Spatializing Photographic Archives

The extensive and carefully illustrated White Paper for our NEH-sponsored “Spatializing Photographic Archives” project can be downloaded as a large PDF (26.5mb).

The White Paper describes the open-source software tool we’ve developed, and our reasons for wanting to forge a new approach to making digital tools for scholars. It also examines the implications of our approach for photography. After examining the history of landscape photography in the American West, we show how by stepping outside the photographic frame and unfreezing a photograph’s frozen instant, we can reveal many hidden aspects of photography and create new kinds of works.

Our first case study investigates the Richard Misrach’s canonical Desert Cantos series, which proved to be a difficult but exceptionally rewarding test case. In October 2009, we worked with Misrach at two of the original sites for the Desert Cantos.

Bombay Beach Reconstruction

Reconstruction of the ruins at Bombay Beach.

At the first site, we reconstructed the ruins at the once-flooded edge of Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea in southern California, where there remained enough landmarks for us to match our spatial reconstruction of the site to Misrach’s original photos.

Palm trees from Richard Misrach’s "Desert Cantos" series.

Spatializing palm trees from Richard Misrach’s “Desert Cantos” series.

At the second site we spatialized a stand of palm trees that was the subject of several of his Desert Fires photographs.

Misrach’s photographs of a bulldozer

Spatializing Misrach’s photographs of a bulldozer near Bombay Beach.

We also reconstructed the process of one of Misrach’s works in progress, spatializing his attempts to photograph a decrepit bulldozer at the edge of the Salton Sea. We track his path over the time of his shoot and his framing of the subject.

Spatialization of boats approaching the shoreline of Okinawa, Japan.

Spatialization of boats approaching the shoreline of Okinawa, Japan in 1945.

The second case study examines battlefield photographs of Okinawa, 1945; the third prototypes a simple pipeline for scholars by which they make a 3D capture of an object using just the video capabilities of a smartphone and a laptop computer.

Finally, the paper presents two hypothetical projects that our approach would underpin. These would create new kinds of interdisciplinary works that tie photo reconstruction to extensive data-mining, and would blur boundaries between the arts, humanities, and sciences.

Originally published by the OpenEndedGroup in December 2011.

About Marc Downie and Paul Kaiser

Marc Downie and Paul Kaiser are two of the three artists in OpenEndedGroup, which has pioneered a new approach to digital art that frequently combines three signature elements: non-photorealistic 3D rendering; the incorporation of body movement by motion-capture and other means; and the autonomy of artworks directed or assisted by artificial intelligence. OpenEndedGroup artworks span a wide range of forms and disciplines, including dance, music, installation, film, and public art. They create their work by means of their own extensive software platform, Field. Released as open source, Field has received support from the Mellon Foundation, the NEH, and the NSF. Downie, whose background is in music and computer science, has a PhD from the Media Lab MIT and an MA from Cambridge University. Kaiser’s background is in film, writing, and special education; he has a BA from Wesleyan University and an MEd from American University. Among the prizes they have won individually or collectively are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the John Cage Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, a Media Arts Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, and a Bessie award for the BIPED décor. Their venues have included Lincoln Center, the New York Film Festival, the Barbican Center, the Hayward Gallery, ICA Boston, Sadler’s Wells, the Festival d’Automne, the Sundance Film Festival, and many others.