Last year I went to Rome. I’d previously studied in the city during college, as well as taken a brief trip there in high school, but my companion hadn’t been to Rome since he was three. So, we visited all of the important sites — the Colosseum, the Forum, Fontana di Trevi, the Pantheon — and at each stop, I took out my camera and dutifully clicked the shutter. I knew I had photos — one set at least — of all of these places, yet it felt important to me to shoot them again, to capture the magic of this particular trip. I’ve never quite figured out why.
Philipp Schmitt seems to be wondering the same thing. An interaction design student at Hochschule für Gestaltung Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany, Schmitt has started a project he calls “Location-Based Light Painting,” for which he maps geotagged photos of public spaces that are available online, thus turning our obsession with photography into something tangible.
There are three steps to Schmitt’s process. He began by simply placing geotagged photos in online maps as markers, little mustard-yellow drops littering New York City. Next, he created a web app “to retrieve my current geo location and to query the web for pictures taken at that position,” he writes on his website. He also rigged a camera flash to go off whenever pictures are found, allowing him to walk around an area while the flash is triggered. He records those results in long-exposure photographs of his own that are dotted with spots of light.
In the final step, Schmitt added a person to the scenes, focusing his camera and flash on a stand-in tourist who appears and reappears brandishing a camera of his own.
The ghostly results are gray-scale photographs filled with embodied bright spots and fading figures. They are a contradiction in terms: their content seems to point to the futility of picture taking, but the feeling of hauntedness that pervades them seems to suggest some lingering power. In a curious way, they hark back to the first photograph ever taken of a person, a street scene shot by Daguerre with a 10-minute exposure — only two men stayed still long enough to appear. Then, in 1838, people went about their lives with no inkling of the technology that was set to revolutionize the world; now we carry it in our pockets, snap without thinking, and barely notice it at all.