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How One Parking Lot Photograph Conquered The Internet

We talked to artist Chuck Anderson about the back story of his photo "Places You Can't Imagine," which has appeared on countless social media feeds, t-shirts, and even at the O2 Festival (almost always without his permission).

by Trevor Dougherty
Aug 7 2014, 4:40pm

"Places You Can't Imagine" by Chuck Anderson

While you might not know Chuck Anderson by name, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen the artist's work: the founder of design studio NoPattern, over the years, Anderson has crafted a multimedia body of art that spans collaborations from Kaskade to Lupe Fiasco, all featuring the artist's signature spectrum-spanning splashes of color and light. But that might not even be where you recognize Chuck Anderson's work from: one photo piece, in particular, has become a hyper-circulated image on the web—spread across a litany of social media feeds, online galleries, t-shirts, and more. Though he's rarely acknowledged as the creator of the effervescent image, Chuck Anderson is proud to have produced a photo that tops online search results for "colorful night."

Places You Can’t Imagine is Anderson's photo of an empty parking lot. After Anderson's manipulation of the image turned its tungsten streetlights a vibrant rainbow, the image of this haunting, other-worldly scene began popping up everywhere, from other artists’ portfolios, to live performances at the O2 Festival in London— more often than not without his permission. 

We were curious about the back story behind this seemingly ubiquitous digital artwork, so we got in touch with Anderson and spoke to the artist about how Places You Can’t Imagine came to be, and his thoughts on the image's massive dissemination. And, for the first time ever, Anderson shared the original raw photo file with The Creators Project:

The raw file of 'Places You Can't Imagine'

The Creators Project: In an Instagram post, you wrote that the photo was taken on a late foggy night in Tinley Park. Can you tell us more, and share the full back story?

Chuck Anderson: First and foremost, I noticed it was a really foggy night and fog at night usually means some pretty fantastic photo opportunities. I brought my camera and tripod out and, like I usually do, just drove around with absolutely no plans, looking for interesting places to shoot. When I do that it's this therapeutic thing for me. I turn on music, have my camera in the car, and drive. Zero plans, just look around and stop where something looks interesting.

Finding this location was spur-of-the-moment, but it wasn't some new place I'd never seen before. It just happened to look particularly haunting with all the lights, no cars in the lot, and dense fog. It felt like a movie set. Plus it was December so it was probably pretty chilly out and I'm sure I was shivering as I took the picture...but the experience of shooting photos like that alone is kind of a beautiful thing.

My creative process is the same in almost all instances: just begin. I didn't set out to take a picture that looked like this. I set out to have a fun, creative night out with my camera, and this happened to be one of the results of that.

What photo techniques did you use? And what kind of digital processing effects were implemented to achieve those vibrant colors?

The camera, a Canon Rebel (this was 2006, by the way) was set up on a tripod and I framed it up so it was perfectly symmetrical in the composition. I still have the original photo so here's the real technical details on the shot: Canon EF-S 18-55, ISO 100, f/5, 1.3, shot on December 21, 2006. The photo was edited completely in Photoshop.

To be honest, I don't remember all the exact details on what I did to prep the photo to work on, but I'm pretty sure I started by making it black and white. It's best to neutralize colors in a photo if you're going to add your own on top of it, essentially re-colorizing the entire thing.

From there— and this is 7 years ago so my memory is a bit fuzzy— I most likely created new layers for each color and started to brush colors on using a combination of blending modes like Color and Overlay; color just to sink all the colors into the midtones and overlay probably on a low opacity just to give it some extra intensity around the edges. I gave the whole thing a pretty intense black vignette and a black border and... voilà!

An illegal print of "Places You Can't Imagine" discovered in a Salvation Army via

Can you tell us about how the photo spread across the web?

Well, I really liked the final result, and turned it into a print that was available on my online store. From there, as the Internet goes, it spread on blogs and wherever else and eventually made it really high on the Google search results for "colorful night." In fact, this piece is currently the 6th result when you search that. As you can imagine, that's a fairly obvious and common thing people might search when looking for wallpapers for their computer or whatever.

It's hosted here. I've tried having it removed before, or at least have credit added, but these websites don't exactly have people who will respond. Oh, well. A lot of times, I take some satisfaction in knowing a lot of people dig what I make, and nobody can take that fact away from me.

What changes have you seen in the culture of sharing, and in derivative work, since you started your career?

It’s night-and-day from 2004 to 2014— social media changed everything. When I started in 2004, the culture of sharing on the Internet was limited to message boards and design news websites like DesignIsKinky, Newstoday, Surfstation...and it was a lot more of a tight-knit community. Now, with Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and so on, it feels a lot more like you’re on your own. It’s on you to build your own audience. One is not simply provided for you the way message boards work. However, that’s a small negative compared to the much higher ceiling provided by the internet circa 2014. Your ability to share to a broader audience is directly related to the quality of your work and reputation. 

As far as derivative work goes, I remember that in 2004-05 if someone ripped someone else off and it got noticed, it was limited to a forum thread. Now? You can call an individual or company out on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, wherever you want. You have a direct pipeline to people who care for your work, as evidenced by the fact that they follow you. It’s easier to steal and copy in 2014 because of the saturation of imagery on the internet, but it’s also easier to get caught because of the saturation of eyeballs on it.

"Places You Can't Imagine" used without permission at a Counting Crows concert.

Even The Counting Crows used your art in one of their shows. Can you tell us more about the different ways in which people have stolen or re-used your work without permission? 
 
So the Counting Crows played O2 Festival in London in 2008 and had a big screen behind them showing imagery that went along with the music. One of those images happened to be Places You Can’t Imagine. I found this out because a close friend was watching the video of their performance and noticed something looking oddly familiar in the background and emailed it over. I found out months after it happened. How do I feel about it? Pissed, because it’s not that hard to track down where things come from on the internet. Someone didn’t feel like finding the source of that image, and probably a lot of other images that played in that video.
 
Other ways my work has been stolen: club flyers both digital and printed, printed on t-shirts, used as and in logos, used in music videos (I’ve had several taken off YouTube for copyright infringement), quite a few other ways too. So, unless you feel like putting some big ugly watermark over your work, if you’re going to post something on the internet, you’re taking a degree of risk. A lot of people on the internet don’t give a damn about where an image comes from. They believe that if they find it, it’s theirs. 
 

You can’t go around suing everyone who takes your imagery off the internet and does something with it. I mean, you can, but you won’t. It’s not worth it. You do the best you can, you tweet at or email the offending party and say hey, this is mine, you can’t use it—and hope it gets resolved on that level. Often it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. If the situation is really bad—and whose to judge what’s “bad”—but let’s say your work is stolen and used in an ad campaign by a large company. To me, then it’s lawyer time, no doubt. But someone posts something of yours on their blog without giving you credit and won’t respond to you about it? Eh, gotta get over it. Life’s too short. You know it's yours, take that peace of mind, and move along.

 

Photo of Chuck Anderson, via

See more of Chuck Anderson's work over at his website NoPattern.

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