Swiss photographer Daniel Boschung‘s robot-created “Face Cartography” mega portraits recently drew quite a bit of attention on the Internet. Part of the reason for the interest is that Boschung’s process for creating these incredibly detailed gigapixel portraits is as fascinating as the end results.
To map a human face as part of the Face Cartography project, Boschung employs a robotic arm typically used for assembling automobiles in a factory. With a Canon 5D Mark II and 180mm macro lens attached to the end of the industrial robot, the device becomes what Boschung calls “RoboPhot.” Subjects sit in a modified barber’s chair as RoboPhot automatically captures hundreds of images of every detail of their faces via controlling software developed specifically for the task.
For flash, Boschung uses broncolor’s Scoro S 32000 RFS 2, which he says is one of the few flash generators able to cope with the demands of shooting off so many pulses in quick succession. In the end, approximately 600 images of a human face are then combined into a 900-megapixel mega portrait. To find out more about Face Cartography, we recently interviewed Boschung about the concept and where he hopes to take it.
You can view and zoom in on Boschung’s massive portraits here. Watch a behind the scenes video on the Face Cartography process at the bottom of the interview.
Rangefinder: Please explain the idea behind Face Cartography and how you came up with it.
Daniel Boschung: I started my photography career in New York in the 1980s. At that time, big portrait productions were in vogue. I was heavily influenced by the cover portraits that Annie Leibovitz did for Rolling Stone magazine. Concurrently, I was fascinated by the old, traditional masters of the portrait photography: Penn, Avedon, and especially the monumental “People of the 20th Century” portraits of August Sanders. I started to wonder: “How does one capture the people of the 21st Century so that the audience in the 22nd Century get a concise impression of the megatrends of that time?”
It took a serious accident with my mountain bike to finally find the answer. I was admitted to the hospital with a broken back. It was sheer luck that I can still walk and did not end up paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors performed a CT scan. I was not allowed to move, so they could image my lower back slice by slice. These CT scans then guided the operating robot that placed eight titanium screws into the shattered vertebrae: much more precisely than a human being ever could.
This experience gave birth to the concept “The Machine View,” on which the method “RoboPhot” is based. Face Cartography is the first project in the world using this method. I wanted to replace the photographer with a machine; replace my subjective perspective with an objective one; replace analog pictures with digital ones in order to substitute the real portrait with a virtual portrait. Also I want to replace just few pixels with a gazillion of pixels.
What interests me most is the question: do the viewers of my portraits notice the deception? If they do, is it conscious or instinctive? One would assume that their eyes and minds should be trained by now. Every day they see pictures of manipulated faces in advertising: photo-shopped, beautified, distorted, and optimized. But what is their reaction when they stand in front of an archetype 900-million pixel mega-portrait? A cartographed face can be really eerie and disturbing. It does not convey any emotions. The portrait combines 600 single images, taken by a robot within 20 minutes.
In addition, the picture does not become blurry when you step closer. To the contrary, it reveals more and more and more details – pitiless and raw. That creates a dilemma/internal conflict for the viewer: the instinct warns “something is wrong,” whereas the mind takes the portrait for real due to its richness in details.
With “Face Cartography” I can stimulate this internal dialogue and thereby exemplify the limits between reality and virtuality.
To me, my mega-portraits are a metaphor of our times – driven by big data and machines such as smartphones, computers, and servers creating a world we perceive as real even though it is highly artificial.
RF: What is the greatest challenge for creating a Face Cartography portrait?
DB: There are numerous challenges. People have to sit more or less still for 30 minutes. That is why I use an old barber chair where I can fixate the head of the model. Because we are working in the field of macro photography you have only two to three millimeters depth of field. To overcome this problem/handicap I shoot many pictures at different focus levels which are stacked in the post-production to one picture, which has a depth of field of about 30 millimeters. Because the robot does not move around the nodal point you have parallax problems (seeing things from different angles depending on the moving viewpoint) and a mosaic pattern of pictures which normal settings in stitching software do not handle.
The biggest challenge was to create a software interface that enables me to guide the robot from my computer. Robots are good workers but quite dumb. The robot shoots in a cadence of one picture per two second. That means: every two seconds, 25 MB are flowing to your system. For this you need a fast computer, because every picture is named on the fly with its exact position and placed in the appropriate folder. This software was written exclusively for this project.
Another huge problem was the flash generator. In the beginning of the project I had to cool flash heads with ice because of the high frequencies and short loading cycles. Luckily, the Scoro S 32000 RFS 2 from broncolor solved this problem. It is one of the very few flash generators able to cope with these extraordinary demands. It also has a short flash frequency which helps to freeze the image and keeps the color temperature very stable.
Printing the images is another challenge. I tested a lot of printing systems. I found that a Lamda Printer best fits my needs. A laser is exposing photographic paper which is then developed in chemicals. I could not find an inkjet printer which delivered the same quality and feeling of depth. The limitation with the Lambda is the size which stops at 180cm and there are only about 10 printers of that size worldwide.
RF: How do your subjects feel about being photographed so many times by your RoboPhot device? Is it intimidating to them? Do they worry the photos will reveal too much information about their face?
DB: Some people think the machine is eating their soul step by step and transfers the information in the computer. A person who sits on the RoboPhot chair has to be quite self-confident and has to trust me. The front of the lens moves very close in front of their face. I am always surprised how fearless people are and how they trust a technology they do not know.
For safety reasons I am working with a dead-man’s safety system. During the whole process, I have to hold down a button. The entire system stops immediately, as soon as I let go. I talk constantly to the person and explain them every little step which comes and what I can see on my monitors. For me it is like flying with a helicopter over a landscape. I discover so many details I never would be aware in a normal encounter with the person.
Many people say after the sessions: “It is like meditation. I could see my face with my inner eye.” Many people close the eyes when the robot moves over other parts of their lower face. I have to be careful that they do not lose their normal tension, which leads to small movement of the whole body.
There are, of course, people who do not want to be cartographed by RoboPhot. They do not want to see themselves so close and with so much detail. But for most people, the process of being photographed by a robot, which normally builds cars, is a great and lasting experience. They enjoy discovering their face in a size and resolution they have never seen before. The pictures are only intimidating on the surface. The face becomes a neutral icon or a sculpture of the person’s face, which does not reveal anything about the person’s character.
RF: Do you also do traditional photo portraits? How do you feel traditional portraiture differs from Face Cartography?
DB: Yes I do. And love to tell whole stories with one picture, to talk with people and inventing situations to condense ideas. But you work always under pressure, because you never know, if you are on the right path.
Face Cartography is a totally different world. Shooting with RoboPhot is stress free for me, because I am just the operator, who is documenting a landscape of a face with a device.
It is a brutally honest way to shoot portraits. There is no cheating, no hiding or pretending. The light is clinically bright with no interpretation. Every person is treated the same way by the machine.
In traditional portrait sessions people try to pose and to send emotions/messages with their face expression. Photographers try to interpret with light and shooting angles. The result is a short very short moment of a dialog between two persons captured on an image. The time frame at Face Cartography is 20 minutes and takes 600 shots. Far too long, for pretending. The person has to strip their mask of facial movements. With Face Cartogaphy the archetypal portrait of a person is captured. It is the pure landscape of a face. A neutral, high resolution document.
RF: You also photograph insects. What appeals to you about capturing an insect photo using RoboPhot?
DB: Face cartography is the artistic and philosophical approach to use the RoboPhot device. Documenting insects and paintings is the technical application of the cartography process. I am fascinated to zoom in from a big overview to the smallest details like the tentacles of insects or the brush stroke on a painting. These details appear 20 times magnified on your screen. You see more than in real life without the need for a microscope. It is impressive how fast you can go through gigabytes of data.
There are many collections of paintings, engravings or other historical valuables which are hidden in archives and not accessible to the public. It is one of my dreams to make all these wonderful collections accessible. It is like with Google earth where you can explore the whole world on your computer. But RoboPhot starts discovering, where Google stops.
The big advantage of RoboPhot is the removed scanning process which allows you to document large areas without touching or moving the subject.
RF: Do you have other plans for your Face Cartography project? If so, what are they?
DB: There are many projects in my head. But first I would like to have an exhibition showing 10 of the 2×2 meter mega-portraits. The goal is to have people leaving the room with goosebumps without knowing why.
Then I would like to embark on a journey for “People of the 21st Century” like Sanders did. For this I would like to travel around the world and install my mobile RoboPhot on location.
Another project is to combine data from genetic sequencing with face cartography. But this is another story.