Google Street View: New Technology, New Approaches? New Connections?

The use of Google Street View as source material for photography projects stirs controversy: is this real or good documentary photography? is this real or good photojournalism? is this real or good art? who exactly is the author of these images? Particular questions depend upon the project under discussion, of which there are now a few. E.g. Michael Wolf’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2011), Jon Rafman’s 9-Eyes (2009-), and Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture (2010).

My first experience with photographs made from Google Street View images was Mishka Henner’s No Man’s Land (2011). The series, shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2013, consists of photographs of female sex workers, standing or sitting by the side of the road, waiting for customers in various parts of rural Italy and Spain. The sunlight is bright and harsh and the women seek protection from it under trees, beneath overpasses, and behind road signs. Their clothing is skant and their faces are blurred. And those cheap white plastic chairs – ever practical and ever present.

The photographs are not decisive moments or particularly aesthetically pleasing moments, but they are moments worth looking at nonetheless. Captured by chance by an emotionless amoral Google Street View car mapping the area so that other drivers can more easily find their way. Enhanced by the repetition of the scene playing out over and over, I found No Man’s Land more affecting and interesting than the other shortlisted projects. I left the gallery hoping that Henner would win.

Mishka Henner, No Man's Land (Google Street View)
Contrada Vallecupa, Colonnella, Abruzzi, Italy, 2011 © Mishka Henner

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Review of Books trained their photographer spotlight on Doug Rickard and his “new kind of urban landscape,” which seeks to be a “fiercely honest portrait of contemporary America.” Rickard’s approach to the subject of poverty in America is novel in its use of Google Street View images and the work raises issues associated with using the new technology: surveillance, voyeurism and virtual realities. But what of poverty?

The artist collaboration COLL.EO have taken up some of the problems with Rickard’s approach in a very direct counter project called A New American Dream. COLL.EO take issue with a lack of engagement between the photographer and photographed subjects, with the photographer able to browse people in poverty from the comfort of their own home with a beer in their hand. It’s an accusation which allows COLL.EO to frame Rickard’s project as largely a commercial exercise, lacking in individual effort and collective social merit – the real new american dream.

Putting technology to one side, Rickard’s work becomes in all respects entirely traditional to the social documentary form. Its references to photographic deities Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Stephen Shore are clear and readily acknowledged. Though it is these very strong influences which restrict the ability of the work to really push boundaries, if pushing the boundaries of the representation of poverty is the aim. A point also made by Amelia Rina in Art Practical.

Doug Rickard, A New American Picture (Google Street View)
A New American Picture, 2010 © Doug Rickard

Photographic distance is an issue raised by Pete Brook when he compared Henner’s No Man’s Land to Paolo Patrizi’s Migration. Like Henner, Patrizi is also photographing roadside female sex workers in Italy, though unlike Henner, he visits his subjects locations and captures them up close and personal: the tattered mattresses, the piles of discarded condoms, and the minimally dressed young women offering their sexual services for sale. It is the closeness and human scale of Patrizi’s work which makes it the preferred treatment of the subject matter for Brook.

Makena, a Nigerian sex worker on her makeshift bed on the fringes of Rome, Italy, 2007-2011 © Paolo Patrizi

Though problems remain, some old and stubborn and some new.

The focus on marginalised and exploited people, either America’s urban poor or Italy’s rural sex workers, tells us little about who they are or what they want. Photography makes us look, but it does not necessarily give us answers (only ever some). As subjects they remain mute, and as a viewer I am unsure about what to do. I may gaze at the photographs on gallery walls or websites or purchase them for my home if I have enough spare cash. The poor and marginalised remain the true raw material for these projects, not images from Google Street View. Technology diverts attention, albeit temporarily, from this stubborn challenge to documentary photography to do more. To quote Martha Rosler: causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome. Liberal documentary blames neither the victims nor their willful oppressors (1981).

The new challenge is that of dealing with distance and understanding its modern dimensions. Aesthetics (beauty) is the usual target for generating detachment from who or what is depicted. The more beautiful or artful, the more detached. Both Patrizi and Rickard seek beauty in their photographs. Rickard as his tether to earlier American photographers and Patrizi through composition. It is Henner who seems the most content to let Google Street View’s dispassionate eye remain intact and so submit its presence most clearly to the current discussion of social documentary photography. For images made from Google Street View, technology has, it seems, added yet another layer of separation between the photographer and the photographed subject. But how does that affect the separation between the viewer and the photographed subject? The separations are related certainly, but not formulaic. And the separations are physical, technical, and mental.

The ability to be aware of and have effects without leaving the comfort of our homes or safe workplaces is an increasing theme of the present moment. It crops up in all manner of areas: photography – it is easier than ever to see photographs of poverty and suffering, commerce – it is easier than ever to purchase goods made under questionable labour laws, and warfare – it is easier than ever to send bombs to the remote locations of suspected enemies. Of all these things photography is a connecting technology and art, it helps to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

Google Street View has added enormously to the amount of visual information available, so the challenge is what exactly to do with all of this data. What meanings can be taken from it? We can chose to re-enact photographic practices of the past – which teaches us more about photographic history than anything else – or we can try new approaches which may help to give increasing voice, context, and power to those who don’t yet have enough of them.