Graham Flint is the sort of man who uses the structural bracing of a nuclear reactor's safety door as a camera stand. The bracing secures his camera casing to the inside of his minivan and is indicative of the precision and focus with which he approaches all aspects of his life, none more so than his current and most ambitious project: a 1,000-shot survey of America at the dawn of the 21st century, his Portrait of America, taken with the camera he designed and built, the highest-resolution landscape camera ever created.
It's surprising then, when he announces that he's forgotten his calculator. We're standing in front of Albuquerque's San Felipe de Neri Church, the oldest Catholic parish in America and the last stop on the last leg of his journey. I offer the one on my cellphone, but it won't do. "I need a scientific calculator, with trig functions," he says. Undaunted, Flint whips out a small notebook and begins jotting down a long series of calculations.
Flint is crunching numbers to help him focus his shot. His camera, for all its custom-built sophistication, has no viewfinder. The reason it has no viewfinder is that its magazine-which holds huge 9-by-18-inch frames of Kodak film, at $1,200 a roll-comes from a Fairchild Aviation Corporation K38 aerial camera, used in high-altitude reconnaissance flights at the height of the Cold War, in the mid-1950s and -'60s. It was never meant to take landscape photographs-until, that is, Flint decided it could.
Dressed in a khaki vest and a floppy safari hat, with owlish glasses and a posh English accent, Flint fairly invites gawkers. Several ask if he is filming a movie. What he is actually doing is preparing to take a shot that will put the tourists' high-tech, autofocusing digital cameras to shame: a photograph that will approach four gigapixels in resolution, or 1,000 times the capability of the average Elph or Coolpix. Flint's images offer not only a seductive glimpse into the future of photography, the promise of incredibly large and detailed images; they are also providing an invaluable record, as never seen before, of the way America looks now, its landscapes and monuments preserved for posterity with breathtaking clarity and scope.single page