SUNDAY TIMES: “Google Street View as Art” (2011)


 #39.177833, Baltimore, MD. 2008, 2011 


Google Street View as Art

By Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times, December 2011

In 2007 Google launched Street View, an astonishing and sinister project to photograph every street, first in America and then in the world. Cars with nine-lens, 360-degree cameras on periscope-like tubes sticking through their roofs crept through our lives, snapping everything. It was an act of surveillance that would have glazed over the eyes of George Orwell, but, of course, with a few exceptions, we loved it.

Estate agents were ecstatic but photographers were intrigued. Street View solved several snapper problems at once. First, they didn’t have to leave the house; second, they didn’t even need a camera; third, and most important, they didn’t have to confront their subjects in the street. In the golden age, snappers used to find all sorts of ways round this tricky problem — concealed cameras, lenses that shot round corners or just taking pictures of people from behind. A surprising number of classic photographs are of people’s backs.

The photographer Robert Frank toughed it out and, as a result, many of his pictures seem to be a record of a moment just before he got punched in the face. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the best of them all, simply employed speed, discretion and, when they failed, charm. Garry Winogrand just smiled and laughed, and it worked.

The problem of how to photograph people without them minding grew worse when people realised they had legal claims on the use of their image. The great tradition of street photography was threatened, and then along came the internet and Google’s cars to mechanise the whole process.

I’m appropriating Google. If you look at the history of art, there’s a long history of appropriation. When the German artist Michael Wolf started using Street View images, it was to the disgust of many professional photographers. But Wolf insists this is real photography — he did not just use screen grabs, he actually snapped the computer screen with a camera — and real art.

“It doesn’t belong to Google,” he says, “because I’m interpreting Google; I’m appropriating Google. If you look at the history of art, there’s a long history of appropriation.”

The Montreal photographer Jon Rafman hasalso produced images from Street View. For him, there is something “more real” about this technology.

“The world captured by Google,” he says, “appears to be more truthful and more transparent because of the weight accorded to external reality, the perception of a neutral, unbiased recording, and even the vastness of the project.”

Both Wolf and Rafman are interested in the novelty and oddity of the Street View images. Wolf is especially influenced by the surveillance aspect and Rafman leaves Google’s navigation arrows on his pictures to make it clear where they come from. In both cases, they seem to be commenting primarily on the system itself.

Doug Rickard, on the other hand, is not remotely interested in any of these things. He is interested in the American content and its haunting, visceral power. “I was interested in photographing America in the same context, with the same poetry and power, that has been done in the past.”

It’s sad but true that if you want to find the poorest area in any American city, look for the name Martin Luther King. The title of MLK boulevard, street or square is almost a guarantee that you are in the most deprived, crime-ridden part of town. “I use MLK to find the worst, most broken aspects of society,” says Rickard, “and he is this great beacon of hope and a hero for many Americans. There’s some kind of irony there, I felt sad about it.”

His other way of finding the urban badlands was the astonishing website, on which the always mobile Americans discuss the best and worst areas to live. “Even with a little city like Waco, Texas, I could get local flavour and perception coming from third parties. I almost feel with any of the cities, I could go there and know my way around.”

An image from Street View: A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Michael Wolf (HO)Rickard needed to find the worst areas because he had decided to go on a road trip to photograph the tough underside of the US, just like the great photographers of the golden age — Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn. Unfortunately, he had one huge disadvantage: he was stuck at home in California. But, thanks to Google, that was no longer a problem.

What we forget, now that millions of digital images are shot every minute of every day, is the shock of photography when it was new. It seemed to capture the real, unmediated by the artist’s hand. This is not quite true, of course; the photographer intervenes at every step from composing the image to making the print. Nevertheless, the magic of chemically capturing something like the real with the click of a shutter clung to the craft until the advent of digital cameras and Photoshop manipulation.

In America in the 1930s and ‘40s, photographic realism produced a golden age. It was still an unformed, imperfectly known and, therefore, exotic country. Evans and Lange reported back from the heartland with devastating images that contrasted sharply with the soaring affluence of the big cities. In the 1950s, the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank produced one of the great photographic books, The Americans, which showed a strange, uneasy land beyond the shining suburbs celebrated by Madison Avenue. Rickard emerges from that tradition and shares its political impulse. He is 43 and has been a photographer for 15 years. He founded and runs one of the most important photo websites, American Suburb X.

If you want to find the poorest area in any US city, look for the name Martin Luther King
Brought up in Los Gatos in the San Francisco Bay area, Rickard was educated in the dream of that shining city on the hill.

“I grew up in a family of preachers and missionaries with this very Reaganesque, patriotic view of America that all of my family members had — of this beacon of light, a Christian nation, and one in which we had a level of manifest destiny and control of the world, so to speak.”

But, as the comedian George Carlin said, it’s called the American Dream because you’re asleep. At college, Rickard studied US history — slavery, civil rights — and lost his faith in this family vision.

His adult view of America was a land not just of great achievement but also of massive injustice.

“When I started this project, I really wanted to look at the state of the country in these areas where opportunity is non-existent and where everything is broken down. On the one hand, these Google street pictures accentuate those feelings because the cameras heighten that atmosphere of alienation, of invisible people, isolated, having no opportunity, everything decaying and broken. But on the other hand, that is the reality.”

A virtual Walker Evans, Rickard cruised the city streets on his computer. It was an eerie experience. “It was almost as if the world was frozen and I was navigating through this frozen world … What was really driving me was the discovery when I started into this that visually these pictures could really work well on the order of something that Evans or Frank would produce — the flaws in the picture, the blurred faces, the almost apocalyptic-type scenes of emptiness.”

When Rickard found his shot, he photographed the screen. In total, he reckons he ended up with 10-15,000 shots which have been edited down to about 80 for his series A New American Picture, currently on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The results are stunning and disturbing, not least because the people in the shots don’t know or don’t care if they are being photographed. In New Orleans, four black kids stroll down a desolate street under a livid sky. In the Bronx, the blurred figure of a man in a suit hovers menacingly outside a closed grocery store. In Dallas, a white dog beside a dead tree and a bleached-out yard glances round at Google’s passing car. Or — my favourite — in Fresno, a man wearing a white hat sits in a wheelchair in a dirt yard. Behind him there is a truck and a shabby ranch-style house. Everything seems to be fading to beige but for the sharp blue wheelie bins. The man is watching the car, he has nothing else to do.

These pictures are redemptions. There was always something intrusive and robotic about the Street View project, but there was also something philistine, a crude reduction of the photographic method and of the wonders of the golden age to a mechanised ordinariness. But, by a relentless editing process and a clear purpose, Rickard redeems photography from the morass of digital imagery by giving it real- world substance. “The super-important thing, ultimately,” he says, “is that I was using Google but it’s not about Google, it’s about America.”

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