Photogrammetry and the family: An interview with Kimmo Virtanen


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Post_smart, the latest project from Kimmo Virtanen (1985, Finland), looks at the interactions between parents, children and modern technology as they struggle to cope with the demands of an ever-changing society. In creating his series of ‘photogrammetric images’ – 3D models generated by software using data from multiple photographs – Virtanen worked with children and their parents to create portraits of a hyper-modern life. Though Virtanen is working with the cutting edge of technology, his work is infused with nostalgia for the family life of the past and hope for its future. It also reminds us how irrevocably that past has been changed by technological intervention. Virtanen speaks with us in an interview about decapitating mothers, the future of photography and how some things about children will never change.

You use multiple photographs and software to create these “photogrammetric 3D reconstructions”. What does that mean? Can you explain what photogrammetry is?

There have been developments in software which can take photos of an object from different angles and, from those, calculate what is called a ‘point cloud’. A point cloud contains the co-ordinates of the edges of the object’s surface compared to the background. It’s a very imperfect and edgy reconstruction, but it can be used for 3D printing, for example.

Instead of photographs, I choose to take video, and from those extract a certain amount of frames. From these, I then let the software calculate the 3D model. Photographs work, but there are difficulties, like you can’t take photos too far away from each other and they can’t be too blurred. It’s easier to walk around objects with video because the images match better. Depth of field can also cause real problems for the reconstruction.

Since you were working with children, movement in particular must have been a factor in the result of the images. Some of the subjects seem very nondescript, without any facial features, like we see in the image of the boy sitting down with his parent’s arm coming in from the edge of the frame.

This was the case – they were very lively. That boy in particular became my best friend that day. By the end of the shoot, he hadn't eaten anything and was starting to bounce around and was showing me all these neat tricks like somersaults. We had a brief moment when his mother told him off, saying, “We have to play nice for Kimmo, he's here to make a really nice photo of you and you must sit really still for a while”, and I was trying to tell him a story about dinosaurs that can’t see you if you sit really still. There was this one moment where he got really quite upset and his mother was holding him by the hand, so I went around them with the camera really quickly and finally got the material for producing the 3D reconstruction, and it produced a fragment of her as well, as a decapitated body…

You decapitated his mother

I like it because to me it symbolised the erosion of the parents in the early life of children being brought up nowadays. The role of the parent is really thinning. Traditionally the parent acts as a barrier between society and the child, so that the child isn't exposed to things it doesn't understand. Now, with the internet and digital devices, it’s really hard to control what a child is exposed to. So, with the role of the parent thinning, the children are effectively being brought up without parents but with digital parents.

The project naturally brings up discussion about parents losing control and attempting to filter what their children see by denying access to new technologies.

Or how they choose not to filter it, because some people also think children become outcasts if other children have access to this technology and theirs don’t. Digital information is at their grasp, so if you as a parent limit that, then you hear about your child being bullied because they don't have this gadget or they don't get to play video games. Denying them access also limits the children’s abilities to learn and use new technology.

At the exhibition where I had the installation, a group of 8-year-old school children came in and their first response was to ask questions, “How does this work?”, “How are you doing this?” and I was trying to tell them a complicated story explaining until one girl from a British school went “I know, I know! The webcam is connected to a laptop, which processes the information…etc.” At that age, children already have a basic knowledge of coding.

Yet your work also makes an argument against exposing children to these things which they aren’t yet ready for.

The upcoming generation will already know how to do all these things which I’m now doing. All the new developments in technology augment us to increase what we are able to do, but it also makes us more passive and reliant on them.

The project in the end is the process of it. I don't think that the problem is new with digital children. You, your mum and dad – there’s always been something that the previous generation fights against. In my process I have these phases where I criticise it in a very clear way, but in the end I try to find a way where I'm not just this visual moraliser. There are so many facets to it I try to stand in the middle and let the viewer decide.

Along with the reconstructions of the children, you also included several images of forests and of children's toys. Why did you want to integrate those images and how do they alter the intent of the project?

Nijntje is the name of the little rabbit. I tend to get a lot of feedback that I'm a little bit monumental and I make things a little bit too clear and a little bit too polished. One of the things I wanted to develop in myself was to leave the process more open. During the process I was really trying out everything, and I found that a lot of these ideas of making 3D scans of children’s body language or capturing 3D scans of nature could have resulted in a series of those things alone. In the end, I wanted to include everything, all these visual metaphors, to make a series where each page turn is a little bit different.

With art, quite often you have to explain why you take some decisions, and my major pitfall is that I make the image so clear that they make sense. Now I notice that it is possible to just get a feeling out of an image without really being able to explain why, which is why I decided to leave the image of the forest, because they gave me a feeling that fit the story.

Why did you chose to display the results of the photogrammetry as flat photographic images rather than use the 3D printing you mentioned earlier?

I guess because I see 3D printing so often, I didn't find it stronger. What I actually did with these images is blurred them and gave them grain, to give them the photographic feel that you get in old school portraits. I like that it gives me an eerie feeling looking at something that’s alive because it looks like a photograph. It gives you this strange dissonance. They reference something past and something new. I think if you make a 3D print, you don't get that other layer. If you see it as an object on a table, then immediately that layer is gone; it’s an object, a 3D print of somebody.

Do you think that you need to justify photogrammetry as a form of photography as opposed to it being some sort of gimmick or Photoshop trick?

No, I think that photography in itself is really changing. It all boils down to communicating with an audience that is alive now, so I feel that as I move along, I tend to bring all these different media in, as I think they tell the story better than just photography.

The thing is, I feel I walk past photographs, I walk past a lot of photographs. I just don't register them any more. I think there will be a point where you really question photography as medium. It has already gone full circle with people returning to analogue and so I think a way needs to be paved to expand photography in some way. I find it interesting that now you have photogrammetry that is really an extension of photography, as it is photo-based, but it results in something a little bit different.


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