Photo of the Year Project

Over the years, I’ve taken to documenting more and more of my life with my smartphone. I now generate over 1,000 photos each year, sometimes within a single week. To counter this excess, I’ve tried to find one photo that best represents each year. Although there’s no defined rubric for my selection, it’s my hope that over time these photos will highlight the development of (1) my personal style, (2) the technology that facilitates this, and (3) a unique quality of each year.


Here’s a view of Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun in the early morning, with the shadow of one of many hot air balloons on its eastern face. As I write this, I’m just now noticing my habit of photographing architecture, and I wonder if that’s because it’s a relatively simple subject. People or animals move, whereas I can always anticipate where a building is going to be. But I don’t think that’s the case here. When I see places like Teotihuacan, I’m awestruck by the ingenuity of ancient humans. I like to imagine what their societies were like, how I might have fit into them, how all that effort led to moments like these, and where all of this may ultimately lead. There’s an incredible story below, but sometimes it’s better to just enjoy the early spring day before a good friend’s wedding, knowing that every soul you love is in good health and good spirits as the sun warms your back.


Selecting this image is an insult to Scotland’s wonderful and varied attractions. I have pictures of fabled sunny days on the Isle of Skye, pictures of reindeer standing right in front of my camera with a rainbow crowning the valley behind them, pictures of ancient monoliths surrounded by sheep on the most beautiful autumn morning I have ever experienced. But there’s just something about this red door brightening an overcast day at Glenfarclas that captures my imagination. Compositionally, the photo is just a few large blocks, but the geometry interests me, such as each building being composed of just three lines. Like the subject itself, the perspective is a little too shallow, but isn’t that the plight of every tourist?


Since the pandemic, people have been forced to find creative ways to entertain themselves. One of these innovations was Electric Mile, a “Drive-Thru Audiovisual Adventure from the minds behind Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC).” The goodie bags for this event, picked up through a mask-enforced drive-through, came with a pair of cheap diffraction glasses which I used to take this shot. The radio station (coordinated to the surrounding installations) can be seen in the car’s dashboard in the lower left of the picture: a reminder of the barriers still in place between participants and the outside world.


I took this photo at Vancouver’s Granville Island Market in early March. It was just a spur of the moment shot that only took on significance in hindsight. Although international lockdown was still to come, news of Covid had been spreading, and I had been told the city was emptier than usual. It’s interesting how far apart everyone is from each other, including the photographer/viewer.


This photo is a record of the vast 2019 Super Bloom and its reach into the otherwise colorless High Desert. It also unintentionally echoes last year’s winner. Here too is a yellow road line, but sparse in its application, surrounded by dark asphalt. Instead of an imposing Neo-Romanesque building, there’s nothing but the empty desert stretching 20 miles to the San Gabriel Mountains. A short-lived winter snowfall is replaced with a short-lived explosion of color.


Yale is the most beautiful campus in the world, and more so in winter. I took hundreds of photos of every nook and cranny of its buildings, across four seasons for two years. This particular shot replaces depth (the third dimension) with time (the fourth dimension). Snow is suspended in mid-air, the bright yellow road lines are temporarily exposed by a passing snow plow, and the gate light will soon turn off as morning becomes noon. The grand building behind it, for all its three-dimensional solidity, is flattened into a backdrop for this singular moment that can never be exactly replicated.


This photo captures July 4th at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Compositionally, I enjoy the red glow of the fireworks mirrored on the phones within the shot, as well as the eager photographer silhouetted against the Washington Monument and Capitol Building. There’s a contradiction here between individualism and collectivism, all taking place in this most American setting, reinforced by the implication that this exact picture is replicated in hundreds of different ways. Even more subjectively, I like the outermost sparks that form a larger sphere around the chrysanthemum explosions, flourishes which remind me of the flecks of paint thrown onto my favorite Sargent painting. This is a triumphant moment disguised in a low quality iPhone photo.


It’s important to emphasize that I don’t apply any filters to my photos. I’m not opposed to them, but with my visual memory being as fragile as it is, I like to know that what I see is what I truly saw, or even just what I meant to see when I took that photograph. And if I take enough mundane photos, which by 2016 I’m certainly doing, I get the occasional diamond in the rough. In this year’s selection, a beautiful afternoon at the beach is ruined by a swift moving fog.


From 2014 and on, I caught the panorama bug. I think this is the best one I ever managed to take, thanks to the beautiful scene, the color coordination of clothing and water, and the serenity of my companion and our surroundings.


The first place I ever felt at home in was Prague. I crossed the Charles Bridge, pictured here, every weekday on my way to and from my internship. On the weekends, its cobblestone path was an integral part of my running route. I willed myself into becoming a local. During the busy hours, I passed by tourists and pretended not to understand their English. I pointedly ignored the caricature artists and souvenir stalls. I passed by countless wedding photo shoots and one pornography shoot as if I’d seen it all a hundred times before. One time, on a morning different from the one pictured here, I watched a city worker relieve himself on the great gate. Always channeling the bridge, I remained undisturbed.


There’s going to be a point in time (2015) where I realize my point-and-shoot camera is garbage. I haven’t reached that point yet. This is one of the infinitely small moments that in aggregate make up the 24 hour-long trip to Portland via the Coast Starlight train route. Having spent over a decade in the sun-bleached world of Southern California, Mexico, Israel, and Brazil, this photo captures my first impression of the Pacific Northwest. If you look closely the details are there, but the motion blur from the train and the distorted light of a cheap lens unexpectedly revealed the Oregon countryside as I felt it in that moment.


This image has stayed burned into my mind for over a decade. After my camping partner — feeling the first waves of food poisoning from some bad Chinese food — drove us up the treacherous mountain road, in the late night, amidst pouring rain to our campsite — after we tried to sleep through the relentless rain and wind at what felt like the edge of the world — we woke up to find the sky beneath us.


Although there is lots of beauty to be found within the cities of Brazil, a lot of it can be skin deep and reserved for the benefit of tourists. While that’s in no way unique to Brazil, I faced the disparity on a daily basis during my time there, and it feels insincere to ignore it. Here you can see how the buildings quickly deteriorate in quality as you stray from the waterfront of Salvador de Bahia. According to locals, many of these buildings were to be demolished in anticipation of the World Cup, with no plans of relocation for the residents.


Being from the car-heavy suburbs of the United States, I wanted to capture a candid photo of urban street life in Israel. I managed to accomplish the exact opposite of what I was going for and draw the gaze of almost every person in the frame as I took this photo. Even after twelve years, I still feel uncomfortable when I look at this photo. Now that’s art.


A rare moment of color in the high desert. One of the few times I felt inspired to take a photo of a landscape otherwise being choked to death by tract homes and strip malls. This was the most natural looking angle I could find, although you can still see that the hill has been cut flat for the sake of the aqueduct on top of it.


My parents and I lived along the southern foothills of the Antelope Valley, so my attention was always directed downward to the valley floor. Only once, near the end of my time there, did I fully direct my attention upward. I hopped a fence, crossed the aqueduct by tunnel, and scrambled to the top of “my” hill. At the top I found a pleasant trail, overly marked, with shaded seating and a view of the comparably lush Leona Valley. I had stumbled upon a rest stop for a much easier route serving people with a much greater perspective.