Three years ago, the artist Clifford
Ross unveiled the R1, a still camera of his own design and construction—a
Rube Goldber assemblage of cadged and commissioned parts Although
it used film, it captured far more detail than any other camera,
digital or not; the resolution was five hundred times as high a
that of your run-of-the-mill digital point-and-click. In Ross’s
giant landscapes, you can make out the woodgrains on barn shingles
thousand of feet away, and see mountain trails seven miles off.
The pictures seem to be made not o pixels but of vision itself.
The subsequent curiosity and admiration of scientists
turned Ross, who had previously made abstract paintings and photographs
of ocean waves, into a congregator of technical minds—a high-res
den leader—and before long he began conceiving a successor
to the R1, which would draw on the expertise of his new genius friends,
and, of course, enable him to make art.
Behold the R2. On one of those stifling days a couple
of weeks ago, Ross took his new camera for an inaugural outing in
Central Park. The test was in anticipation of its deployment, a
few days later, to a wetlands preserve in southwestern Brazil, for
a shoot—“a Fitzcarraldo kind of adventure,” as
Ross put it—arranged and underwritten by the Brazilian Foundation
for Sustainable Development and the National Geographic Society.
Ross and his team mustered at the south end of the Great Lawn and
mounted the R2, along with a few crates of monitors and computers,
on the bed of a Central Park Conservancy pickup truck. The R2 is
a high-resolution digital video camera that shoots in three hundred
and sixty degrees. Specifically, it is a bouquet of nine cameras,
nine mirrors, and nine microphones, arrayed in a circle and mounted
on a tripod; it resembles a lunar module, or an apocalyptic explosive
device, but the sunbathers and ice-cream eaters paid it little mind,
the heat amplifying their native nonchalance.
Ross, who is fifty-three, has a salty beard and
a candy-shop smile, and wore a yellow ball cap from a bar in the
Virgin Islands. Among his helpers were two filmmakers, brothers,
from Tel Aviv, Liron and Tal Unreich. “We’re trying
to learn how to use the camera,” Ross explained, standing
in a shady spot as the Unreichs set up. “This is a dry run
to learn how we can fail—are we missing a wire or do we need
more apple crates to boost it up? There’s no manual for the
R2.” Nor, frankly, is there a display system yet. What Ross
has in mind is a cyclorama—a theatre in the round, which would,
he hopes, vastly improve on the one at Epcot, which is twenty-four
years old and, in Ross’s view, “technically very unsatisfying.”
The first shot of the day was a stationary one.
After Ross made sure that the towers of the San Remo were visible
over the trees, the crew crouched down by a monitor at the back
of the truck. Someone brought Ross a padded beach chair. Action.
All nine views were displayed on the monitor. Passersby
drifted from one square to the next, like thieves in a well-surveilled
museum. A woman strolled by with a spotted Great Dane, squirting
its back with a water bottle. A softball player grounded out to
short. Two dozen day campers in matching yellow T-shirts moved past
surprisingly quietly. A parks employee pulled up in a golf cart
and said, “Y’all getting it?” Ross frowned and
waved him on.
“The pace is so beautiful,” he whispered.
As they set up for the next shot, Ross talked about
the camera’s potential. “In some ways, this would be
like a super- high-tech Advent calendar,” he said. With its
three-hundred-and-sixty-degree purview and its ability to see detail
at great distances, the R2 would be able to capture thousands of
little inadvertent dramas. Ross’s friend Walter Salles, who
directed “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and who first suggested
the Brazil trip to him, coined the term “elective cinema”:
in the cyclorama you’d have to choose which section of the
screen to watch. Ross pointed to the parapet of the Belvedere Castle,
a couple of hundred yards away, and said, “Imagine if you
could go over there and see, say, a murder, or two people falling
in love—or have multiple narratives going on at once.”
The next shot involved driving the
truck forward and backward along the path, at a few miles per hour.
Ross and the Unreichs hadn’t accounted for the fact that the
truck would beep while going backward. They were learning. Still,
Ross was thrilled by the sight of a lamppost moving from shot to
shot on the monitor. “That was really a mindblower,”
“It took us two to three years of work to
watch that lamppost move?” Tal Unreich said.
They spent an hour or more between shots, anyway,
downloading the previous one and readjusting all the cameras for
the next. (The R2 captures nine gigabytes of data per minute.) As
the golden hour approached, the f-stop debates lengthened, along
with the shadows. Ross and the Unreichs drove south to the Literary
Walk, for a tracking shot under the elms. A guy smoking a cigar
on a bench said, “You’re gonna have to tell me what
He was invited to hazard a guess.
“Looks like a bad-ass camera to me.”