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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.

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."

Graham Flint
Credit: Gigapxl Project
Retired nuclear physicist Graham Flint

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."