Everyone knows about google street view, Google’s project of creating a panoramic view from every possible point on Google Maps. The project, which started in 2007, uses cars, bicycles, trolleys, and snowmobiles with cameras and GPS devices mounted to each vehicle as they traverse the globe. Pretty amazing if you think about it, and just another example of Google’s huge presence in our world. From a photography point of view it’s fascinating because the aesthetic and strategy is very similar to street photography, except that in this case the camera is entirely neutral and is merely responding to a predetermined set of directions. There is no human bias that decides when the pictures are being taken. This makes Jon Rafman’s hand-picked collection of street view photographs all the more interesting. In his website 9-eyes, he presents a lengthy string of these incredible photographs, which document everything from wild horses to prostitutes and much much more. The images Rafman has put together show great natural beauty and surprising human moments, if not sometimes both in the same frame. In one picture a tiny baby has been apparently left alone in front of a Gucci store. In another, a very slow moving man shows up twice in the same frame, a result of the software which puts the pictures together. There are several pictures of drug busts and car crashes, and just as many have people giving the middle finger or showing their bare asses. There is much to be said about these photographs, but what I like to believe is that this project shows something inherently powerful and beautiful about the practice of photography. That even when it is essentially a random, mechanized process, a camera still has the ability to show us something wonderful, something tragic, something poignant and revealing. On the other hand, perhaps this only enforces the idea that there are no “artists” in photography, only button-pushers. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see how the concept of photography as art continues to develop.
UPDATE: Time’s Lightbox website posted a short article and series of photos from artists who use google street view in their work, including Rafman’s 9eyes project. Just remember you read it here first!