Street View Photography

Last November in Paris I saw Michael Wolf’s ‘We Are Watching You’ and was underwhelmed.  Large blow-ups of images from Google’s Street View (GSV) neither seemed particularly interesting or much to do with photography.  As I’ve said in various other articles on work taken from TV screens I think photographers should be out in the real world and not looking at a box on which other people have put images for them to look at.

Apparently neither Wolf or other artists using GSV even actually find these images themselves, but get links to them from Internet forums which post up these kind of things.  Pete Brook who has a fine blog ‘Prison Photography‘ has been looking at these projects and writing about them both on his own blog and on Wired’s Raw File. There in Navigating the Puzzle of Google Street View ‘Authorship’ he tries hard to find some merit in such projects but I find the artists’ justification of their practice less than convincing, and Google’s claim to copyright difficult to argue against.

It seems hardly a big deal that each of the two artists he considers crops the GSV image differently (although often not very differently) and Michael Wolf’s attempt to equate this with framing by a photographer seems merely an attempt to mislead.  Framing is very much about your point of view as well as about where you then put the edges, and in GSV the point of view is supplied by Google.

It’s also hard to take the analogy with Duchamp’s Readymades too seriously. He took objects – urinals, bicycle parts etc – and completely re-purposed them. GSV users simply take images and make smaller images from them, before blowing them up into senselessly big images for the gallery walls.

I find the whole thing a waste of space and resources, galleries, articles, discussion etc that could be used by real photographers making real images. For me it is the kind of thing that gives art and art photography a bad name.

Back on his own Prison Photography blog, in Photographing the Prostitutes of Italy’s Backroads: Google Street View vs. Boots on the Ground Brook looks at two contrasting approaches to the same subject matter, one by photographer Paolo Patrizi who actually went out on those back roads with a camera and researched the subject as well as taking pictures and the other a virtual tour using GSV by Mishka Henner. It is a comparision which makes the difference very clear. As he concludes:

‘Patrizi’s photographs return us to the shocking fact that that these women are human and not just bit-parts in the difficult social narratives of contemporary society. Works full of threat, fear, flesh and blood.

By comparison, Henner’s screen-grabs are anaemic.’

To me one is real photography, the other voyeuristic image collection. I find myself totally in agreement with Alan Chin who Brook quotes as saying:

‘This is about as interesting as cutting out adverts from magazines that have some connection and then presenting your edit as a work of art. ‘

Also by Brook on Wired’s Raw File is another piece, Google’s Mapping Tools Spawn New Breed of Art Projects which looks mainly at Wolf’s work and in particular quotes from a BJP article that I linked to in a piece about what I considered the nonsensical award made to Wolf in World Press Photo.

It’s perhaps interesting that although in his earlier work Wolf relied on Internet forums to find the incidents he used, he now says that in more recent work he finds the scenes himself on GSV. I’m not sure why he finds this necessary or necessary to mention.

Also interesting – and perhaps it may one day be tested in court is his claim quoted here that because he actually photographs the screen, chosing which part of it to include in the image, he somehow creates something that belongs to him.

There are I think two good reasons why he is wrong. Firstly that copyright law would seem quite clear that if the work on screen is copyright of Google any reproduction of it will also be covered by their copyright. Secondly that Wolf’s work is essentially a mechanical reproduction of an existing work and lacks the artistic intent that is necessary for any new copyright to be created. Or interesting pictures.

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