On Collaboration: SFMOMA and Adobe Rethink the Selfie

by Keir Winesmith

In my experience, museums and technology companies don’t always make the best collaborators: the institutional timelines, goals, resources, and even languages rarely align. But SFMOMA is directly situated in a vibrant mix of established and emerging technology, gaming, and media companies, so we actively seek to cultivate these tricky partnerships. We work on projects that aim to seamlessly marry art and technology, and that do so in ways that are (hopefully) replicable, both internally and for the industry at large.

Groups of people seated and standing in front of digital kiosks

Photo: © Henrik Kam

Following up on Chief Content Officer Chad Coerver’s introduction to our on-site digital (and other) content strategies, this article is the first in a series of SFMOMA Lab posts outlining these types of collaborations. We begin with Self Composed, a project we developed with Adobe Systems.

SFMOMA has long been committed to photography. We have a strong and deep collection of photographic works, a history of great exhibitions (we were one of the first major art museums to recognize the medium as an art form), and, after our recent expansion, the largest space permanently dedicated to the exhibition of photography in the United States. We also have Adobe, makers of Photoshop and Lightroom, as our neighbors.

Between our photography collection and special exhibition galleries on Floor 3, you’ll find Sightglass coffee and the Photography Interpretive Gallery. When conceptualizing this space, the museum gathered members of the Photography curatorial department to partner with our Interpretive Media, Digital, and Design teams under the direction of Coerver.

Visitors lounge in a seating area with digital screens and a coffee bar

Photo: Henrik Kam

As the vision for the space started to take shape, we did the things museums traditionally do: allocated a budget, sketched a timeline, wrote a request for qualifications, approached respected vendors, signed a contract, and got to work. We also took a page from the Silicon Valley playbook and reached out to members of the Adobe photo products team to talk informally over lunch.

It took a number of meetings, conversations, and false starts to find the right mix of people at both SFMOMA and Adobe, let alone to determine the right scale, tempo, and direction for the project. We began by asking Adobe to create something that would encourage visitors to rethink the selfie—something interactive and playful that people could only do at SFMOMA. During the eighteen-month collaboration, both teams threw away a lot of good and bad ideas—but even the failures helped us focus in on an experience that would be both easy to engage with and elegant. By their own calculations, Adobe spent one thousand pro bono hours working on the project. The result: Self Composed, one of three interactive exhibits that activate the space.

Faces emerge out of shapes on a white screen

Created using Self Composed

A pair of kiosks showcase highly visible Planar EP4650 screens, which face out into the gallery. A frosted glass tabletop hides a Black Magic Production 4K EF camera, and a single metal button activates the exhibit. A looping video on the vertical screen introduces the experience in what we call “attract mode,” and includes the call to action, “Press Button To Start.”

When you press the button, the screen goes white, and as you place things—a hand, a coffee cup, your wallet or phone—on the tabletop, a corresponding pattern of silhouettes appears on the screen. It works like a real-time digital photogram, with the Black Magic camera below the table running a feed through custom software developed by Adobe. The twist here is that there is another camera, facing you, and also feeding that image to the screen, but your face, or pieces of it, only appear through the blacked-out silhouettes of the strewn items. Perhaps a shoulder, a chin, or a pair of eyes are revealed by the patterns created by the objects on the tabletop.

The moment that people realize what’s going on—and everyone seems to intuitively work this out—is pure magic. People quickly become experts, a line forms, conversations start, mini-collaborations between family and friends take place, and, throughout the day, people create a steady stream of photogram selfies.

A group of people crowd around a screen as images of their faces emerge

Photo: © Drew Altizer

In the final step of the process, users decide if they want to save and print the image, or delete it. To save it, they can press the button again, prompting a visual receipt to print out on the side of the exhibit and a high-resolution image to upload to our servers, which can then be saved or shared.

White pieces of paper on a black table

Photo: © Drew Altizer

Since the museum opened in May 2016, Self Composed has become a wildly popular attraction in the Photography Interpretive Gallery. In its first four months, more than sixty thousand photogram selfies have been created, printed, and shared. Here are a few of my favorites:

SFMOMA and Adobe each have their own focus and particular approach to making, but both boast an amazing staff and great resources. Self Composed is an example of what all good collaborations can produce—something that neither group could or would have created on its own.


Keir Winesmith

Keir Winesmith

Keir Winesmith is the head of Web + Digital Platforms at SFMOMA.

Read more


Projects + Perspectives

Find out more about the people and stories that make up SFMOMA. We love what we do and want to share it with you!