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What is PhotoViz? We Asked Nick Felton

Find out from the Co-Editor of Our New Book
Posted by Gestalten—03/2016

Designer Nicholas Felton has a decidedly unique way of looking at the world. As the mastermind behind the Facebook Timeline and his oft-publicized Felton Annual Reports, Felton’s analytic approach blends clear accessibility with interest. Our new book PhotoViz, which Felton co-edited, explores the world of data visualization through photography. Whether as a time-lapse photograph, a collage, or a glitched panorama, every image in the book embodies the eponymous concept of PhotoViz. But what is PhotoViz? Find out in our interview with Felton below or in PhotoViz itself.

Can you explain the term PhotoViz and what exactly it means?

PhotoViz is a term I use to describe visualizations that use photography as their primary source—the end result might be another photograph, a graphic, or a piece of text, but it is an aggregation of moments captured by photographic means.

What excites you about the photographs and other projects in the book?

Condensing events is one of the most powerful aspects of data visualization. Using data to describe an event allows thousands of actions—or millions of actions—to be condensed very easily. I love the projects in this book because most of them succeed as data visualizations without ever being described by data. This approach allows resulting projects that are more specific and representative of the subject and, in many ways, more unique and personal.

Are there any projects in PhotoViz that are particularly special to you?

One of the first inspirations for this collection was a fireworks collage titled “Explosions in the Sky” by Jesse Garcia. I love how this project condenses a dynamic event into a static image that still conveys the diversity and duration of a fireworks show.

I’m also very pleased to include selected images from Peter Funch’s Babel Tales series. In this project, Funch composites numerous photos from the streets of New York to create a single image that isolates a single attribute of his subjects. One photo combines all the people he caught yawning; another photo shows everyone who passed by carrying balloons. These photos mesmerized me for years before I realized that what Funch was doing was a form of aggregation and an example PhotoViz.

Can you name some of the techniques that were used to create these images?

I’ve tried to include every technique I could find that might create PhotoViz. Photographic techniques include snapshots, long exposure, multiple exposure and slits-can; photo-manipulations include mosaic, collage, stacking, blending, and averaging. Finally, visualizations are included using both photographic metadata and content.

A few years ago, many of these techniques didn’t exist yet. How can technology help to make things more tangible?

When Apple added a panorama feature to the iPhone camera, it allowed people to start taking several new kinds of photos.

By panning their cameras, people could capture a continuous wide-angle panorama of a room or vista. By shooting in this mode without panning the camera, moving subjects could also appear extruded or as a series of multiple fragments in the resulting photo. This glitch can create remarkable images as demonstrated in the book by Jim Houser’s stretched and repeated photographs of his children.

It seems as if every photographic advance has helped to reveal more about our world and the newest improvements continue to support this pattern.

What challenges come with these new possibilities?

The meta-pattern to photography’s evolution is that more photos are created every year. Photography has only become cheaper and more accessible since its inception. The popularization of photography has lead to the current challenge of managing the 400 billion collective photos we take each year. Managing our own photo libraries is a challenge that most people have abandoned, but it’s also an opportunity for the aggregation techniques of PhotoViz.

And how can we imagine the role of photography in the future?

Photography is on a trajectory to become even more pervasive. The cameras in our phones have outstanding quality and cost next to nothing. This means that anything that might need a camera will get a camera. Cars, homes, appliances and toys are all increasingly sources of photography. How these photos are used will become a critical question in the coming years. I hope that this means we start to treat photographs as a more disposable medium. Historically, the cost and effort of producing a photograph imbued it with value that made it hard to dispose of. 

When photography is free and universal, it might be best to let our understanding of photography evolve as well, allowing photographs to be more transient.

Many images featured in PhotoViz seem to reveal an alternate truth or a parallel universe. Why is that especially fascinating to people?

To see beyond the veil of our own senses is universally appealing. The projects in PhotoViz reveal invisible forces and identify unseen patterns. Expanding our perception in this way provides insight into the mechanisms that mold our lives and influence our futures.

All images taken from PhotoViz

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