March 23, 2007 10:00 AM PDT

Making art from tourists' digital photos

Looking at 10 different photos of Niagara Falls, it might be hard to tell the difference between amateur snapshots and professional postcards.

But to Elliot Anderson, there's art in the common man's photography of the American landscape. Anderson, a software engineer turned new-media artist, has taken tourist photos uploaded to the Web and turned them into works of digital art.


"I wanted to show how woven we are in the world," said Anderson, an assistant professor of art and electronic media art in the University of California Santa Cruz's Digital Arts New Media graduate program.

First, he built a search engine to mine the Web for "tagged" photos of places like Niagara Falls, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon. Then he used software to create a composite image for each destination in the form of a translucent film image. Finally, he placed the film in a lightbox--an encasement that highlights the negative with a fluorescent light--to show off the layered effect that comes from creating a composite image, or the "average" viewpoint, Anderson says.

Anderson's search engine collected thousands of photos on the Web, but he typically used only 10 tourist photos to compile an image for each location. His software looked at the numeric value of the pixels within each photo, then factored a percentage of the pixel value of each photo to produce one composite image. The resulting image creates a layered vision of the original photos, which looks a bit like an Impressionist painting.

"The lightbox produces the luminescent quality of 19th century painters--light was so important to them because it represented God's gift of the landscape we have," Anderson said. "We're drawn to the vast landscape. It's American ideology."

The installation, called Average Landscapes, is on display at San Francisco's de Young Museum through May.

The artwork is meant to reflect on people's relationship to--or detachment from--the American landscape. But the installation also shows that technology and art are not mutually exclusive.

"That these photographs now circulate so widely on the Internet suggests how much we have come to rely on Web-based reality, which replaces actual experiences with virtual ones," Daniell Cornell, curator and director of contemporary art projects at the de Young, said in a statement. "In this way, Anderson's project asks us to consider how our relationship to imagery positions us as spectators of mediated conventions that displace physical interactions."

It took Anderson about a year to put the installation together. His project is part of the de Young's "connections gallery," which invites artists to develop a project based around the museum's own collection of paintings. Anderson was inspired by the de Young's Hudson River School paintings, which are mid-19th century American paintings of landscapes in upstate New York, including the Hudson River Valley, Catskill Mountains and Niagara Falls.

But Anderson himself asked: "Are these snapshots of nature, or are we photographing culture?"

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I don't get it
His images just look like a bunch of photo's layered with transparancy. Five-minute Photoshop jobs.
Posted by skrubol (181 comments )
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tools vs. art
Artworks can take five minutes or a year or more - the quality of
the work is not judged by the tools used to make it or the time
to actualize it, but by the content and ideas in the work. Paint is
a pretty simple tool, but masterpieces have been made out of it.
Anyone can make a painting in five minutes, but not everyone
can make a Monet.

I did try making these in Photoshop, but for some reason the
images didn't have the same quality of transparency as
averaging them together in software.

It may take very little time to assemble an image - but it took a
year of building a search engine and the averaging software then
sorting through thousands of images and millions of possible
combinations to find the the right combination of images. It
isn't any arbitrary combination of images slapped together in
photoshop. It took a lot of trial and error to find the right image
combination that is aesthetically compelling and that stimulates
questions in the viewer. I have tons of rejects.

It also took time to research the history of landscape painting in
America and the history of tourism that resulted from the
masses seeing paintings of Niagara. Paintings of natural
wonders in done in the 1800's where like movies today - people
flocked to see them, they were blockbusters. This research was
the inspiration for the project.

How much is a 19th century painting of Niagara like the photo
that tourists take of Niagara today? Why are they so similar?
Why do we take the photos that we do? Why are so many tourist
photos alike? By averaging tourist images together I wanted to
investigate these similarities. Also, how have these places
changed in 150 years? Most of these places have changed
dramatically from the paintings done in the 1800's. It is
because of these paintings that these places became tourist
spots - the very ones that are so popular today.

So the project and artworks are about history and culture, and
the way we see the natural world. The images are not about the
technology I used to make them. The technology is my paint
and I use it to express my ideas.

Photoshop and technologies are the new paint of our time, but it
still takes an artist with an idea to make art from this medium.

Elliot Anderson
Posted by kunstguy (1 comment )
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