Remaking photography with Google Street View.
About a year ago, the Google corporation released Street View, a software feature that allows users to “view and navigate within [the] street-level imagery” of Google Maps locations. The company hired a fleet of cars, each with a roof-mounted multi-lens camera, to cruise public roads, photographing 360-degree fields of view as they go. The resulting images—initially from Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, San Francisco, and New York, though the list of cities is expanding rapidly—are put together to create full-circle views, each correlated with a real location on earth and interlinked with one another, so that a user can move between virtual points of view by clicking arrows onscreen. Essentially, what has been created is a crude digital version of a subset of our everyday visual world, with the ability to be “in” a virtual space and, within limits, survey the environment as you navigate it.
I’m a photographer who shoots primarily what is out in the world, and so the idea that a nearly complete visual world would be accessible from my Web browser intrigued me. Sure, a world under total surveillance is a horrifying dystopian nightmare, but at least there would be a small silver lining: I could photograph from the comfort of my own computer!
The act of editing images from a visual database of a virtual world is, in a sense, no different from my current process, using a camera to edit images from the views existing in the real world. This might seem somewhat strange—to reduce the real world to a collection of images—but it is a photographic way of thinking. You quickly realize, as you learn how to photograph, that a camera is a tool for rendering three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional image. In a somewhat obtuse manner of thinking, a photograph is just an imprint of photons on light-sensitive material, filtered through a lens, at a specific latitude, longitude, elevation, angle, and time. A portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs? Just set the time machine back seventy or so years, set the coordinates down to the micrometer for Hale County, fiddle with the height and angle, and you’ve basically got it.
Every photograph ever taken can be described in those terms, though these variables by themselves are clearly not very useful to an actual person. Street View, of course, has significant limitations. There is no way to control the variable of time, as photographs are made just once, on a schedule dictated by Google. Nor height, as the cameras are all located on car roofs; nor location, entirely, as images are taken only along the lines of the cars’ paths. Nor has even this limited archiving been attempted outside a handful of large cities. However, the amassed images in Street View already represent a subset of visual infinity, infinite in themselves. The sheer number of images collected should mean that, amid this sea of visual noise, images of beauty, subtlety, and interest are hidden, waiting for an author.
I set out to see whether making images through Street View would be a viable replacement for my photographic practice. For a few years now, I’ve been photographing suburban and rural areas, both on foot and from the windows of moving cars, a project born of countless hours of my youth spent driving aimlessly and staring at the landscape as it flew by. I began looking for virtual streets in places I had already actually photographed, such as the suburbs of Long Island, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and then moved on to areas where my friends and family live or once lived, such as Miami and Houston.
The process of using Street View did, initially, parallel my photographic process in the real world. In both cases, it was a matter of picking a place that might be interesting, going there (opening up a Street View window), and walking through the landscape (traversing map points via the navigation arrows) until some part of the scene caught my eye. I could stop and consider the scene from different locations and angles until I composed a certain image, then make an exposure (take a screen shot), and fine-tune the color, contrast, and exposure afterward.
As I explored Street View further, looking for photographs, the strengths and weaknesses of the software began to influence my work. The resolution is rather low. Because of the way the images are digitally assembled, lens flares become stalks of light in the landscape, not unlike lightning bolts. Walls of color crop up in the middle of images; patches are blurred by movement or lack of focus. More interestingly, Street View’s navigation made me depart from how I normally photograph. Navigating great distances within a city is trivial—simply a matter of closing a current view, zooming out to a city map, and zooming in on another location. One can look at a river and rapidly jump miles away, to a reservoir it feeds, or examine the rivers, houses, and parks of a city, or a series of cities.
In any single location, however, seeing all of the possible views is cumbersome, requiring dragging the mouse across the screen five or six times to see the entire field of view, or clicking a rotation arrow more than ten times. In the real world, you need merely turn your head or turn around. Walking down the street is similarly difficult, and you have to wait for a new image to load for each incremental movement. Street View encourages a new way of thinking about locomotion, where detailed movements are difficult but large distances can be traversed with barely a thought. This is roughly akin to being confined to a wheelchair that can teleport.
But let’s say the technical problems were solved. Let’s say Street View fulfilled the promise of a complete virtual visual world, with effortless digital analogues to walking, turning my head, and pointing the camera in whatever direction I chose, while retaining the ability to defy spacetime from my desk chair. Without descending into fictional realms of cities in bottles, maps the size of continents, or wet-ware computer simulations run by semi-benevolent spider robots, would it be possible for a photographer like me to make meaningful work while physically removed from my subject matter? Are the smells, sounds, heat, and rhythm of an actual space, none of which appear directly on a photograph, necessary components of my art?
I think the best reply might be this old joke:
A man dies and goes to purgatory, which is a waiting room that no one ever seems to leave. Suddenly, from across the room, someone shouts “27!”—and the whole room bursts into laughter. A few minutes later, another person shouts “66!” Once again, everyone cracks up.
Puzzled, the man asks his neighbor what’s going on, and she replies: “Well, we’ve been here so long, we’ve told all the jokes there are to tell—so we went ahead and gave them all numbers. We save time by just saying the number for the joke we want.”
The man is puzzled by all of this, but since he’s new and wants to make friends, he decides to make a go of it. “99!” he exclaims. The room is silent, and people look baffled. Embarrassed, he wonders where he went wrong. A minute later, someone else shouts “99!” to peals of laughter. Once more, the man turns to his neighbor: “Hey, how come no one laughed when I told that one?”
“Well,” she replies, “it’s not so much the joke, it’s how you tell it.”