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Image: couple
Rosie Hardy / Aaron Nace  /  Flickr
Rosie Hardy and Aaron Nace were together via photo manipulation before they ever met in person. "Be it an ocean, be it a wall, nothing will keep me from you," is the first image in their ongoing project, "Compilation Sundays."
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 2/13/2009 9:05:02 AM ET 2009-02-13T14:05:02

Rosie Hardy and Aaron Nace are together for Valentine’s Day, which no doubt thrills their Flickr fans who’ve been following the couple’s 9 ½-month relationship via the photo-sharing Web site almost since the beginning.

It’s the photos of the couple together that have enchanted a growing number of soft-hearted saps across the Internet because Rosie, 18, and Aaron, 24, are almost never in the same room when the photos are taken. They’re not even in the same country. Rosie lives in Buxton, England, and Aaron in Chapel Hill, N.C. The photographers met on Flickr, and thanks to image-manipulating software, they’ve created a growing collection of wistful, fairytale illusions in which they are together.

At least, if that’s what you want to believe. As the cheer section that makes up the majority of comments on the couple’s photo blog demonstrates, plenty of people do. As the nastier comments on Rosie and Aaron fan blog entries reveal, there are those jaded, cynical haters who don’t buy much of what we see online, this relationship least of all. The collision of fates that make their love story is too preposterous. The couple is too ridiculously attractive. The highly stylized photographs are far too polished and professional. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

A couple of things are certain: Rosie and Aaron are (physically) together on Feb. 11, and they’re certainly, neither of them, dogs. Technotica confirmed this via a video Skype call to (um … allegedly?) Rosie’s home in Buxton, where she lives with her parents and Aaron is visiting until Feb. 22.

“Internet hug!” says Rosie as she stretches her arms and leans toward the Web cam to show me how she greets Aaron on Skype when the two are an ocean apart. And St. Valentine help me, it’s more than this jaded, cynical hater can do than to resist her adorable smile and British accent, and Internet-hug her back.

Image: couple
Rosie Hardy / Aaron Nace  /  Flickr
"I will always be here for you," a "Compilation Sunday" project in which American Aaron Nace adds himself to a self-portrait Rosie Hardy sends him from England.
Our Skype interview starts a bit later than planned because the couple say they'd just finished up a long photo shoot and needed time to clean up. Fantasy and theatrical make-up are a recurring theme in Aaron and Rosie's collaborative and solo work, and for this particular session, Rosie’s face was painted blue, “like a Smurf,” she says.  The couple huddles together in front of the computer camera in the poorly lit guest room.

Watching them via Skype, it seems this couple has the talent, yet none of the cool-kid affectation. The two blurt their plans to be together in July, when Rosie finishes college and moves to North Carolina. Once together, they’ll continue to expand their business enterprise, ARF (Aaron and Rosie Fotography) which already does a respectable trade retouching images, selling original photos and doing client shoots.

Though engagement isn’t yet an announcement, Rosie thrusts her “promise ring” from Aaron into the camera, a gold-and-diamond number with a second stone the color of “blurple,” her favorite imaginary shade. Then it’s down to brass tacks: A review of the legend of their unlikely meeting.

“We count our anniversary as the day we met,” Rosie says, the effusive half of the pair. “That was April 29.” Aaron nods along with a half-smile behind his hipster beard, filling in story gaps when prodded by his peppier half. April 29 is the day they first saw each other on Flickr.

Rosie, a photo-sharing newbie, was 12 days into her "365 Days,” a community Flickr project in which participants take and upload one self-portrait a day. That’s when a friend showed Rosie photos from another participant’s set (Aaron’s) that were remarkably like her own — playful images in which both seemed to be dining on a foot or twisting their faces in similar goofy expressions.

Rosie set out for home, with every intention of contacting this other photographer who’d been on Flickr for several years, only to find that by the time she logged on to her account, Aaron had e-mailed her first. “It was pretty weird,” says Aaron, agreeing on the kismet. “We both get a lot of people who contact us (via Flickr) so for that to happen is really unlikely.”

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Unlikely ... but true?
From there, the relationship follows a storyline not unlike many Internet infatuations. Their communications grew longer, and more intense. Attempts by Rosie to get Aaron to open up, “like girls do,” Rosie says, resulted in a kind of extended fan fiction to each other, both taking turns adding written chapters to their hypothetical first date. The stories were personal, but increasingly Aaron and Rosie crowed about each other on their mutual blogs until Flickr compatriots suggested a photo of the two together. Thus began “Compilation Sundays.”

According to the couple, each photo in the “Compilation Sundays” set begins with an agreed-upon theme or idea. Rosie takes her self-portrait, then e-mails it to Aaron, who, using his sophisticated lighting equipment to match Rosie’s natural lighting, takes his self-portrait.

Aaron then spends the next five or so hours manipulating the two images into one photograph before uploading it to Flickr for Rosie and their fans to see. The first of the set is fairly simple compared to the increasingly detailed and fantastical images to come; just the two back-to-back, separated by the wall on which they lean.

“To everyone who suggested we do a shoot together, I love you,” Aaron wrote under this first image. “Today is the happiest day of my life. One step closer to us being together.”

Comments are equally effluvious. “Damn, this is awesome,” writes one of 147 commenters. “Hope it works out for you two. Would somebody buy an airline ticket for one of these two?”

“I can't believe this it is so gorgeous!” writes another. “Bless the two of you! Aaron you need a sooner flight mate!”

Soon after that first compilation, just 75 days after their first “meeting” (albeit an eternity to young lovers) Aaron and Rosie say they were finally together for the first time. Aaron took a flight to England. He was greeted at the airport by Rosie and her parents who — according to the couple — were long since convinced of Aaron’s good intentions by the e-mails and videos he made to show them he meant their daughter no ill.

Image: couple
Rosie Hardy / Aaron Nace  /  Flickr
Rosie Hardy and Aaron Nace, together at last in England, without the help of image manipulation.

Hanging doubts that this pair is a fabrication — actors manipulated by an outside hand looking to start some sort of viral campaign or get a movie deal a la lonelygirl15 — are quickly dissipated by Aaron’s long, detailed, and well … somewhat tedious nerd-speak descriptions of Photoshop techniques. When asked for positive ID, they flash their driver's licenses in front of the Skype cam without a moment’s hesitation.

When grilled about the sophistication of even Rosie’s earliest work, they extol the ease of GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), Rosie’s preferred photo manipulation software, and delineate the many hours of their mutual lives spent before the computer in labor of their craft.

When pushed further as to whether they are really, truly, who they say they are, Rosie’s giggles and Aaron’s pinched brow seem to telegraph a lack of understanding as to what result anyone would want to fake their circumstances. Aaron especially seems interested in getting the ARF name out there, but then again, this is how he pays the rent. But there’s no PayPal button next to any ARF images, no overt sales pitch near any of their photos. When it comes to the question of selling their story as a screenplay, Rosie seems honestly perplexed as to why anyone would want to buy it.

Here’s the thing. These apparently guileless kids are sitting on an online empire and don’t seem to know it. Their fans create ARF T-shirts because Aaron and Rosie are so beloved by Internet romantics, bolstered by the idea that this fairytale might be possible for them. And yet, when asked about their fans, Rosie and Aaron talk about how, on bad or sad days, it’s nice to read the comments because it makes them feel better. SHUT UP!

Is this what we’ve come to, fellow jaded cynical haters? Is it so hard to fathom that this attractive couple have both a cross-continental fairytale love story as well as an eye for photo framing? Who did this to us? Usman Abdualhi, Chairman of Financial Aid in Nigeria? Was it lonelygirl15? Too many “Hallmark Holidays” spent alone in front of the A&E watching “Law & Order” marathons? (Or is that just me?)

Why is it so hard to believe that there are corners of the Internet where no one wants to exploit you sexually or steal your identity?

There are empirical truths about the Internet and humanity in general. People hook up on the Internet, all the time, even on Flickr. It is far from impossible that teenage girls and intense, nerdy guys fall easily and intensely in love and 100 percent believe the validity of their fantasy?

We can talk about the illusion of the Internet, the illusions Aaron and Rosie intentionally create in their images, courtship on the Internet as performance and blah blah blah. But it seems highly doubtful that Rosie and Aaron are in on this conversation, and neither are their fans.

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