HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — There are times that I'm very glad I opted for image quality over size when buying my current computer monitor. I need that quality for digital imaging work, but when it comes to surfing most websites - even good ones - the attribute is less important, and I occasionally pay a penalty when viewing sites designed for larger than 800x600 screen resolutions.
While viewing the photography at Canto do Brasil though, I was grateful to be getting the truest reproduction possible out of every pixel, Even if you don't have a high-end monitor, this site will make your computer screen look better than it has in a very long time.
A Flash-based creation of photographer, Geoffrey Hiller, Canto do Brasil (Song of Brazil) pictorially documents his return to a country where he lived 25 years ago, mercifully sparing us the "department of tourism" shots by giving a street-level view of the nation. (Hiller's own images are also occasionally accompanied by those of a pair of native photographers.)
The site opens with a few teaser shots and an audio introduction to the contradictory natures in the makeup of Brazilian people, then moves on to the first of four regions featured in the production - Salvador Bahia. (Each region -Salvador Bahia, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo- has more than one set of images, with a total of eleven slide shows making up the entire presentation.)
The overall viewing time for the site's eleven segments is about half an hour, and though dial-up users will have the same viewing experience as broadband, they'll be adding more download time between those segments.
Each segment opens with the region's location on a map of Brazil (something to see while the Flash presentation loads), and moves to an opening slide and - usually - the launch of audio commentary. Most, but not all, segments include an audio narrative by people familiar with the region, and as the audio track is independent of the slide show, the surfer can either immediately begin viewing the slides while the narrative is playing, or choose to listen to the audio first and then concentrate on the visuals with nothing more distracting than a musical background.
The visuals are phenomenal.
Crisp, frequently saturated in color, and exploding with life, this collection of candids, street portraits, and scenic panoramas offers quality images very rarely seen on the web - or in coffee table books for that matter. (Some photographs also offer minor surprises in their composition, as with a line of schoolchildren working at their desks. As the eye naturally scans from left to right, we don't notice till the end of the sweep that the last child is looking directly at the viewer.) There are a few sociological insights here too, as when two consecutive sets of slides from Minas Gerais compare and contrast Carnival with a Roman Catholic mass.
The photos are punctuated with perceptive, descriptive, sometimes biting statements. The section on Rio offers a quote about the world's largest divide between rich and poor, "two blocks of Paris...with Ethiopia surrounding it."
After watching the site sequentially, so captivated by the images to do much more than follow prompts to the next section, I finally found a pair of design elements that make the experience much more flexible - features especially useful after first viewing the entire presentation.
Above the image frame, a Gallery link generates thumbnails of each segment's photographs on the right hand side of the screen. Click on a thumbnail, and the full-sized version opens behind, at which point you can either close the Gallery, or continue browsing the collection. If you do choose a specific image from the Gallery and clear the thumbnails, the slide show will resume playing from the slide chosen - but Pause, Play, and even Fast Forward options are available via buttons below the image frame, so there's nothing to prevent viewing any particular image for as long as you want.
Throughout the presentation, images are accompanied by music - never intrusive, thematically appropriate, and looped absolutely seamlessly. (Tastes will vary, but I liked a few of the tracks well enough to leave them playing even after viewing a section's slide show.) The site will just barely fit an 800x600-pixel screen if you hide your browser's Button and URL address bars, and just about the only nits I can find to pick are a few cases of suspect word choice, e.g., "Brazil's land is American, it's (sic) facade Portuguese..." and, ..."they continued to workshop (sic) the gods..." But that's it.
Websites by Geoffrey Hiller have been featured in this space twice in the past few years. In 2001, Burma: Grace Under Pressure looked at day to day life in a "Fascist Disneyland," and in 2002, New York City: After The Fall documented the city coming to terms with the 9/11 attacks. Canto shows again that Hiller is a master of the Flash narrative, and while one might be tempted to expect similar productions with only the pictures changing, each work is given a unique identity. If you haven't yet seen the other two sites, let me take this opportunity to recommend all three.
Canto do Brasil can be found at http://www.hillerphoto.com/brazil/.