Making art from tourists' digital photos

A software engineer-turned-artist scoured the Net for snapshots, mashed them together, and created images that might make Monet proud. Images: Modern-day Monet?

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?"

Featured Video
6
This content is rated TV-MA, and is for viewers 18 years or older. Are you of age?
Sorry, you are not old enough to view this content.

Android Wear gets friendly with iPhones

iPhone users are no longer restricted to just the Apple Watch thanks to an update by Google.

by Iyaz Akhtar