February 25, 2005 - An eclectic mix of academics, entertainers, and techies are gathered at the TED Conference in Monterey, California this weekend. Besides listening to Nobel Laureate James Watson and U2 singer Bono, they will be exhibiting and honoring the photography of a physicist-turned-photographer Graham Flint and his wife, Catherine. The Flints have traveled across the country taking what they call "4,000-megapixel pictures" with Graham’s homemade camera. The couple has combined the best of the digital and film worlds to create spectacular murals that will be exhibited at the trendy Technology, Entertainment, and Design convention.
Directors from the TED Conference saw the Flints’ photography featured on Slashdot.org a few months ago and invited him to exhibit his 4 x 8-foot prints at the event. The conference, which costs $4,400 to attend and is by invitation only, wraps up its sessions tomorrow. The Flints will display 12 of their high resolution landscapes, including pictures of Newspaper Rock in Utah, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and Balboa Park in San Diego.
"We’re like a couple of kids at the prospect of doing this," Graham said of he and his wife.
The murals were shot with Graham’s homemade "gigapixel camera," which is technically a film camera. The 100-pound camera uses 9 x 18-inch Kodak film that was specially designed for NASA. Graham, who helped design the camera in the Hubble, buys the film and loads it onto the enormous rolls himself.
The Flints take road trips with two or three of these enormous cameras to capture images of "everything that is quintessentially North America" as part of their "Portrait of America" project. Last year, the "semi-retired" Graham was on the road for 142 days and logged 35,000 miles on his van. So far, the self-funded project has covered 37 states and provinces. On an average road trip, the Flints will capture about 40 usable images on their huge film.
Once the film is exposed, the Flints send it to a lab in Dayton, Ohio – the same lab that archives all the national reconnaissance film. That lab processes the film, then digitally scans it using a Leica Geosystems scanner that Graham helped design. The resulting 4,000-megapixel images are then saved on a hard drive or DVD and sent to the Flints’ home in New Mexico, where Catherine transforms the files in her "digital darkroom."
"When it comes to the digital side of it, she makes me look like a dunce," Graham said of his wife. Catherine taught herself how to use Photoshop years ago, but now consults for Adobe. After she opens a file, which can sometimes take 45 minutes, she cleans the dust particles from the image. She then balances the color and perfects the lighting in a process that can take anywhere from 3 hours to 4 days.
"We’re very fussy about that," Graham said. He was so fussy about it that he had the National Park Service in White Sands National Park collect samples of sand from some of the focal points in the photograph. The Park Service bagged up the samples and shipped them to Catherine, who stayed home for this shoot.
"One day I got this brown envelope with a government address," Catherine said. "There was more bubble wrap, and another envelope. I was a little suspicious getting an envelope with white powder. Fortunately, the ranger had put a note in."
For a photograph to be exposed perfectly and cleaned up digitally, the process can take weeks or months. The photograph of the San Diego skyline took two weeks just to set up. Graham studied the lighting of the sunset and timed it precisely so he could get enough natural residual light. Even though the photo looks dark, the architectural details of the buildings can still be seen. Graham took pictures for about a week, all from the same spot on Coronado Island. For the finished product, Catherine merged several files of the same image to make sure each element of the photograph – the water, the buildings, and the sky – was lit perfectly. While the setup process took about two weeks, the shutter was only open for about four minutes. The end product makes the time all worth it.
"I just get a huge kick out of going to the site and knowing that I have just generated the most detailed photograph of that area in existence," Graham said. "Every single shot is a milestone. I see more in the photograph than I saw from the location. There’s an endless pleasure when I finally get the prints back."
The Flints began posting photographs on their web site, www.gigapxl.org, in November 2004. They’ve displayed a 20-foot mural at a local museum in Albuquerque, and are planning a larger exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. The museum, which will put up some images of "The Portrait of America" in about two months, is pictured in the Flints’ photograph of Balboa Park. Graham and Catherine will spend about another year on their American project, then continue to their next endeavor: consulting for an organization that will use the technology to document archaeological sites that are quickly deteriorating.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has compiled a list of sites that need preserved in photographs. The ancient city of Rome is one of those sites. Many of the buildings are constructed from limestone, which is highly soluble in acid rain.
"The buildings which survived from Roman times are essentially dissolving like Alka Seltzers," Graham said. "What we’re trying to do is provide a way where you can photograph buildings of that time and see every chip the artisan made."
The Flints have this huge project ahead of them, but they appreciate the business of their life. When Graham retired last year, Catherine got a T-shirt with the words, "Twice as much husband, half as much money." And although things haven’t turned out that way, they feel fulfilled with the importance of their photographic undertakings.
"I’ve learned an enormous amount, but have never had much of an opportunity to benefit the mainstream," Graham said. "This is an opportunity to present everything I’ve learned."
"We’re reaching audiences like schools and people who would not otherwise be able to go to some of these places," Catherine said. "It might strike an interest in someone. The more images we can gather and get out to the public, the more connections can be made."