How I became the ‘dead celebrity photoshop guy’

Art director Chris Barker discovers what it means to go properly viral on American election night

I sometimes do things in photoshop. And sometimes they go mildly viral. After the European referendum I did a topical gag based on the poster for the movie The Breakfast Club and a few days later a girl I used to work with posted it on her Facebook unaware that she knew the person who had created it. Achievement unlocked I thought, that’s proper viral that is. This was to give me a taste of what was to come. Because the Brexit image was a little bit political I didn’t mind that my name wasn’t firmly attached to it. I didn’t want an angry mob of newspaper commenters forming outside my door. The next time it was a bit different however.

It was Tuesday 8 November and I’d decided to stay up late and watch the results come in as America elected its first ever female president – or so I thought. There was a sense of anticipation in the air, something strange was starting to happen. Andrew Neil had just said the fateful words “Now, this isn’t what we were expecting…” and it felt like the night was about to go a bit Brexit. A bit Leicester City. A bit 2016…

What a year, I was thinking, David Bowie, Brexit and now this. A lot of people speculate that Bowie was actually the glue that was holding the universe together. It’s certainly been a bit different since he tragically passed away. So I thought that since I was going to be up for hours anyway, and Mrs Chris and the kids were fast asleep, I might do a montage that summed up how weird a year it’s been. It wasn’t going to be a montage of dead celebrities in the style of Sgt Peppers at first. And initially I intended to include things other than just the recently departed. But I started making a list of all the people I could think of who had died that year; Bowie, Corbett, Wogan, Lemmy (we’ll come back to that later) and googled the rest. I was going to position Bowie in the centre with everything else orbiting around him, but then I found the full-length shot of Bowie that you see on the final piece and it looked so Sgt Pepper I thought I might as well go with that. I gradually dismissed the idea of including important events and living people, mainly because I didn’t think people would really want to see Nigel Farage’s laughing face again. I think we’ve all seen enough of that now thank you very much.

The Sgt Pepper parody is a bit of a designer cliché, but as a fellow photoshopper once said to me: “it’s all about the source image”. If you choose Warhol, Lichtenstein, Leibowitz or Peter Blake people respond to it instinctively. So what the heck I thought, I’m going to be up anyway. Let’s do it. Three hours later I put it on Twitter and b3ta and thought little more of it.

It went viral. Really viral. Then Leonard Cohen died and he was so almost Beatles-y that adding him was a no-brainer and it went even more viral. Then Robert Vaughan, another great sixties icon also passed away and it went viral again. Then suddenly I was that dead celebrity photoshopper guy. Thousands of shares (I had the original as my Facebook profile picture and somehow had got hold of that too and shared it 1276 times - even though I thought my privacy settings were on max), thousands of likes and an inbox that just wouldn’t stop buzzing. Someone from thepoke asked if I minded them tweeting about it and then it went even bigger. Before I knew it ITV had it on their website, an Australian TV channel were showing it on the news… and then the papers started getting interested…

It’s still going strong as I speak. As I write this, in the last hour the German version of Rolling Stone magazine have just published it as a quiz, for example. In German. Without contacting me. It truly has gained a life of its own. I don’t know that any of their readers would recognise This Morning agony aunt Denise Robertson but maybe I am doing them a disservice.

So, in the viral tradition, I’ve put together a list of the 10 things I learned from going unexpectedly viral. You can read it on my blog. And, of course, it goes without saying that number seven will take your breath away.