Picture Post: the art of citizen science

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is both art and science.
In Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, art reveals science.

Sometimes, science is the happy companion of art.

Take Spiral Jetty, a piece by the late sculptor Robert Smithson. In 1970, Smithson arranged 6,650 tons of basalt boulders into a spiral that reaches 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake. Built during a drought, the stony coil soon disappeared beneath the lake’s rising, algae-reddened waters. Drought revealed the artwork once more in 2002 and again in spring 2010; its rise and fall clearly traces the changing climate.

Or consider Richard Misrach’s photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge. Taken over three years from the same spot on the porch of his Berkeley, California, house, they form a succinct record of light and weather. Similarly, artist Mark Klett created dramatic evidence of how time has altered the Western landscape when he re-photographed more than 100 geographic survey views, a century after the images were first taken. And don’t forget the year’s worth of atmospheric phenomena that Ken Murphy recently collected with his camera on the roof of the San Francisco Exploratorium.

And sometimes, art is the happy byproduct of science, as in the citizen-science effort known as Picture Post. This project wants you to do like Richard Misrach: Take photographs of the same place over a period of time, monitoring how the landscape and vegetation change.

It’s really that simple. Participants drive a wood or plastic post into the ground, then rest a digital camera on top and take an eight-shot panorama of the surrounding landscape, plus a photo of the sky directly overhead.

A Picture Post and its "habitat" in Maine.
A Picture Post and its “habitat” in Maine.

You can set up a post to monitor the seasons in your backyard; you can choose a place that’s undergoing rapid change, such as a suburban development; you can track the natural rhythms of a preserve or park. You can team up with a school or community group or nature group that wants to “adopt” a post. The idea is to return to the post and repeat the photo sequence once every week or two throughout a season or a year, uploading your photos to the Picture Post site.  The result is a systematic document of  environmental change.

And, if you will, some very cool art. Take a look at some of the photo sequences on the site: seasons rush by, the landscape blooms and subsides, water rushes in and ebbs away.

The project organizers—Jeff Beaudry of the University of Southern Maine, Annette Schloss at the University of New Hampshire, John Pickle at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, and Fabio Carrera at Worcester Polytechnic Institute—have so far set up about 30 posts in the Northeastern United States and one in Italy. They could use a lot more, so sign up now! Do some science, make some art.

Categories: Citizen Science, Climate & Weather, Ecology & Environment