Danny Mydlack is a Professor of documentary filmmaking and media history at Towson State University near Baltimore. Prior to becoming a professor, he worked in New York and Hollywood for clients that included Nickelodeon TV, Goldman Sachs and Scholastic Publishing. In this thoughtful essay, he writes about the joy and wonder of 360 photography.
I cannot adequately express how exciting and personally satisfying right at this point spherical photography is. This little $180 camera matched with the cheapest iPod and $16 goggles I got from the bargain bin at Marshalls. If you haven't tried it yet, you must. Don't do it to make art, even – just for the sheer magic of capturing a place, a moment, a situation and then personally, privately revisiting. I spend more time exploring and savoring one good spherical photo these days than I do a whole album of flat snaps.
I sort of adore how funky it is right at this exact moment (it will change for sure, maybe in just a few months.) To really enjoy it, you have to get the goggles to go inside the image. The goggles are so clunky! They hang off your face; mine pinch my nose. Half the time I can't get the lenses to converge or focus. They fog up.
There is this ridiculous ritual of setting up the image on the iPod, fitting it just so in the goggles, clamping it shut, and strapping it on. Next, the disorienting cross-eyed squinting. Then, bam! Like jumping into a deep clear summer pool. Instantly in another realm. The realm of that particular image. Immersive.
I only view standing up now (swiveling in a chair just seems to confuse my body – am I at repose or am I actively exploring?) I usually go to the middle of my dining room. It's become my holodeck. The kids have gotten used to navigating around my twisting, chuckling figure.
Right now with my bargain-box setup each photo requires removing the goggles to set up the next photo. I am reminded of Pauline Oliveros's use of the term 'deep listening.' This is like deep viewing. Slow viewing.
That IS the dilemma for flat-photography right now. It's too easy, our encounters way too quick. Flat photos have become visual snack food.
You can read right now all the nerdy complaints about poor resolution, grainy low-light response, glitchy stitching, the dreaded 'screen door' effect, and on and on. I quite fancy them. They are an artifact of the times. They will be as endearing some day as dated, deteriorated, flared, scratched film is now.
I spent three weeks ordering a jury-rigged handle, tripod mount with a remote wireless control (so I could eliminate my giant hand holding the camera from every image) only to discover that, actually, the photographer IS part of the subject of the photograph. Spherical can reveal the author. It is, I suspect, an unintended consequence. A 'bug' that I prefer to regard as a 'feature.'
Another great feature is how the spherical context emphasizes scale and proximity. The lenses are designed with maximum depth of field and include impressive close-range focus. You will read current admonitions to 'not place the subject too close or too far.' That 'these cameras only work reasonably well in the middle distances.' Oh my god. I really believe these people are trying to reproduce flat pictures. So much flat picture aesthetics get chucked out with spherical.
Super close up things contrasted with way far off things are exactly where the action is! Viewed through goggles, the scale-relationships can be breathtaking, dramatic, surprising, horrifying. When's the last time you heard that about a photograph?
I suspect these are really frightening times for some flat photographers (and flat videographers). Removing the fixed frame, selective focus, the varieties of focal length, has cut them adrift. By including the photographer's image, her giant hand and arm, worse still. Photography has become over the last half century, a medium for manipulative cowards. In some cases it attracts the worst students: dallying amateur 'snappers.' I suspect many pro photographers secretly know this. The explosion of Instagram photo-filter culture has made this obvious.
We're back, probably only briefly, to the good old days. The clunky, grainy, glitchy, deeply-flawed salad days when photographers stand beside strange boxes roaming the world a-new. Just as the Victorians, we will consider our makeup and professional garb (or our costume) before venturing out, only this time, because it may well be a prominent part of the image.