How did we get the idea for this panoramic iPhone technique? It goes back to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California, where my wife, Rosamond, was the photographer for the book Egg & Nest. Among the millions of eggs in the collection are the strikingly marked eggs of the murre (or guillemot), an arctic seabird that lays eggs communally on cliffs. The birds recognize their own in this array by the pattern on the egg, and for this recognition to be effective, the patterns must be as varied as possible. Rosamond wanted to show the entire circumference of an egg, so, acting as her technical advisor, I turned the egg by hand so she could photograph it from every side. At home, I assembled the contiguous frames as a kind of panorama that was essentially a Mercator (or more precisely a Miller) projection of the egg surface. The merging of the individual shots was difficult and exceedingly time-consuming. Some years after we had photographed murre eggs in other collections, I recalled the innovative Mayan-vase unwrapping by Justin Kerr and his “rollout” camera. He made essentially a slit-scan capture of the entire surface of these cylindrical vessels as they rotated on a turntable. Why not try this on an egg?
I realized that the iPhone panorama app operates as a kind of noncontinuous slit-scan camera: It records hundreds of vertical slices as the user turns the camera and does its best to put them together in real time. The iPhone camera is remarkably forgiving of speed variation when turned but is prone to distortion from any wobble. When I put an egg on a cheap turntable, started it rotating, and propped the phone nearby, it got a perfect projection of the entire surface of the egg.
The “drive-by” breakthrough came as we were being driven through London at the locally accepted breakneck speed, and to have something to do other than hanging onto the seat, I held the phone up to the window and started the panorama. We had been going much too fast to make a perfect scan, yet the camera, in attempting to stitch together the vertical slices, had made a very interestingly distorted hash of the scene, one which somehow captured the architecture, the street traffic, and also the uneasy mood of the photographer.
We have been to Los Angeles often, usually for work, and back there in November 2014 with time on our hands, we thought, How about some drive-by shooting? We thought immediately of Pacific Coast Highway, from Santa Monica through more than twenty miles of Malibu, all the way up to Ventura County, where it takes a turn around the mountains and into the pancake-flat agricultural zone that leads to Camarillo. We never grow tired of the staccato rhythm of ill-matched yet tightly packed houses that line the ocean side of the road, or the feeble attempts to hold back the steep hills on the other side, or the way the inhabitants of those houses park their cars outside their garages, seemingly inches from the traffic streaming by, or the shallow commercial centers hugging the road, too, and then the relief when the highway finally opens up to the ocean and the dry mountains, then passes through the cleft at Point Mugu. It is a landscape constricted, precarious, and abrupt.
Rosamond took the panoramas; I did the driving. You can see how it worked. All kinds of strange things happen to the perspective. Objects that are closer and thus relatively faster are truncated or disappear entirely—shadows without a source, cars squeezed into “Smart” proportions or ghostly vestiges. Clouds and mountains at “infinity” do not move and are repeated or spread across the entire image. The “vanishing point” is up close; parallel lines do not converge. When the scene outstrips the speed of the camera, it still tries to put together plausible connections.
These photographs are products of the camera with no added handwork, except for discovering the right picture within the stream and cropping it out. The image above, for example, represents the compression of an entire city block (Pico Boulevard opposite Federal), a stretch of enterprise a passerby wouldn’t look at twice. Somehow, the camera has picked out the most interesting bits and pasted them together into a very satisfying composition. Experienced as I am in multisensor arrays, I can well imagine the algorithm that is churning away as each new strip comes in and a decision must be made at high speed: Do I print this next strip? Or wait for something better?
It must be said, though, that this is a very low-yield enterprise. The real photographic labor is going through the hundreds of panoramas, most of them of little interest, mundane, or meaningless. But there are moments when all the pieces come together in a composition that feels right—when the distortions express a kind of preapocalyptic hint of dislocation and slow-motion disaster that seasons Los Angeles, at least for appreciative visitors like us.