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'It's not like a field camera; it's more like a precision instrument," says Graham Flint. Flint, an aerospace physicist and photographer, started the Gigapxl Project with his wife, Catherine Aves, in 2000 to create "an ultra-high-resolution portrait of America." A handful of almost 800 images completed to date -- depicting landmarks and cityscapes throughout the United States and Canada -- will be on display at the Museum of Photographic Arts beginning June 12. A gigapixel image is a photograph consisting of one billion pixels (a pixel is a single dot of color in the final photograph). To create clear photographs up to 22 feet long and nearly 4 feet high, Flint had to build his own camera. In an image taken of San Diego's city skyline from Coronado, clear shapes inside the rooms of office buildings can be seen despite the fact that the photograph was taken from over a mile away.

"The lens is the key element," says Flint. After analyzing and dismissing commercial lenses, Flint enlisted the help of long-time colleague Paul Weissman to "design and produce the Asymmagon, an ultra-wide-angle lens." It took a year of computer design and testing to complete the lens. The Asymmagon is an eight-element lens, meaning it contains eight pieces of glass.

A high-performance, wide-angle lens was necessary for Flint's 9"x18" camera. Weissman's design eliminated color fringing -- the distortion created when colors of light pass through glass and are refracted at different angles, like a prism.

Through experiments and testing, Flint developed a chart that tells him how to set three dial indicators (controlling the orientation of the lens) based on the distance of the subject from the camera to ensure accurate focus at every point on the film. To gauge the distance of an object on which he wishes to focus, he uses a laser rangefinder originally designed for golfers.

Another feature of the Gigapxl camera (which, with tripod and filters, weighs 160 pounds) is the 20x riflescope. Once he has the camera focused, Flint looks through the riflescope and centers between the crosshairs at a point in the distance. If there is a breeze, the crosshairs will wiggle. Because he needs the camera to be completely still, Flint waits until the crosshairs are not moving and then snaps the picture. The magnification of the riflescope allows him to see camera movement that would result in as little as half a pixel of blurring.

The second half of the Gigapxl process is in Aves's hands. "Ansel Adams spent more time in the darkroom than he did taking the pictures," says Flint. "The real skilled work is done after the scan takes place -- none of this could be done without Catherine." A consultant for Adobe, Aves is an expert in the use of Photoshop and color management.

To ensure color correctness, Aves uses samples of the actual objects in Flint's photographs. "She prefers me not to be at home," says Flint. "I'll say, 'I remember those leaves being a little darker,' and she'll say, 'No, I have the samples right here, and they're not.'" For the photograph of White Sands, Aves was sent the sand from the area in which her husband had been shooting. For a picture of Balboa Park, she examined terra cotta chips from the buildings, and for one of a battleship, she obtained paint chips from the vessel. "Our intent is to have the image be as faithful to the real thing as possible."

Digital scanning is performed on either of two flatbed scanners. Flint and Aves print at home with an Epson 9600 and Ultrachrome archival inks. "We find it absolutely impossible to have somebody else doing the printing," says Flint.

Finally, each photograph is printed on Epson's Enhanced Matte paper. "It's the cheapest paper, but it's the best for what we want to do. It holds resolution better than the glossy does, which surprised me. We tested it, dripping water on photographs and wiping it off, smearing it with butter on our thumbs; [this paper] holds up better than most film, better than most print paper."

Thus far, Flint has been to over 500 locations and single-handedly taken each picture. But the goal of the Gigapxl Project will require more photographers and more cameras, for Portrait of America was merely a technological warm-up for Portrait of the World. Team Gigapxl hopes to archive, for posterity, familiar landscapes that are changing and decaying. Flint will train volunteers and send them in teams to locations all over the world, beginning with those he considers to be endangered, like Rome and Ankor Wat. "We can preserve [these locations] digitally for future generations," he says. -- Barbarella

The Gigapxl Project: American Panoramas at 1000 Megapixels June 12 to September 18 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday; until 9 p.m. most Thursdays Museum of Photographic Arts Balboa Park Cost: $6 adults; $4 students, seniors, and military; children under 12 free Info: 619-238-7559 or www.mopa.org

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