Photo Ex Machina

We tend to think of photography as capturing a moment of reality—freeze-framing a single visual instant in the never-ending and complex stream of living, fixing a moment of change, stopping time. But technology always alters art.

John McCarthy’s mammoth detailed photographs of downtown Salt Lake City involve taking a stream of panoramic shots, then manipulating a single image across three different computer platforms—each with its own set of idiosyncrasies and glitches. In the course of refining and processing them, he found the images were digitally mutating.

“At first I thought they were failures,” McCarthy says. “The computer couldn’t deal with the geometry of the images. Then I realized, the artificial intelligence was a digital companion to my art.”


John McCarthy has spent the last 10 years photographing about two blocks of Salt Lake City.  Commissioned by Downtown Alliance to document the construction of City Creek Center, completed in 2012, McCarthy produced a volume of meticulous architectural shots. (Salt Lake magazine, April 2013). Then he decided to move down Main Street to photograph the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Theater, demolition to completion. In the course of the project, taking pictures downtown once a week and spending hours at the computer refining the images, he developed a new visual art form, one that combines high-dynamic range (the weaving of multiple digital images), panoramic photography and artificial intelligence.     


“I started thinking, ‘This is an arts center. Why not try something outside of the box? Literally?”  The set of photos began to evolve from straightforward images into something else. “The colors and geometry of large construction fascinate me. I photograph landscapes or megastructures,” McCarthy says. “I’m always looking up and out at the scope of the horizon.” Panoramic photography involves taking several series of shots to build the whole image (McCarthy uses a digital version of the Widelux camera he used in film photography) and a couple of hours of shooting takes weeks of post-production. “Each picture takes two or three 12-hour days of work afterwards,” says McCarthy.  “What medical imaging refers to as ‘digital artifacts’ tend to stop the eye from  perusing the image. So I spend hours removing tiny black spots and gum stains on sidewalks.”  McCarthy uses the same image-sharpening software that is used on Mars Rover images—the result is a surreal clarity and cleanness of image that reinforces the credibility of the photographer’s—and the computer’s—imagination. The contrast of randomness and digital exactitude gives the images a sense of whimsy and excitement. “It’s like filling in the skyline of the future,” says McCarthy. 

Ansel Adams famously complained, “A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into.”

Not these.    


Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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