The photographer shooting a 30-year timelapse of New York's skyline


When Joseph DiGiovanna was looking for an apartment to buy in Weehawken, New Jersey, the most important thing for him was the view.

Perched on the Palisades, the steep cliffs overlooking the Hudson River, Weehawken is known for its striking views of New York. "I moved to this town about 10 years ago," he said in a phone interview.

"I lived on a side street and I patiently waited three years to find the perfect apartment with the perfect view. And when it went on the market, fortunately it was affordable and I bought it immediately."

Since then, DiGiovanna has been capturing that perfect view of Manhattan -- from the George Washington Bridge to the Verrazzano Bridge -- and has turned it into his life project: A 30-year timelapse of New York's skyline.

After a period of trial and error to find the ideal kit and configuration, he's set up a rig on his window that takes a photograph every 30 seconds. That's been going on for just over four years, which means he has already amassed more than 4,200,000 images -- and counting.

No moving parts

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DiGiovanna's rig takes 2,880 images each day, producing 36 gigabytes of data (equal to a 3-hour download at average broadband speeds).

The camera is mounted on a shelf and controlled by an Arudino, a tiny programmable microcomputer. Once taken, the photographs are transferred via a cable to a laptop running timelapse software.

The data is then stored, at the end of each day, on two separate hard drives. It accumulates so fast that the drives have to be changed four times a year. In case of a power failure, an uninterruptible power supply can keep everything running for several hours.

"It runs itself, which is the beauty of it. I built the shelf out of steel, and it's mounted up there happily in the top part of the window. When people come over, they don't even notice it -- I have to point to it and be like, 'There's the camera I've been telling you about.'"

DiGiovanna DSC00094 Map

Joseph DiGiovanna

The photographer settled on this configuration after multiple trials, which included cheaper cameras. "I just gave up on trying to make it affordable. Eventually I just took a deep breath and I switched to my current system, which is very expensive, about $15,000 if you add up every item."

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The camera, made by Sony, was chosen because it has no moving parts, reducing the odds it could break. Cameras with a moving shutter, DiGiovanna says, are only guaranteed to work for about 250,000 shots. He hasn't had to replace this one -- yet.

"My original thought was, I'm going to get a grant and buy 15 of these, so that I could just switch them out when they fail, or preemptively. But at this point, the camera that's in the window right now has been there for five years and it's perfectly happy. I have another one ready: If it should fail, I can switch it right in. But I would love if I could just keep this one," he said.

DiGiovanna has suffered only minor disruptions so far, mostly as a result of the computer freezing up, but for a 30-year project, even skipping half a day won't matter much. Keeping the data safe, however, is a different problem.

After his story was featured in a popular YouTube video, DiGiovanna received numerous comments from concerned viewers about his backup strategy, most notably his reliance on physical drives rather than the cloud. "My very rudimentary safety protocol is that the backup drives are not in my apartment. They're stored at my mom's house in another state. So that would protect me from a fire or water damage."


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