November 06, 2007

taking pictures of taking pictures

There’s this fantastic chapter in White Noise where Jack and Murray take a drive to visit The Most Photographed Barn in America.

There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot.  We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits.  A man in a booth sold postcards and slides – pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot.

(Some genius, I wish it had been me, at a reading in San Francisco a few years back, made the argument to DeLillo that he is the master of the serial comma. This is true.)

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

The Most Photographed Barn in America found its way into my head tonight on the Bay Bridge while listening to Episode #110 of This American Life, titled “Mapping.”  The setup for the episode was that maps are lenses about how we look at the world, and each act would be about one of our senses – sight, sound, smell, etc. Act One (sight) featured this fascinating gentleman named Dennis Wood who makes maps of his neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. Maps of the streets, maps of the sewers and power lines…

…a map of how light falls on the ground through the leaves of trees; a map of where all the Halloween pumpkins are each year; and a map of all the graffiti in the neighborhood and of who was mentioned most often in the neighborhood newspaper.

These aren’t normal maps like you think about maps – GPS coordinates defined in an XML file and overlaid on to a spinning 3D satellite-photographed zoomable view of our big blue ball. These are maps of just those things -- the pumpkins, the patterns of power lines, the light of street lamps – without the context of roads. Or borders, or even a grid. (TAL has posted scans of some of them.) As Wood put it (paraphrasing here), he’s writing a novel about his neighborhood through his maps.

Stewart Butterfield showed off some amazing new Flickr mapping functionality at Web2 a couple of weeks ago. With what they’re building you could theoretically pick any place in the world – a city, a neighborhood, a street corner, a building, and literally view that place through the lenses of the people who had photographed that place…filtered by interestingness, by date, by person, etc. Flickr users are building a map of the world where the lens is literal.

About the barn, Murray says…

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

And here’s what hit me tonight passing the cranes at the Port of Oakland: with all of its data, Flickr knows what, exactly, is – quite literally – the most photographed barn in America. Where everyone is taking pictures of taking pictures.

I really need to get out more, don’t I.