July 17, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Viewing America in high resolution
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Aves has had to wait for technology to catch up with the project as they've gone along.
"We started with Photoshop 7, but the file size was limited to 2GB, and the dimensions were limited to 30,000 pixels in width or height," she said. "I was having to either drop the resolution or crop, which wasn't suitable. We were still doing the same size photos, but couldn't use the full resolution of the film, scanning at 20 or 15 microns."
After working with Adobe, their photos will now scan at 10 microns, which is 2,534 pixels per inch. "When the scanner catches up with us, we'll go to 5 or 6 microns and 6,000 pixels per inch."
Once they honed their technique, the question became, "What can we do that's useful?'" Flint recalled. It was the beginning of a new century at the time, so they settled on recording "the quintessential American scene in every state of the union."
They set out to find out what each city was proudest of, and what locations or buildings were most representative, beautiful or interesting--state parks, buildings, large engineering projects and more. Just how does Flint find these? The method is hardly scientific.
"I'll start with the chambers of commerce, then I'll look at tourist literature and go to drugstores and go down stacks of postcards," Flint said.
Flint emphasizes that the thrust of the project is not art as much as it is a scientific and historical record. "I'm not an artist, I'm a scientist trying to document stuff, but I also want an aesthetically pleasing" image, he said.
For instance, when he shoots areas of Yosemite, Flint chooses the same angle and perspective as Ansel Adams, and prays he gets the same natural lighting as the legendary American photographer did.
"Some people think that's cheating, but I'm trying to photograph the whole United States. I can't spend as much time as he did," Flint says.
He leaves on six-week forays, working from before sunrise to after sunset, seven days a week. He shoots two to three locations per day, and may take as many as 10 photos at each site.
Flint's fans weigh in
He's already snapped thousands of photographs, and there are plenty more to do.
He has fans all over the world, both amateur and leading researchers in the field of photography, such as Michael Cohen, senior researcher for Microsoft's Interactive Visual Media Group.
Cohen said he was motivated by seeing a Flint presentation in Boston last year. "Honestly, his work actually inspired a lot of work I've done over the past year. His images are so beautiful," Cohen said during a telephone interview. "The large-pixel-count images are almost like a new media type."
Cohen and his Microsoft cohorts aim to create a 10-gigapixel photo, though admittedly theirs is stitched together and Flint's are a single exposure.
"His dedication is just amazing," Cohen said. With these very large images, it's not just a picture, it's a thing you can explore, look at details and discover things."
Along the way Flint picked up another fan as a third member of the team--Michael T. Jones, chief technologist and co-founder of Google Earth, and an aspiring photographer and admirer of Flint's. It's Jones who has pushed Flint toward an even larger goal, photographing the 830 endangered World Heritage sites as identified by UNESCO.
The first time Jones saw one of Flint's photographs, he says he was "totally taken by it." "I was excited, and thought maybe I could give him some help and take it worldwide. I said, 'Graham, this is so fabulous, the world needs you to take pictures of World Heritage sites. That shot of the golf course is great, but we need (to photograph) the next Buddha before the Taliban blows it up,'" Jones recalled.
Jones joined the team in 2002, describing his role as "more like the 'sherpa,' the younger guy that carries the heavier piece of equipment."
While he has gone on photographic expeditions with Flint and taken some of the shots that appear on the Portrait of America's Web site, Jones' role is also thinking big and opening up doors for partners in the World Heritage project, which is still in the formative phase.
"As soon as I saw those (sites), I thought they should be in schools, they should be in the lobbies of buildings," he said. "It's like pictures of your kids or grandkids, but for the Earth. It's the snapshot version of Google Earth."