Natural Advantages

I have been working on a project to photograph all the parks in Seattle.

But it’s more than that. It’s a long experiment in hyperphotography.

I started as a relatively serious photographer way back in the 1980s, but got out of it in the early 90s, mostly out of frustration with still photography’s inability to do things I wanted to do. After fifteen years or so of making films, I slowly came back to photography as digital photography became possible.

Reading Fred Ritchin’s book, After Photography, in 2008 was a kind of joy for me, because it dealt with things I’d always felt: the failure of photojournalism and its pretenses toward unchallenged (and unchallengeable) “truth”; the need to expand photography to be interactive; the idea of a photograph as only one layer of information, one possible entrance into a much larger subject. All those were things I’d been wanting to test and work with but in the analog days it was very hard.

Finally in 2009 I began to put those ideas to the test on a big subject, namely public land. What is public? How does the public use land? What is a “use”? Those high-level, abstract ideas were what I wanted to examine in a very long series. Being a Seattle boy, I naturally chose to deal with our parks. There are more parks in Seattle than any other city in the country and Seattle’s citizens take them for granted, so much so that many of them had never even been documented visually by the city.

Beyond that inquiry, though, I wanted to do something else as well: I wanted to use the photographs of the parks to teach photography to users. In our supposedly visual culture, where images abound, my experience in teaching and talking with people about images is that they simply do not know how to look unless text tells them so — the very thing that drove me away from photojournalism. There is a massive corpus of writing about images, but almost none of it is germane. There are many arguments about images and who controls them — all very hip and po-mo — but these arguments do not start from the images: they start from personal prejudice. The image is merely a vehical for someone to carry their own psychodrama. There are almost no instances of books or classes or any other type of discussion in which the images are allowed to argue for themselves. People simply don’t look deeply enough to give the images a chance.

I decided that the photographs from the parks could also serve as an introduction to how to look at photographs formally. The strategy would involve treating each photograph as a series of layers.

  1. as a “document” of something in front of the camera
  2. as a sequential argument
  3. as a historical fact
  4. as a chronological fact
  5. as a visual composition

Those all sound obvious, but rarely are those layers explicitly interactive. In the Natural Advantages project, each of those layers is immediately accessible by a user. In any given picture, a user can list the objects in the photograph, the date the park became public land, the order in which the photograph was taken, and the compositional wireframe (the armature behind the picture). So for instance one can call up the following picture of Marvin’s Garden Park:

ballard bell tower

Within this picture one can call up a list of the items in the frame: flowers, brick, a bell. From there one can go to another picture randomly that has a bell such as:


or flowers:

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or bricks:


One can also call up the history of the park as a text layer:


No real relation to Monopoly’s Marvin Gardens, Marvin’s Garden was named for the late town character Marvin Sjoberg.

The Ballard Centennial Bell Tower-dedicated April 22, 1989-holds the bell that was part of Ballard’s City Hall, which stood at this site from the time when Ballard was a city (1890-1907) separate from Seattle. The Ballard City Hall was destabilized by the 1965 earthquake and demolished two years later. The refurbished 1,000-lb. brass bell was restored at a ceremony held April 11, 1976, as part of a U.S. Bicentennial Project, with Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf XVI. Also at that ceremony, the Ballard Avenue Historic District, one of Seattle’s landmark districts designated by Seattle City Council, was officially dedicated, as noted by a plaque affixed to the bell tower.

Or another layer that gives you a map:

marvins map

On the compositional level of the picture, each picture contains a wireframe that reveals the basic armature of the picture:

circle armature

Activating the wireframe will take the user to a random picture that has a similar armature — in this case, a picture that is based on a circular composition:

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HDRtist HDR Rendering -

And then from that circular composition one may go to others, or simply go to the next picture of that park; or from features within that park — clouds, branches, sprinkler head — to pictures that have those features, etc. The interrelations between pictures are numerous and possible paths through the entire set of 1,000 pictures nearly astronomical.

This is the kind of project I’ve always wanted to do. Sure, there are beautiful and spectacular photographs within the series, but it’s not just a bunch of pretty pictures. There are multiple levels on which to engage the pictures, for multiple levels of user skill and interest.

Obviously this is a massive endeavor. It took me five years to acquire all the photos. It’ll probably take me six months more of assembling the database and programming it all. But I’m excited to finish it in its final form.

Meanwhile, here are some images from the series.

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02 sacajawea



east portal