Viewing America in high resolution

A cross-country tour with a custom-built camera aims to capture the U.S. in staggering digital detail. Images: Closeup on America

In an age when most cameras are digital and small enough to fit in a pocket, one couple is crisscrossing the country with a custom camera that needs its own van and uses film reels the size of shoeboxes.

That might seem like an awfully cumbersome load, but the results of the innovative project are groundbreaking--images containing an eye-popping 4 billion pixels.

Portrait of America

"The original intent was to see if you could even do it," said Graham Flint, a retired nuclear physicist, who along with his wife, Catherine Aves, set out to photograph 1,000 American cities as part of a vast undertaking known as the Gigapxl Project's Portrait of America.

Flint, 68, and Aves, 52, are now six years into their "retirement project." Their photography, at once a hobby and an engineering project, is relying on the highest-resolution photography in the world to create a genuine, interactive article of Americana.

Taking a photo with Flint's specialized camera and lenses is the equivalent of looking through 12x-power binoculars at an image for an entire day.

"I had done quite a bit (of landscape photography)," Flint said during a telephone interview from his home in the southwestern U.S. "I ran through the numbers and thought we could get to 100 megapixels, and 1,000 was way beyond what had been done, but it could be done theoretically."

Knowing it would take five to 10 years to complete the project, Flint said the couple was confident no one else would come out with a 1,000-megapixel, or 1-gigapixel, digital camera in that time frame and overtake them.

There's no set schedule or timetable determining which cities Flint picks--it's all, as he puts it, quite "arbitrary." He's the first to admit he isn't breaking new ground as far as subject matter--think classics like San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite National Park's Half Dome, Times Square in New York and Utah's jutting, artfully carved red rocks of Monument Valley--but neither has he limited himself to famous scenery. Instead, he's traveled to such arguably unexotic locales as Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Fla., and Denver.

"The difference is I'm capturing 100 times more information than anyone that's snapped a lens on that before."
--Graham Flint

That's because for Flint, what he shoots is just as important as how he captures it.

"I'm not looking for a complicated, artsy angle," he said. "I'm going to photograph what people are familiar with. The difference is I'm capturing 100 times more information than anyone that's snapped a lens on that before."

When Flint takes a picture of the Grand Canyon, for example, the shot may look like any other photo printed as a standard 8x10. But blown up to more than 30 feet wide, one sees detail that in reality would require 6x-power binoculars.

Flint and Aves fund the entire "Portrait of America" project themselves, thus ensuring that they have creative and logistical freedom.

Flint--whose former titles include chief of Lockheed Martin's Laser Devices Laboratory, executive vice president of International Laser Systems, and director of the Air Force's Developmental Optics Facility--has extensive experience in high-resolution optics. He's also a photographer with enough expertise to pull off a project of this magnitude.

Dividing the labor
He has worked with Paul Weissman, a designer of specialized military lenses; created his own camera; and continually travels the country scrounging up Korean War-era film sizable enough (9 inches by 18 inches) to capture photos of natural rock formations, the Indy 500 and even spaceship launches.

Aves, an amateur photographer herself, is in charge of processing these gargantuan photo files--usually 7.2GB--in Adobe Photoshop CS2. For more than 15 years, she owned a desktop publishing business, which she quit last year to work full-time on the Gigapxl Project, the couple's overarching large-format photography venture. The division of labor for Gigapxl, she said, worked itself out easily.

"I am totally non-technical (with cameras), and he has no clue about computers."

She is responsible for cleaning images and removing all the "trash"--dust particles, tiny threads, or anything else that will tarnish the resolution when blown up--and correcting the color, which can take an entire day for a single photo.

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