The Accidental Photographer

by Harrison Jacobs

Aaron Hobson

"Prague, Czech Republic," from Hobson's "Street View" project.

May 09, 2013

Aaron Hobson never planned to become a photographer. Even now, ironically, he seems reticent with the title that has garnered him numerous exhibitions in New York, London and Los Angeles; accolades from the New York Photo Festival and the International Photography Awards; and fervent buzz across the Internet.

“[Photography] didn’t pique my interest at all growing up,” Hobson admits. In fact, the only real thread between him and the art form is his father, who worked as a commercial photographer in Rochester, New York, where he shot for many of the big names of the era (Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, etc.). Though Hobson’s childhood home was full of cameras—including his father’s WideLux swing lens camera that inspired Hobson’s panoramic style—Hobson didn’t fully delve into photography until his late 20s when he made a series of self-portraits he named “Cinemascapes” (categorized further as “Dark,” “Even Darker” and “Winter”), which he describes as “a visual journal into the memories of my youth.”

Hobson has dubbed himself “the  Cinemascapist,” to describe the cinematic quality of his work that is borne of a “society dominated by TV, cinema, YouTube, video games and more.” Hobson spent most of his life bouncing between graphic design and art directing jobs, until he and his wife decided to settle in the Northern Adirondacks, where he secured a position as the art director for the Lake Placid Olympics Committee and White Face Ski Resort. Today, he splits his time between art-directing for Lake Placid and working on his fine-art projects.

After first seeing Hobson’s work in 2010 when he judged the Clarence John Laughlin Prize—for which Hobson was one of the top finalists—photo historian and poet John Wood wrote, “His work is visually intense: intense with color, intense in its composition, intense in its drama, and intense in its strange beauty. No one would call it pretty, but I don’t think anyone could deny its beauty.”

Hobson credits where he grew up—the inner city of Pittsburgh, which at the time, he says, was full of drugs, drinking, mayhem and danger—as the main inspiration for many of his self-portraits. Among his most harrowing memories is the time he was chased down by a group of neighborhood kids with baseball bats. He jumped through a third-story window before the kids caught up and fractured his back. Despite the high emotions and threat of danger in that period, Hobson retained a sense of humor about his childhood memories that figure heavily into his work since, as he says, “I never went to a psychiatrist.”

At exhibitions, Hobson notes, viewers become so entranced by the poverty, danger or sexuality in his work that they often fail to see the underlying humor in his images. At a recent show in New York, Hobson was standing next to his photograph, “A Decisive Moment,” which depicts a man sprawled on the side of the train tracks while another man is running out of the frame, when a homeless woman (who entered the gallery for the complimentary wine and cheese) stood next to him, looked at the photograph, and started laughing. Hobson turned to her and asked why she was laughing. She told him the same thing had happened to her friend the night before. “She didn’t see it how most people would see it,” says Hobson. “It was actually the true story.”

The inspiration for “A Decisive Moment” was a night during Hobson’s teenage years when he and his friends bought a jug of cheap wine and sat by the train tracks and drank. He fell asleep by the side of the tracks (which were out of operation), and when his friends couldn’t wake him up, they ran home so that they could be back by curfew. “It was a humorous episode in my youth.”

Above: "A Decisive Moment," from Hobson's "Even Darker" body of work, depicts a drunken knight in Hobson's youth.

To create his “Cinemascapes,” Hobson takes a series of vertical photos of a scene and stitches them together in post-production to create his distinctive perspective. He exclusively uses natural light in his images, and prefers the emphasis in his images be placed on the location he chooses, and the time of day he shoots. For his post-production work, he uses some Photoshop, though his style, he says, is still overall old-school, and he limits himself to the color balancer (to shift the hues of the image) and the dodge and burn tools, which he likes to “paint with.”

After four years of creating his self-portrait-based “Cinemascapes,” he began a series of “Google Street View” cinematic panoramas. For this series, he scoured the treasure trove of images created by the Google Street View cars and the 360-degree cameras mounted on top that go largely unseen aside from the employees who man the cars around the world. He describes the project as marking his external view of the world, which is much different than the internal view present in his self-portraits. The cameras inadvertently capture beautiful, emotional or hilarious scenes—a perfect primer for Hobson’s interests.

Above: "La Linea de la Concepcion, Spain," another image from Hobson's "Street View" project.

He began the “Street View” project in 2011, when a film producer approached him to collaborate on a short film and asked him to scout locations in Los Angeles for the shoot. Not wanting to leave his home in the Adirondacks, Hobson took to Google Street View to scout shooting locations in the neighborhoods the producer suggested. When he started looking, he was floored by the Street View image quality (a large percentage of which were HD resolution due to Google’s 4th generation Street View Cameras) and what they were able to capture.

After shooting the film, Hobson returned to the Adirondacks in the middle of winter—a place that can fluctuate between a low of 30 degrees below zero and a high of five degrees below zero in February. Because he was unable to photograph outside, he fed his creativity by searching Street View for the locations that appealed to his sensibilities, sending him from the South African Karoo to the Norwegian countryside. Hobson spent days searching the world via Street View for locales and images that aligned with his esthetic and themes.

His process after collecting the photos is systematic: he takes a series of images from a scene and stitches them together in Photoshop, after which he goes through an intensive post-production routine to achieve the style for which he is known. Hobson’s routine is similar to his “Cinemascapes,” primarily “painting” with the dodge and burn tools and altering the colors of the scene. Much of the credit for the similar esthetic in both his “Cinemascapes” and “Google Street View” work can be attributed to his meticulous selection of images from Street View, which is the result of days spent searching the maps.

The “Street View” project caused a flood of Internet buzz upon its release, and Hobson was recently selected as a finalist at the London Festival of Photography in the photo-series category. The selection caused a mild uproar at the festival, which honors street photography, because of the question of whether or not Hobson actually “created” the images. Such a view brings up questions about image authorship. Is it the impartial Google camera that takes hundreds of millions of pictures and files them away in a digital cabinet, or is it the photographer who sifts through the pile to find the gems and stitches them together into pieces of art?

Hobson’s interpretation of Google Street View may be unique, but he is not the only photographer who has seen potential in the tool. Other photographers such as Jon Rafman (whose “9-Eyes” series focuses on situational gaffes caught by the camera), Mishka Henner (whose “No Man’s Land” project culls photos of women appearing to solicit sex) and Matthew Jensen (whose project,  “The 49 States” was shown in the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, “After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age”), have appropriated the technology as well.

Copyright for Google Street View images is murky at best and Google has not yet taken any legal action against artists who have used the tool. Hobson confirmed that Google is aware of his work, saying simply, “They like it.”

Google has released approximately five million miles of Street View. By Hobson’s calculations, that’s around 880 million 360-degree images (if a car takes an image every 30 feet). “I haven’t even scratched the surface yet,” says Hobson. For him, the artistry lies in finding beautiful images in places no one would ever look and then enhancing them in post-production to produce the exact effect he desires. “I felt that some of these places had to be shared,” explains Hobson.

Hobson is currently working on a new series that combines elements of his first two: “My Street View” cinemascapes, which he says “utilizes self-portraits and multiple street view images to create an artificial world within a world.” The work draws on his many talents—art directing, photography and digital artistry—to create dream-like scenes that linger in the imagination. It seems only natural his work should progress from photography to digital art. After all, Hobson was never too comfortable being called a “photographer.”

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