August 21, 2006 - 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,” he said.
“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 that is.”
He was invited to hazard a guess.
“Looks like a bad-ass camera to me.”
— Nick Paumgarten