Photographer Daniel Boschung employs a custom programmed industrial robot to accurately capture high definition portraits. Instead of taking pictures himself, he removes himself out of the process by delegating the work to an ABB industrial robot driven by a control software, which was written exlusively for this task. The standardized portraits have a surprising impact. We asked him a few questions about him and this particular project.
Daniel, Can you introduce yourself?
I am Daniel Boschung (1959), I am a Swiss advertising and reportage photographer. I published pictures in international magazines and newspapers like Time Magazine, Newsweek, or Geo Saison. In the advertising field I created many Swiss campaigns.
Can you give us more details the device RoboPhot?
RoboPhot is 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. All movements are controlled by a computer. The device automatically captures hundreds of images of every detail of a surface via controlling software developed specifically for the task. The idea behind it was born years ago.
I started my photographer career in New York in the 80s. At that time, big portrait productions were en vogue. I was heavily influenced by the work Annie Leibovitz did for the covers of the Rolling Stone. Concurrently, I was fascinated by the old, traditional masters of the portrait photography: Pen, Avedon, and especially the monumental « Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts» (people of the 20th century) of Sanders. I started to wonder: “How does one have to portrait the people of the 21st century so that the audience in the 22nd century get an compact 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 8 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, 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: 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; take 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. Have a look at the video embedded:
What is the difference between art cartography and a traditional portrait?
When you shoot regular portraits you communicate with the person and you try to find the right moment. I 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.
What equipment & software do you use?
There are numerous challenges. People have to sit more or less still for 20 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 postproduction 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 second 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. As a camera I use a tethered Canon 5D Mark II and 180mm macro lens.
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.
Which field of activities may be interested by RoboPhot?
Face cartography is the artistic and philosophical approach to use the devise RoboPhot. 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 the world, where Google Earth stops. The big advantage of RoboPhot is the removed scanning process which allows you to document large areas without touching or moving the subject.
How did you find Autopano Giga in doing the job? Which features helped you create your photo compositions?
Autopano Giga is making great job. The image stitching software is very intuitive and I found for every of my needs a feature which helped to solve the challenges. Starting with the Import wizard which allows you to define how many rows and columns your picture has. Or the import menu Shoot Layout which I can adapt to the movement of RoboPhot. In the edit mode I use sometimes the menu Move Image to make small corrections. And I love the various export possibilities. Without Autopano Giga I would be lost.
What are your other projects?
There are many projects in my head. With the project Art Cartography I would like to capture an old hidden collection of paintings and make it accessible to the public. With the new technology of 4K screens new ways of perceptions can be generated. With the project Face Cartography 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. Than I would like to embark on a journey “People, of the 21th 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.
Thank you Daniel for this interview. The team of Kolor wishes you the best success in your future photographic projects.