Artists Do a 3D Scan of Yosemite Valley, with Help from Hyundai

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If this photo looks like an awesome adventure in progress, you’re right. Also, there were bears. And it was all in the interest of an art exhibit you can see now in Los Angeles.

Back in the mid-19th century, Hudson River School landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole expanded their geographic range, moving out from their eponymous valley in upstate New York and heading into the untamed west. These adventures were not simply meant to provide the artists with new subject matter. They were part of a religious, political, environmental, and colonial enterprise aimed at achieving the young nation’s expansive notion of Manifest Destiny, which involved both “settling” the region and preserving some of its most spectacular scenery. Some art historians have described the resultant paintings—breathtakingly grand images of tiny white men dwarfed by majestic landscapes, tromping ever westward, guided by divine streaks of golden light—as “advertisements for westward expansion.”

With the advent of photography in the decades after, shooters like Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge echoed similar practices with this emergent technology, both as documentation of the region and as a prototypical form of fine art. But while a painter could just traipse in to someplace like the Yosemite Valley with a sketchbook and make small studies that could then be expanded in the studio, a pioneering photographer back then needed quite a bit more equipment.

“All these early photographers had an enormous amount of kit,” says 33-year-old Matthew Shaw, co-founder (with 32-year-old William Trossell) of the British arts and technology collective ScanLAB Projects. “When they were going in on horseback, they were 15 or 16 strong, all basically carrying bits of the camera.”

The resultant images, along with those created by Ansel Adams in the early 20th century, have since become some of the most famous and pervasive in the history of the medium. “It’s one of the most imaged landscapes in the world,” says Joel Ferree, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Art + Technology program. “If you have a Mac computer, it’s the default wallpaper on your screen. It’s everywhere.”

Despite, and because of, this ubiquity, LACMA and ScanLAB teamed up to update this process and locus for the 21st century, at a time when these landscapes again seem endangered, this time from the federal government that originally protected them but now seems inclined to open the parks to development. Instead of painting or photography, the artists are using sophisticated three-dimensional lidar scanning equipment, which can provide an immersive 360-degree projected view of the landscape. And instead of mules—or the 1940s woody wagons favored by Adams—this project’s transportation needs were met by a Hyundai Santa Fe.

“At the start of the project, the vehicle was inside the landscape and it was this tiny dot in the extremes
of Yosemite. What we’ve done at the end is to
-transplant Yosemite inside the vehicle.”
-— Matthew Shaw, ScanLAB Projects

“Hyundai is our title sponsor for the Art + Technology program, and they generously provided ScanLAB with a vehicle they could use for the project,” Ferree explained.

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As it turns out, the trucklet was not just a means of accessing the landscape the group planned to digitize. It was also a kind of command post, their hub of operation during expeditions in the national park.

ScanLAB members found the SUV to be an appropriate contemporary substitute for the archaic transportation choices of their artistic forebears. For example, unlike a horse, “It has power, and it’s dry, so you can put electronics and sensitive bits of equipment inside it. That was important in a landscape that is often inhospitable to high technology,” Shaw said.

Despite its advances, the Santa Fe was still only able to provide initial access into the site to be documented. “We did go a little off-road in the vehicle,” Shaw said. “But the final bits of the trip had to be done on foot with all the kit basically on our backs.”

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This did not stop the members of ScanLAB from having a bit of art-history fun with the Hyundai, re-creating some of the well-known vehicular imagery of their predecessors—despite the fact that it caused something of a ruckus.

“There is a very famous photo of Ansel Adams with his camera on the roof of his vehicle,” Shaw says. “We re-enacted that photo with our whole team and set up the 3D scanner on the roof of the Hyundai. As we were doing that, we got stopped by the park rangers because the most epic view we wanted to position ourselves in happened to be in front of this now-busy tourist spot. Also, I think we were maybe a day beyond our permit to take images inside the park.” Luckily, the Brits were neither detained nor deported. “There was a handover of a ranger’s card and a little slap on the wrist,” Shaw said, “but I’m not speaking to you from jail.”

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The ScanLAB team didn’t go as far as to live or sleep in the SUV—they camped nearby—but the Hyundai still managed to offer them vital protection in the backcountry on more than one occasion. “We had a couple of encounters with bears. Nothing major, just kind of driving along slow and the bears walked past,” Shaw said. “But we did find a bear print on the vehicle one morning. I guess that means it probably did something heroic in the night, keeping our valuables safe.” [We believe this was the plot of an episode of Yogi’s Gang, but the memory is hazy.]

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The vehicle will also serve as part of the project’s installation, which opens at LACMA this week and remains until April 16. Visitors will find the Santa Fe parked on the grounds of the museum campus, stripped of its interior, and painted entirely matte gray—even the windows and windshield. Attendees will be able to experience the work by getting up close and peering in through small openings cut into the wrap. “As you approach the vehicle, you’ll see little peep holes on its side. Inside, you can see this apparition of Yosemite Valley projected through the ripped-out interior of the vehicle,” Shaw said. “At the start of the project, the vehicle was inside the landscape and it was this tiny dot in the extremes of Yosemite. What we’ve done at the end is to transplant Yosemite inside the vehicle.”

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