How Bobby Neel Adams Uses Photo Surgery to Telescope Time in a Single Frame

Memory  /  Time Travel
Scroll this

We’ve featured photographers who explore the concepts of time, growth, and aging by playing the long game, documenting subjects year-to-year over decades. (You can see several of these projects here). Bobby Neel Adams takes a more direct approach – practicing what he calls photo surgery – marrying two different portraits of the same subject at different ages. His intent, as he told an interviewer for Digicult, is to “telescope the slow process of aging into a single picture.”

sally-14-62 by Bobby Neel Adams from the Age Maps project
Sally at ages 14 and 62

Adams started this series — Age Maps — in the early 90s, at first using black and white professional studio portraits as source material. The process is completely analog, old-school collage. “Like a surgeon, I alter portraits of people through manual incision. But more importantly, it is aging and genetics that produce the most astonishing results.”

“In my Age Map photographs I found that people’s natures are developed at a very early age. An introspective child will become an introspective adult. A cheerful child will be a cheerful adult. Etc. I later read that child psychologists confirmed this theory that I learned making my photographs.”

–Bobby Neel Adams

Bobby 6-36 by Bobby Neel Adams from the Age Maps project
The Artist at ages 6 and 36.

In the decades since Age Maps, the artist has produced two variations on this photo surgery theme: Family Tree, which uses mashup portraits to explore how DNA is passed down from parent to child, and Couples, in which Neel makes it easy to judge which is the better half.