Future as utopia. Todd Baxter about creation of the retro and futuristic series “Project Astoria”

Todd Baxter

Thanks to my father and grandfather’s work in the US space program, and countless trips to natural history and air and space museums as a kid and an adult, I’ve always been fascinated with the technology and physics of the Space Race era. It’s funny, as a kid, I didn’t get that the Space Race was related to the Cold War conflict between the Western and Eastern Blocs. Of course, I wasn’t born until 1972, so anything I knew about it was more of a bedtime story than keeping up with current events.

I remember hearing about a US spaceship and a Soviet Union spaceship meeting up in Earth’s orbit and physically connecting to work on something together. I wouldn’t have even been three-years-old when that actually happened. With the image of the two ships joining, in my mind, the whole Space Race was a sort of collaboration toward some kind of a utopian future that both the US and Soviet Union were fueling. And I’ve always been fascinated with what we all speculated that future might look like over the years.

Just look at some of the renderings of the future from the old World Fairs, like the poster for New York’s 1939 World Fair that shows individuals flying with jet packs and the text “Rocketing into the Future!” Or Disney World’s original “Tomorrowland” attraction. There’s always so much excitement about what the future could look like, and for a little kid, these predictions seem almost like promises.


Todd Baxter. Rocketing into the Future! 1939

With Project Astoria, I wanted to play with that childlike hopefulness – that anticipation of humans finally mastering our existence and our technology. Especially as we were reaching such new and magical realities as landing on the moon, the late 60s was the perfect period, in my mind, to add in this alternate history where we all get together and say, “Hey! We could go colonize this other Earth-like place and really do it right this time. It could be perfect. Utopia!” Of course, it doesn’t go perfectly, which is good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make for a very fun story.

Project Astoria, in a nutshell, is the story of that colonization effort, with a particular focus on the kids who grow up in the Astoria System and are coming of age just as the whole thing is really falling apart. The first photo show debuted last winter and the next will be out in December 2014. But the whole of Project Astoria is bigger than just the photo shows. My wife, writer and designer Aubrey Videtto, is writing the story, based on a massively entertaining story arc we created together. And I’m hoping to collaborate down the road with other close friends and artists, such as illustrator and graphic novelist Anders Nilsen and musician Kim Baxter.

The new images I’ve made that are public right now are from the “Project Astoria: Test 01” photo show, the first show of Project Astoria. “Test 01” was an introduction to the people, animals, and objects of the Astoria System, the retro-futuristic backdrop for this new project. I’d initially planned for 11 new images for the show, plus “Astronauts and Tapirs” and “Snow Ubi.” Even though time and budget required nixing two of the new images, it ended up being the perfect amount, especially since we printed them on such a large scale. “House 104” was 115” wide by 44” tall and had to be mounted on two boards. The “Snow Ubi” image was an impressive  86″ wide by over 100″ tall.

For those interested in what the process for making these photos looks like, here’s a quick overview: First, I pull from the ideas I’ve previously sketched out for images. I browse my photo library for environment elements I’ve shot and, in Photoshop, I begin weaving together environments. I then plan the general composition and action of talent via rough sketches on top of the loosely composited environments. Simultaneously, I (or stylist Sage Reed) buy or make set items for the talent. I plan for on-set lighting quality (tone and color) and weather simulation, such as wind and rain, for the shoot based on environment sketches. With the support of an awesome and generous team, Aubrey and I produce the photo shoots to get shots of the talent. I select images of talent from the photo shoots, usually trying a few different combinations until it starts to feel right. I continue compositing/retouching with Aubrey assisting, and I continue shooting small elements to add to the composites. Finally, as we’re nearing the end of the post-production, Aubrey makes printed proofs, and then we finish retouching the composites and add various final effects using the proofs as a guide.

The different shots in “Test 01” are made up of photo elements I’ve gathered over the last 10 years or so. The environments are predominantly comprised of shots from Maryland and Washington, DC (“Station 6 in rain,” “Girl in raincoat”); Hobart, Indiana (“House 104,” “Bird and crystals”); and Kentucky, Chicago, and the Rockies (“Frosty field with chairs,” “Snow Ubi”). The larger props and architecture are made up of shots from air and space museums around the US. And the kids, along with some of the smaller props, were shot in studio in Chicago.

“Project Astoria” series

Todd Baxter Todd Baxter Todd Baxter Todd Baxter Todd Baxter Todd Baxter Todd Baxter Todd Baxter Todd Baxter Todd Baxter

© Bleek Magazine. Text and all the images: Todd Baxter.