Carlo Van de Roer: Experimental photographer and light magician

Photographer and technologist Carlo Van de Roer is pushing the boundaries of photography, experimenting with it as a way to examine the world around us and how we perceive it.

Artist and technologist Carlo Van de Roer wants us to think more deeply about the world and our place in it. From New Zealand to New York, he’s on a journey to identify technology that enables him to use photography to explore the world and engage his audiences in unexpected ways. Since the birth of his son, this has become even more important—and personal.

As the co-founder of Satellite Lab in NYC, Carlo is constantly exploring technology and creative thinking that pushes the boundaries of photography. Using a custom rig and high-speed cinema camera, Carlo has created patented technology that allows audiences to explore multiple perspectives within one captured moment.

But while the technology around his photographic pursuits has changed and advanced, that instinct to use photography as an access point to discovering the world around him is not new; Carlo grew up with photography back home in New Zealand. Both his mother and father were creatives, who instilled in him an interest in art and exploration from an early age. A self-proclaimed introvert, Carlo watched more than he engaged, and discovered photography under the guidance of his photographer uncle. He began by picking up the various cameras his parents had around the house, later building a darkroom in the basement at 10 years old.

Now, he’s turning his own son on to the wonders of photography, rediscovering New York City with his son. Thanks to the breakneck pace of technological advancements, his explorations with photography will be entirely different from his dad’s. The power of photography exists for him in his pocket as a smartphone, making the kind of exploration Carlo grew up with more immediate, but also more mundane. We’ve all become consumed with the idea of collecting and sharing moments in time as an expression of our identities: Over 75% of all photos are now taken with some kind of smartphone. But there’s an artistry that can be lost in the translation to these simplified, point-and-click tools, a sense of inspiration that Carlo seeks to tease out of both his subjects and his audience.

So as a technology-forward artist, how can he generate greater curiosity, and compel his audiences to explore images (and the world) more thoughtfully? How can he use technology to help people like his son go deeper into the art form instead of just broader?

It began with experimentation back at the Lab. With this brand-new, custom rig, the team didn’t know what the output would be. Frankly, no one was sure it would work. Carlo would set the frame, take the shot, and then dash around to check the result on his monitor with fingers crossed. But his trial and error approach paid off: A residency with the New Museum in 2015-2016 produced a series he calls The Satellite Project, his first to experiment with this perspective-changing technique. The pictures inspired his subjects, fellow artists, and critics to view images and the art of photography differently, and inspired Carlo to explore other ways to use his rig.

His next project, commissioned by Microsoft, would capture four musicians in a moment of creating sound. These photos feature similarly forward-thinking artists—Matthew Dear, Alan Palomo of Neon Indian, and Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel of Phantogram—who push the limits of live music with technology.

The photos were captured using his high-speed cinema camera and light sources moving at over 10,000 feet per second. While the visual effects were all completed “in camera” (that is, without any digital manipulation), Carlo and his team still required a range of advanced tech, including Windows 10, to power, process, and edit the massive image files. The resulting portraits allow the usually passive viewer to interact and engage with a moment in time, while shedding new light on the image itself. “We wanted to think about the relationship between these musicians and an audience, and technology as a conduit for that relationship,” says Carlo.

Neon Indian Behind the Scenes

"We wanted to think about the relationship between these musicians and an audience, and technology as a conduit for that relationship."

The portraits were later installed at Seattle indie radio trailblazer KEXP. Thanks to motion sensors embedded beneath each photograph, the portraits could track viewers’ positions. Depending on where the viewer stood, they saw a different interplay of light and movement within the still image. In these interactive photos, the viewer became a participant in the art by controlling and moving light sources within the image—enabling them to explore and discover the content, context, and details of a moment in music. It’s this instability, or potential for change in a photograph, that Carlo plays with in his work.

At Satellite Lab’s R&D facility, Carlo “created technology that didn’t exist, but that [he] wanted to work with.” The team is continually experimenting with light and movement in photography to control the representation of time. And Carlo’s priority remains: Using technology to push audiences towards a re-examination of how they perceive and understand the world through photography. Forcing people—including his son—to slow down and truly contemplate their place in the world and their impact on it. Championing technology as a tool to inspire a second look.

We would like to thank Carlo Van de Roer for participating in this story for which he was compensated. We are proud to tell the stories of artists that are using our technology in their work in interesting and innovative ways.