600 years ago, Dutch painter Jan Van Eyck began to use a new kind of oil paint to achieve a level of realism and detail never seen before on canvas. Van Eyck was working to get closer to his subjects, more intimate. He wanted to record every detail, every nuance. The invention of photography was still almost 250 years away, and he wanted to record the scene. He wanted to record his subjects exactly, specifically, and this new technique was the only way. Van Eyck’s new level of detail is clear in The Arnolfini Portrait from 1434. On it’s face, it is a painting of two people in a room with a dog. A lovely painting, but nothing to suggest technological innovation.
Then we zoom in, and we can see the pattern of the rug. The light, bristly hair of the dog. The grain of the wood floor. Looking even closer, we can see the reflection of the wedding couple in the mirror behind them, and looking very carefully, we can even see a self-portrait of the artist.
Maybe, 600 years ago, this is a world of detail that had never been captured. This was the bleeding edge technology of the day, and Jan Van Eyck was doing something people had never imagined before.
600 Years Later
Fast forward to the early 2000’s, and I am an avid reader of Roger Ebert’s blog. Although Ebert has been gone for several years now, you can still read the entire blog at www.rogerebert.com. One day in 2012 or 2013, not long before he died, he posted a link that said something along the lines of “Gobsmackingly beautiful website.” How can you not click that link?!?!
Ebert had come across a website called “Closer to Van Eyck” which includes a detailed examination of another Jan Van Eyck painting, a 12 foot high by 15 foot wide work called The Ghent Altarpiece. This website allowed the user to zoom in on any one area of this huge work to see the breathtaking detail he realized through his technique and tools. Whereas before we are only able to increase the zoom on a website page, or if we are fortunate to be in the same room as the painting we can stand close, now we are able to see perfectly lit close up photos of every millimeter of the painting.
If we only ever got to see a low resolution screen capture of The Ghent Altarpiece, we would know this is a significant piece of art. The scope of the work is huge, and the detail is remarkable. There is color, perspective and story. And then we zoom in. We zoom in with great detail and specificity, and there is so much more.
There is light reflecting off the crown’s jewels in the top center panel.
The hair on the mane of the horse was finely brushed, but has since become a little messy with the wind.
The wood work on the pew is intricate and detailed.
This level of detail on the website is not offered as expose or violation. Van Eyck wanted to show detail through the technology of the day, and a mere 600 years later, we are all able to clearly see his skill and expertise through a different technology.
606 Years Later
As wonderful as “Closer to Van Eyck” is, that technology is now over six years old…a huge expanse of time in our current technological world. Now, we are seeing gigapixel pictures. As defined on Wikipedia, a gigapixel image is “a digital image bitmap composed of one billion (109) pixels (picture elements), 1000 times the information captured by a 1 megapixel digital camera.” In other words, these pictures are huge. Gigapixel image galleries are easy to find, and they are easy to get lost in. This is just one small part of a gigapixel image of New York City.
Pretty photo, but we have seen skyline photos before, and this one is far from remarkable. Then you zoom in, and the level of detail from the photo above to the photo below is truly astounding.
607 Years Later
This all came to mind recently when, after the royal wedding of Prince Harry of Wales to Meghan Markle, CNN posted their own gigapixel image of the crowd watching the newlyweds ride down the road in their ornate wagon.
Again, as a photo alone, the composition is not that great, and no deep truths are revealed. That is, until you zoom in.
We can see every shadow on every face. We can see expressions, clothing and the fine texture of peoples hair. Perhaps what is most noteworthy is that nearly every person is holding a phone in their hands, hoping to catch their own photo of this special day. Just like Jan Van Eyck did over 600 years ago, we are using the technology of the day to record an important moment. We want to be intimate and specific. We want to be up close. We want to reminder of what we once saw.
Even though more than 600 years has passed, and technology has developed in surprising and wonderful ways, very little has changed. We want to get up close. We want to see everything. We want to remember.