Doug Rickard, Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, 2008
The drum machine arrived in popular music in the late 1970’s. By 1983, only a few years later, after 50,000 years of live human drumming, mainstream audiences had fully embraced this sound in hits like “Rockit.” Just as remarkable, Herbie Hancock was able to pioneer both acoustic jazz and a song created with electronic drums.
A similar shift is happening in photography. Looking at projects based on Google Maps Street View (GSV), particularly large photographs in physical galleries, makes me wonder: Is Street View a camera? Or a repository of source images? Or both?
As source photographs, GSV acts in a similar way to the industrial and corporate photo archives Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel hunted through for their 1977 exhibition and book, Evidence. These were anonymous photographs shot by corporations to document experiments and activities. Through curation and juxtaposition, Sultan and Mandel transformed these images into their own work, wonderful and inexplicable photographs.
from Mike Mandel’s and Larry Sultan’s Evidence
As a camera, GSV is used by a photographer to rotate around, frame, and click to grab an image. The images that we see on the screen are raw data, gathered by the drivers; these images do not become photographs until a photographer frames them.
Michael Wolf, Paris, 2009
Michael Wolf created a series of photographs in Paris in 2009. Because of the tighter spaces in European cities, the GSV cars were closer to pedestrians, with smart cropping, Wolf was able to echo the classic street photography of 1950s and 60s. At the same time a handful of GSV-based blogs, most notably Jon Rafman’s 9-eyes, collect interesting scenes captured by the GSV cars.
Jon Rafman, installation view
Both Rafman and Wolf have exhibited a photograph of a kiss that occurred in Paris, as a man passed and lit a cigarette. Wolf and Rafman seem to emphasize the implausible street moment captured by a slow moving car. Wolf’s latest project using GSV is a collection of people giving the GSV car the finger.
At the other end of the spectrum is Nicholas Mason. He is attracted to overcast landscapes without people. These places seem to be in remote corners of the world, perhaps in Norway or the foothills of Patagonia. Mason’s scenes capture a certain mood shared with recent Todd Hido road trip work, shot through windshields of cars.
Nicholas Mason, from Versificator
Doug Rickard’s “A New American Picture" (in San Francisco - Wirtz Gallery until June 11, Pier 24 until December) sits somewhere in between Wolf and Mason. (Rickard is editor of the site American Suburb X, the best collection of writing about photography online.) The “New American Picture” photographs feel related to William Christenberry’s photographs of the American South, which served as source material for his paintings and sculpture. Rickard’s landscapes feature people whose identity is obscured both by the distance from the camera and because GSV blurs faces. Where Christenberry’s photographs preserve dilapidated structures with a sense of amazement, Rickard finds the dilapidated structures as evidence of America’s brutal economic reality.
William Christenberry, Marion, Alabama, 1964
The ability to frame decisive moments on city streets, or sparsely populated landscapes in Lapland, without ever leaving your room is a profound shift in photography.
Doug Rickard, Jersey City, New Jersey, 2007
One important process-related issue with GSV images that end up as photographs on a gallery wall is this: they are not screen grabs, but photographs of a screen. Whether the camera was employed to enable more megapixels for large printing, or as part of the conceptual artistic process, images created by the GSV device and compressed for the web are transformed somehow, perhaps with the air between monitor and camera. This is especially true with Rickard’s work. Spending time at the gallery, I noticed myself switching from paying attention to jpeg artifacts and evidence of the source, to finding the right distance and appreciating the colors and Rickard’s compositions.
Lee Friedlander, Aloha, Washington, 1967
Photographs of screens with GSV scenes actually belong to a long tradition. How many families in America have taken photographs of the television? Of the moon landing, or the home team winning the World Series?
The transformation is similar to what Rickard and the others are exploiting: a fuzzy TV signal on a crappy TV that makes its way into a Pittsburgh home, but becomes something different when captured by a decent Nikon lens. The resulting photograph doesn’t just capture the content of the TV screen, but the person’s desire to capture what was on the screen. Today GSV is just as fleeting as the World Series was in the pre-VCR or DVR era. There’s no way to know when Google will update a location and remove a scene.
Robert Frank, Burbank, California
Robert Frank has a few television screens in The Americans, including one wonderful photo inside a television studio. Along with the insane pile of cables, at the same time the photograph shows both how a woman looks photographed by Robert Frank (torso obscured by a man’s arm) and how she appears on television (reduced in the tiny frame to just her talking head).
Lee Friedlander took a series of photographs in the 1960’s that included screens (that were in a 1995 exhibit and subsequent book called "The Little Screens”). In the photos from this era the television is usually a small, glowing box in the corner of a room. Friedlander’s screens almost always have a person, but he moves in closer to capture faces. Friedlander is attracted to those moments where the facade peels back from the relatively new, perfectly sensible electronic communications medium and reveals a 1/125th of a second of raw, unpolished humanity. The GSV photographers, with the exception of Mason, seem to be looking for this same kind of moment.
Lee Friedlander, Florida, 1963
Where Mason and Rickard do their best to remove evidence of the web experience of GSV, Wolf and Jon Rafman are not afraid of the moiré patterns and the interface elements (arrows and labels) to create compositions that are not in the GSV photographs themselves. In this way they are more like Friedlander’s photos in “Little Screens,” which capture how the televisions are designed, how they sit in hotel rooms, and the distortions of transmission, the warped edges and burps of the early tubes.
Michael Wolf, Paris, 2008
Wide lenses are often explained to non-photographers as ‘being good for landscapes’ - you can include a lot more in the frame. In terms of people, bodies and faces, in cinema they can be used to emphasize horror or comedy. In “Clockwork Orange,” Kubrick used them for both, at the same time.
Doug Rickard, Detroit, 2009
On GSV, even familiar places look a bit alien. Even if the multi-lens camera simulates human field of vision, it feels like a 1970’s bee invasion movie. Combined with the facial blurring (which looks like motion blur of faces in 19th century photographs), figures in a GSV landscape mimic the horror movie shot of zombies approaching on the horizon. The 12-sided sphere, the Dodeca 2360, mounted on the GSV cars, is actually a video camera with 11 lenses, perhaps each lens isn’t that wide, but they are stitched together so that each screen contains quite a bit of landscape, as best seen in this Rickard photograph.
Doug Rickard, Detroit, 2009
Lee Friedlander’s most recent book, “America By Car" is in many ways Lee’s Street View. Instead of the Prius with cameras above, Friedlander shoots every photograph from his car window, using the Zeiss 38mm lens attached to the Hasselblad 6cm square camera. Wit has always been a major element in Friedlander’s photos and the use of this lens is witty - the Zeiss is designed to have minimal distortion, but this wide-angle content is shoved into a square frame. Friedlander frames the scene a second time, using much of the photograph to include the plastic window frames of rental cars.
Lee Friedlander, from America by Car, Alaska, 2007
Comparing “America By Car” to Rickard’s “A New American Picture,” reveals that Friedlander is not afraid of the obvious. The midwest has grain towers, the south has plantation mansions, so many crosses, adobe in New Mexico, crazy signs written in American everywhere. There’s even a New York City skyline in Las Vegas. Rickard’s locations (Detroit, Camden, Watts) are less easy to identify, but in a way they are also obvious, featuring the common architectural language of urban blight.
But does it print?
Regardless of how photographs are sourced, it’s still essential to see photography in books and on walls. How do these look in the gallery? I’ve spent time with the Friedlander “America by Car” prints and the Rickard series. The Friedlander prints are classically printed black and white, tack-sharp, about 38cm square; a very human scale. You can stand an arm length’s away, but detail draws you in for a closer look.
Doug Rickard, Dallas, Texas, 2008
Rickard’s prints work in an opposite way. The jpeg source is obvious, the artifacts and blotching can be seen as a kind of oversized grain that dictate the larger scale of the prints. As you notice compression at a medium distance, the photograph asks you to stand back and experience the composition as impressionistic blotches of color, particularly when GSV explodes certain reds and yellows. Strangely, GSV photographs would seem to be in their natural environment on this web page, but having seen Rickard’s and Wolf’s exhibited, they work much better on a wall.
Is this all a fad? A conceptual exercise to be realized and moved on from? I don’t think so. The early evidence, that Michael Wolf can make photographs like Michael Wolf, Doug Rickard like Doug Rickard and so on, is too strong.
Those of us that carry cameras wherever we go, the blurry-faced pedestrians seen on GSV, are we the Neanderthal watching Homo Sapiens arrive in the neighborhood? Of course not. But for many of us these potential photographs will be too useful to ignore, whether just for reference, to make quick comparisons, scouting shots, or to complete a series.
Bing Maps, Jersey City (after Rickard), 2011
Another fleet of cars has been deployed by Microsoft Bing to build an entirely new archive of street images. They have their own browsing interface and stitching technique (inspired by 15th century one-point perspective). Because of this competition, the photographic Bartlebys will drive many more thousands of miles, the archive will grow, the image quality will improve. The wonderful, scary obsession to photograph the entire world will never end.
Jon Rafman, The Nine Eyes of Google Street View
Jörg Colberg, Google Street View Getting Interesting
Blake Andrews, Rephotographing Shore
Jeffrey Ladd, A New American Picture by Doug Rickard
Dan Abbe, Short rant about Google Street View and photography
Daniel Shea, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan: Evidence
Lee Friedlander by Richard Avedon (with Hasselblad Superwide)
Marc Feustel, Michael Wolf: Paris Street View