June 2012
Geoff Dyer

Street View

On Photographers’ Appropriation Of Google Maps

Discussed: Beer at Home, The Haussmannization of Paris, An Uncomprehending Eye, The Finger, Verdicts from Houellebecq, Possible Contrivances Involving James Stewart, A Nation of Hoppers, Winograndian Urges, Pan-Global Drift, Visiting San Francisco, A Quantification of Dispassion
All streets in time are visited.
—Philip Larkin, “Ambulances”

When I was growing up in the pre-computer England of the 1960s, various board games promised “all the thrills and spills” of Formula 1 or football “in the privacy of your own home.” There was even a brewing company whose slogan—“Beer at Home Means Davenports”—offered the chance to get drunk on draft beer without the irritating conviviality of getting your round in at the local pub. This desire for voluntary house-arrest has since been so thoroughly sated by the internet that we now expect to be able to get, do, and buy almost everything without having to leave our lairs. But who’d have thought that you could be a stay-at-home street photographer?

I became aware of this breakthrough only when Michael Wolf (born in Germany, 1954) received an honorable mention in the 2011 World Press Photo Awards for work made sitting in front of his computer term-inal, photographing—and cropping and blowing up—moments from Google’s Street View. Ironically, Wolf fell into this way of working when he moved from Hong Kong to Paris, one of the great traditional loci of street photography, after his wife was offered a job there. He discovered that the city had nothing to offer him photographically. Compared to the teeming, constantly changing cityscapes of Asia, Paris was an open-air mausoleum that had remained largely unaltered for over a hundred years. Haussmannization had radically transformed Paris in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, but pockets of the “old” Paris photographed by Eugène Atget will be familiar to any contemporary visitor. Atget famously made his living by providing “documents for artists,” and Wolf was alert to the connection between Atget’s painstaking survey of the city and the possibility of deploying Street View’s comprehensive—if uncomprehending—curb-crawl for his own artistic ends.

He saw quickly that the indifferent gaze of the Street View camera randomly recorded what he called (in one of the series resulting from this discovery) “unfortunate events”: altercations and accidents, pissings and pukings, fights and fatalities. The Street View cars that Google deploys, each equipped with fifteen lenses mounted on its roof, are like the ambulances in Larkin’s poem: “giving back / None of the glances they absorb.” Actually, it’s not just glances: while the cars usually go about their business unnoticed—or at least unheeded—occasionally people respond to their all-seeing presence by giving them the finger (hence the title of another of Wolf’s series, Fuck You).

A number of amateur websites sort, collate—and direct viewers to—glimpses of naked women in windows and so forth, wherever they have been seen by Street View, and Wolf might have been expected to pursue the easy hyena option by mopping up this kind of visual carrion. He preferred to stalk his own prey, methodically going down every filmed street in Paris, combing through mile after uneventful mile of boring footage in search of moments that may or may not prove decisive. (Again I am reminded of a childhood precedent: an ad for the yellow pages phone directory that quaintly urged you to “let your fingers do the walking.”) A quest that seemed destined to prove the accuracy of Michel Houellebecq’s verdict—“Anything can happen in life, especially nothing”—turns out to represent not a break but a continuity with Wolf’s earlier work.

In The Transparent City (2008) Wolf had taken telephotod images of high-rise buildings in Chicago, a project that was itself an extrapolation from his earlier survey of the architecture of density that had fascinated him in Hong Kong. The results were flattened patterns of light and line with occasional Hopperesque views of humans stranded in the immensity of urban geometry. Imagine Wolf’s delight when he saw that in one of these apartments a large TV was actually showing Rear Window! Yes, there was James Stewart staring into someone else’s apartment with his telephoto lens, photographed by Wolf with his. (Was this just old-fashioned photographer’s luck? Did the occupant of the apartment have this on permanent freeze-frame as a generous gift and ironic reprimand to anyone who happened to be spying? Or was there an element of Doisneau-esque contrivance involved?) Later, as Wolf was looking at some of the other images through a magnifier, he saw something that had escaped him when making the picture: a resident in one of the windows of one of the apartments in a distant building had spotted what he was up to—and was giving him the finger. Pioneers of candid photography—Paul Strand on the street, Walker Evans in the subway—had gone to awkward lengths to work unnoticed. For Wolf in both The Transparent City and the Street View work, the fact of being recognized and abused—the moment people realized that they were being photographed—proved incentive and invitation as much as insult. Having spotted this magnified, pixilated figure, Wolf proceeded to comb through every window in every apartment in the Transparent City to see what other intimate details had been unwittingly revealed. Perhaps film could yield potential images that ordinarily observed reality did not? The results, for the most part, were disappointing: boredom, serial isolation (Hoppers, Hoppers everywhere) as people watched TV or stared at computer screens. There is also the unremarked possibility that another kind of reciprocity was at work: some of those people concentrating hard on their computer terminals could conceivably be scanning Street View, making their own images.

A version of this essay first appeared, in Portuguese translation, in the first issue of Zum magazine.

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Geoff Dyer’s books include The Ongoing Moment, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award), and, most recently, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. His website is geoffdyer.com.

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