Popsicle #31: Welcome to Pine Point

For the last week I’ve been in Connecticut working with students at the Hartford Art School’s MFA Program. One of the things I love about this truly distinctive program is its emphasis on the photo book. Every single graduating student produces a book. While there is also a final exhibition, these books show a depth and complexity that’s impossible to display in the limited space allotted in a group show.

But as much as I cherish the photo book and admire the work these students have produced, there’s something nagging at me. Two weeks ago while writing about the development of Manga, I mentioned my belief that The Americans of our time will not be a book, but something else: a website, an app, perhaps even a video game.

In response to this, one of the participants of the LBM Summer Camp, April Dobbins, sent me a link to the interactive media website: Welcome To Pine Point. But here’s the thing, had April told me that it was an “interactive media website,” I likely wouldn’t have clicked on the link. Those words give me chills.  Over the years, there have been countless efforts to harness new technologies like Flash to create a new form of media. But invariably when I watch these efforts, what I’m most aware of is the effort to harness new technologies. The content falls by the wayside.


Welcome to Pine Point was a breathtaking exception. Created by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (aka The Goggles), the project actually began as a book project about the decline of photo albums.  But then The Goggles stumbled across an amateur website memorializing a Canadian mining town that had been shut down in the late 80’s. Created by a former resident, Richard Cloutier, this website contained photos, videos and memorabilia.

Just as it felt natural for Cloutier to make a website rather than an album, it made sense for Simons and Shoebridge to use a website to tell the story of this town. What is thrilling about Welcome to Pine Point is that it does tell a story. Unlike Cloutier’s album website, The Goggles created narrative tension much like a book or movie.

In an interview with The Nieman Storyboard, the Googles address this narrative construction:

The thing for us that we’re happiest with is that we stuck to what linear “narrative” has done for so long: that beginning, middle and end…People want to be told stories, they want to be engaged… When people think of digital interactive media, one of the first things they say is “It’s going to have multiple entry points, and you can go wherever you want to.” And sure, you can deliver certain kinds of information like that, but it’s not super-great for stories, at least in our experience.

While watching Welcome to Pine Point, I realized what a rare experience it is to be immersed in a website. The exception is movies. When I watch a movie online, I’m not thinking about the mechanics of Netflix. The content carries me away. Something similar happened with Welcome to Pine Point. I forget about my fingers turning the pages and entered the book.

“We’ve started calling them “liquid books,’” says Paul Shoebridge in an an interview with the National Film Board of Canada, “Like, not quite a web doc, not quite an interactive doc… some form of “rich book.”” Is this “liquid book” the form for the next Americans? It is hard to say. But I agree with Michael Simons when he says “I think storytellers – widely defined “storytellers” – should start entering this world and experimenting with the form.”



7 Replies to “Popsicle #31: Welcome to Pine Point”

  1. I love Welcome to Pine Point. It’s one of those things that I return to month after month. Photo books are great, but I agree that they limit the ways that stories can be told. My documentary project on my family has lots of audio and family artifacts. I’ve been struggling with ways to put all that together with the photography. The photographs alone can’t tell the full story. A Pine Point format is ideal, but I think that technology is a stumbling block. It seems to me that MFA programs should better incorporate interactive media into their folds. Pine Point is so engaging. The sounds, videos, photos, and artwork are all excellent.

    I hope this is the future. I do know that it shifted something in me–something very fundamental. I’m a bibliophile and a writer, but this thing made me see potential that I didn’t know existed with interactive media. Nothing about it seems gimmicky. And it reminded me of the whole conversation we had at LBM Camp about children’s books and how they are about place–how kids get lost in the PLACE. That’s what you take away. Fairytale land. I get lost in Pine Point, and I feel totally immersed in it–invested even. I think about the characters when I go away. I think about how crazy it is that this place doesn’t exist anymore. It takes on this mythical nature. Like Atlantis. And when people go back, there is nothing to see—nothing but scars on the landscape. But there is a narrative thread here too and that thread makes all the difference.

    One of my favorite scenes/audio clips is watching/listening to Richard update his website by using only vocal commands. Something about his tone. Something about the repetition. Something about his condition. Tragic and beautiful and moving. It gives me chills to think about it.

    A book would have been a disservice.


  2. A valuable little piece about my old hometown.

    I had heard something about Pine Point was in the making but I was initially disappointed when I realized it wasn’t a standard documentary film, but rather a web based interactive presentation. Like yourself, I’ve never paid much attention to interactive media platforms for storytelling, for whatever the reason. Just too outside the box for what ‘should be’ viewing content I guess.

    Having spent considerable time with ‘Welcome to Pine Point’ over the last year, I’ve come to appreciate this new format. In this particular case it enables the viewer to sit with a page for as long as they wish, and to think, daydream, or reminisce, all while intermixed audio is adding to the experience. The interactivity involves the viewer, which may not always be desirable for some, but like most participatory things, one often feels further engaged with the experience afterwards. It’s sophisticated with layers and is very well done.

    I won’t say it has more depth than a good old fashion doc film, but it does have a different nuanced depth. As a still photographer, storyteller, and budding filmmaker, these interactive platforms are quite exciting outlets.

    Regarding the content, well that’s an essay and probably for a different forum, however it was a little too melancholy for my liking, but I do understand it. I don’t have to love something to find it valuable.

    Thanks for posting.


  3. It’s fascinating storytelling done well. If it was a promotional piece for a book, I’d be interested in buying the book. I’d never pay for the interactive experience though, as interesting and well done as it was.

    Odd, that.

  4. Brilliant story telling I wouldn’t have come across but for the “yammering”. So thanks very much for that. And Pine Point is Canadian on many levels, although it seems to work for others too? Reminds me of what seems like years working near and driving through the Pine Points of Northern Ontario.

    Popsicle #31 and Pine Point made me think more carefully about interviews with Fred Ritchin:

    “MJ: You bemoan the limited capabilities of online photo presentations. Is the slideshow format dead?

    “FR: The slideshow is not dead nor about to die, but it should not be the default mode of presenting images. It’s a very primitive form that quickly becomes predictable and repetitive. … we tried to design each project on its own terms so as to make it the most articulate possible. …

    “MJ: Speaking of cost, given the glut of affordable freelance and agency photography, what is the incentive for publishers to send photographers on assignment?

    “FR: The incentive is simple: to uncover that which is authentic and important, and to share it with the readers in a compelling manner.

    “MJ: The photos throughout this interview are examples of projects that you find particularly innovative. What do you like about them?

    “FR: They make the reader think, rather than recycling the same kinds of images.”


    And also:

    “Freed from the limitations inherent in print publications, the photographic community can devote itself to inventing in a new long-form photo essay. Yet, laments Ritchin, rather than experimenting with the unique characteristics of the internet – non linearity, audience engagement, image- mapping (where different parts of the photographs lead to different information) – most web pages are emulating print media or video. “The revolution has yet to happen,” he claims.

    “Marshall McLuhan [the media theorist] believes we were all going at 90 miles an hour looking in the rear-view mirror. We think we are moving forward when in reality we are simply copying older methods. The advent of cinema was like filming theatre – early photography imitated paintings.”

    “In 1996, inspired by the potential of non-linear narratives (Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a book in which readers can rearrange 16 sonnets, would later become a reference point for him) Ritchin … produced Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace with Magnum photographer Gilles Peress. “The reader could follow a path of his devising to understand the civil war. He became a co-author. The confusion on screen evoked the chaos on the field. It is still one of the most complex attempts in new documentary photography storytelling that I am aware of. That was 17 years ago.”


  5. You might also enjoy the poems of the prize winning Canadian poet Karen Solie. In her book Flight Solie writes of polluted landscapes, towns, agribusiness and industry in Canada, in a way that makes you excited that poetry can deal with the contemporary world with such an intelligent personal voice. The ‘story telling’ in these poems is resonant and clever and for me had more depth than the interactive website (exciting and all as it was)

  6. thanks for sharing this!

    i thought it was fantastic. oddly, i kept hearing ira glass’ voice throughout this piece. it felt like a strange interactive version of This American Life. the sort of immersion it produced was so similar to that i often experience on good radio.

    fascinating stuff.

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