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Meet our January judge: Philip Greenspun

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  February 9, 2010 10:11 AM

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Philip Greenspun and Alex
Philip Greenspun and Alex
(Photo by Elsa Dorfman)

He founded a community photography site that's one of the most successful such sites on the Web. He starts companies, nurtures them to success, and sells them. He flies helicopters. Oh, yeah -- he also teaches at MIT.

Meet the judge for our January "What's That?" contest -- Philip Greenspun.

You may recognize Philip as the founder of the 600,000+-member, a terrific photography site full of tutorials, tips, lively forums – a great community of people who love photography. (He has since sold it to NameMedia.) It was his how-to essay on macro photography on that gave me the idea to ask him to be our judge.

Photography is hardly his only passion. He likes to say that he "started six companies and buried three." One of the successes was ArsDigita, which developed an open-source toolkit for building collaborative Internet applications. He started it with a credit card and grew the company's revenues to $20 million a year.

At MIT, Philip teaches computer science, conducts research, and supervises student research. He holds three degrees from the institute, including a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science.

He's an aviation aficionado, licensed to fly planes, seaplanes, and helicopters as well as instruct.

But it's clear that photography occupies a special place in his busy life. In his words:

"At the age of 10, in Bethesda, Maryland, my mother lent me the Kodak Brownie camera that she had used in college. The camera required guessing distance and setting exposure based on the printed instructions that came with Kodak film. My next camera was a Leica M3 rangefinder, a wedding gift to my parents, with a broken exposure meter. I then graduated to my Uncle Ken's Nikon F and taking pictures of leggy Canadian girls on the beaches of Cape Cod. As an MIT undergraduate, surrounded by remarkably unphotogenic fellow members of the Class of 1982, I turned my attention to architecture and landscape using a 4x5 view camera and black-and-white darkroom.

"In the late 1980s, I returned to portraiture using a 6x6 cm medium format camera and did studio work with the 4x5 view camera, doing commercial photography in a converted factory in East Cambridge. The big expansion in my activity coincided with the growth of the World Wide Web. In 1993, I created, one of the Web's earliest online communities, which eventually grew to more than 600,000 members. The audience inspired me to develop more exhibits and tutorials and I broadened my subject range as necessary to support learners who came to the site.

"I'm still in love with the American landscape. We have been among the most fortunate people on the planet. As a helicopter instructor at Hanscom Field, I enjoy almost every minute that I'm up in the sky looking at how the Earth is arranged. As I get older, I get a lot of satisfaction from taking good photos of friends and family. Nobody is ever happier viewing a photo than a proud parent.

"My favorite thing about photography is that it enables us to see things that we never could with our eyes. The freezing of motion is an obvious example, starting with Eadweard Muybridge, continuing through Cartier-Bresson, and selling newspapers every day in the sports section. With static subjects, such as landscape, I often see things weeks later looking at a photo that I had missed while on the scene."

Philip lives in Lincoln with his wife and daughter.

Philip, a very busy fellow, will start his judging tonight. As soon as he finishes narrowing your entries to the Final 50, we'll post them in a full-screen gallery, and then announce the Top 10 winners a few days later. Meanwhile, you can look over all of the entries in these galleries:

Gallery 1 | Gallery 2 | Gallery 3 | Gallery 4

And don't forget that February's "Loving Portraits" contest is open.

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