‘Docubyte’. The Man Behind These ‘Wedged Wonders’
Hold your loved ones tight and go to your happy place, for it was recently announced that Alfa Romeo would can two of its upcoming sports car programs – the rebooted 8C and a revived GTV coupe – in favour of a ‘refocus’ of its product line-up in lieu of dwindling sales. Simply put, development of the brand’s new sports cars would meet their respective makers, while two SUVs and a new electric model are set to join the Clover Leaf’s portfolio in the not too distant future.
Though understandable from Alfa Romeo’s perspective – Porsche can tell you from experience just how much coin a controversial SUV can rake in – this is nevertheless sad news to enthusiasts of le biscione. In the Petrolicious office in particular, there now hangs an air of listless melancholy, given the importance the likes of the Berlina, the Giulia TZ1, the SS and the Tip 33, among MANY others, have proven to our video team through the years.
It wasn’t long before lugubrious Google searches had the Petrolicious team discussing / arguing / rending various garments about the Spider, the GTA (yep, more shameless plugs!) and even the long since forgotten Navajo concept. It was the latter in fact that dropped us at the doorstep of ‘Docubyte’.
Docubyte – real name James Ball, a photographer, art director and ‘ultimate nerd’ (his words, not mine) from London in the UK – is the creator of ‘Wedged Wonders’, a stunning homage to some of the most offbeat Italian concept cars to have emerged during the late ’60 and early ‘70s. Within this bold and colourful series for instance is the Alfa Romeo Carabo, a Bertone design from 1968 inspired by the distinctive green and orange Carabidae beetle. There’s also the Pininfarina-styled and almost violently yellow Alfa Romeo 33/2 Coupé Speciale, built on the chassis of the 33 Stradale in 1969 and influenced greatly by the 250 P5 from big sister Ferrari. Speaking of whom, ‘Wedged Wonders’ also includes the decidedly un-Ferrari-like 512S Modulo, which started life as a Can-Am-spec 512 S before smashing through Maranello’s glass ceiling in 1970 at the pen of Pininfarina’s Paolo Martin.
In total, ‘Wedged Wonders’ celebrates 13 forgotten and borderline batsh*t concepts of their era.
“I’ve always loved these cars and used to own matchbox versions of them as a kid. They’re just bonkers!” explains James (good name, by the way).
“Thing is, they’re niche, but they’re not particularly well celebrated, apart from maybe the 512S Modulo and the Stratos Zero. Concepts like the Jaguar Ascot, for example” – there are a couple of British brands thrown into this ‘Italian’ collection – “Once, this symbolised the absolute cutting edge of where Jaguar could have gone with its design. Now the rubber and the leather are going, and the Ascot is sitting ‘rotting’ away in a museum. These cars are all of a similar ethos in terms of design, yet some are revered and others have been completely forgotten. I suppose you could say this is my way of paying tribute to them.”
And guess what. These ‘tributes’ aren’t CGI prints or drawings. They’re real photos, each of which has received actual weeks of TLC in Photoshop to bring them back to life.
As you would expect though, the methodology required to produce these images is slightly trickier than that. Given the headaches involved with asking James Glickenhaus to borrow his one-of-one concept with a prancing horse on its angled bonnet (“you never know but it seems unlikely…”) each of these concepts has to be shot, in situ, at their respective museums before the ‘tidying up’ phase can even begin.
“I’ve been shooting for years, grabbing images of these cars whenever I’d seen them at car shows or museums. One day I looked through my archive and found I had six or seven of them. Without realising it, I’d been slowly building the basis of this project.
“I had others that weren’t really concept cars but fitted the same mould – Lotus Esprits, BWM M1s – because they fascinated me. But after a while and after a few edits, I decided, ‘nope, they have to be concept cars and they have to be Italian.’ Well, most of them anyway! So I set myself rules, and after that, the real challenge was finding more of them. That was kind of the fun bit, tracking these concepts down.
“My favourite in the whole series is the [Autobianchi] Runabout, which was part of the House of Bertone collection in Malpensa. It wasn’t elevated and it wasn’t on a plinth. There weren’t even that many lights on it. It was just sitting there in the shadows, which was kind of great for the photo, but at the same time, quite ironic. This is Bertone design heritage, and it’s just there, off to the side, in the shadows. The Volvo Tundra was like that too: they’re beautiful and well-maintained, but it felt like they could be treated with a little more respect.”
His automotive pilgrimage took James repeatedly to the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile in Turin, the official Museo Storico Alfa Romeo in Milan, and the Parco e Museo del Volo in Marese. Only when his archives had tipped over a dozen did the retouching of these wedged wonders begin, though that in itself brings up more hiccups.
“You start with a photo. Ideally, the images will be shot on the highest resolution camera I can find so I’ll get some nice poster-sized prints out of it. If I can, and if the museum will let me – which they did in the case of the Alfa Romeo Museum, which was great! – I’ll ‘focus stack’ the shot, front to back, which basically means taking multiple photos of the car focusing on different panels or elements. All of these frames are then combined into one image in post.
“The first major thing is looking at the car and working out where the light is coming from. Generally, if you try and re-light a car in Photoshop, it’s very difficult to do that properly, so I tend to work with the light I have, just cleaning up surfaces, cutting out panels or remodelling them partly with CGI. Plus restoring the leather and the tyres. The rubber’s the pain, especially on the older models, because it’s often cracked, which means its needs healing and filling in. Rust can also be an issue, and sometimes details are missing because they’ve either fallen off or corroded. So each of these images is basically a huge clean-up operation – a ‘loving fight’, I suppose you could call it – but I still want to keep them as real as I can.
“There’s a danger with Photoshop that, if you go super clean, and I’ve had this a few times, people just assume these images are all CGI. There are elements of CGI in there – sometimes I’ll generate the shadows – but they’re still photos. ‘Digital art’, if you prefer.”
Ironically, one of the more distinctive elements of each image, aside from the concepts themselves, wasn’t even part of the original design. The genesis of those bold backgrounds actually dates back to a project James worked on in 2015 celebrating the Commodore Pet and IBM 5150, plus an impromptu visit to that year’s Indianapolis 500.
“At one point I had them floating off the ground, because they kind of look like spaceships. A conceptual take, if you will. But that didn’t really work. In the end I decided it’s more important to just celebrate the shape as that’s the true standout. Then I remembered a project I’d done called ‘Guide to Computing’ where the colour of the object would inform the background. I’m not constrained by the idea of it being ethical sacrilege to bastardise a photo, so I started doing that and it just kind of stuck. It’s a habit now. I can’t un-do it!
“ ‘The Brickyard’ was probably the transitional point though. I just happened to be working in America at the time and it was a last-minute thing to do. I had no accreditation or anything like that, so I just went and hung out with the crowd. It was absolutely mental! I loved it!
“Historically, I’d been shooting a more ‘editorial’/documentary style for years and years. It was okay but I couldn’t find a way to carve a look for myself. Then I found a look I could hang it all on, which in this case was simplifying and cleaning up the background to give a presence to the subject, then find a colour grade to hang the work on. You can get something cohesive out of it. There aren’t many shots for that project but it got the ball rolling.”
So, that’s retro Italian concepts, the ‘Americana’ vibe of the Indy 500, some drag strip brutes from ‘Dragstalgia’ in Bedfordshire, and even the ‘Pink Pig’ Porsche 917/20 coupé from the 1971 24 Hours of Le Mans already in the memory card. But what’s next for James Ball aka ‘Docubyte’? Turns out, having tackled the ‘60s and ‘70s, our man’s turning his attention to the turbo beasts of the 1980s. Bold. Colourful. Offbeat. Yep, sounds about right.
“Ever since ‘Wedged Wonders’, I’ve become…not obsessed, not yet anyway, but more engaged with some of the more experimental designs of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It fascinates me how shapes have morphed from ‘60s curves to ‘70s triangles to ‘80s squares, so I may well look into doing a follow-up.
“I think that, with the these images, the subject is enough on its own. I want to remove it from all the noise of wherever it is and wherever you’re seeing it so you can focus solely on the design. That’s what makes concepts cars so interesting.”
*Images courtesy of Docubyte