multiple exposure images in Photoshop, the effects can be beautiful, surreal, and shocking; all you need is a bit of imagination.