New New Topographics
John Cage - Which, if I understand it at all, has been a function of twentieth century art- to open our eyes….Just seeing what there was to see.
22nd & Mission, San Francisco, CA
So much of the debate around Google Street View is concerned with privacy: even when the law does not require it, Google has taken to blurring out faces and in Germany even entire buildings. Google’s business practices in general have engendered suspicion, even while people continue (in some cases begrudgingly) to use their systems.
But we would be foolish not to acknowledge the massive work that the company has assembled. 5 million miles have been photographed in 50 different countries. There is bias in the work—as there is in any photograph—but I would argue that there is less bias than most. Because production is automated, there is no one (artist or otherwise) composing and framing individual photographs, choosing which moment to capture or how best to expose it. The work is produced within a structure—both ideologically and physically—and the result is a proprietary collection of photographs taken on sunny days from about 8 feet above the middle of the lane. The automatic production, like a Taylorist work of art, leads to such standardization that any strangeness captured by chance is the subject of internet fascination.
8776 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA
Without ignoring Google’s authorial role or denying the particularity of the project, we can still acknowledge it as one of the most complete collections of streetscape photographs ever assembled. Just as Ed Ruscha’s book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, self-published in 1966, had a particular (and closed) system of capturing and representing that West Hollywood street, looking at it now gives us a useful impression of how that space looked and felt on an average day that year. After all, neither his work nor that of Google is concerned with Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. Instead, they capture longer periods of time; Street View is (as of yet) a relic of the late 2010’s, as today we might read a work like Ruscha’s as a slice of the generalized “60’s.”
Second Street and Fourth Avenue, Ashland, WI
The New Topographics exhibition at the George Eastman Center in 1975 was a landmark for American photography, one where 9 young photographers shared their contemporary landscapes. They photographed in black and white (save for Stephen Shore) and attempted to capture the world around them in Henry Wessel’s words as “the things photographed existed in the world.” Lewis Baltz, who also exhibited, hoped “that [their] photographs are sterile, that there’s no emotional content.” Their works were affective, or must have touched a nerve, as the show resonated powerfully with audiences and critics; the whole of the exhibition was purchased by the Eastman House, and is still shown, complete, internationally.
Gower and DeLongpre, Los Angeles, CA
If these photos are either emotionally or factually insightful, and can be so easily rephotographed (to borrow from another 70’s photographic movement) using Street View, then there must be something powerful within Google’s material.
Church and Worth, New York, NY
Even taking as subject those photographs that are powerful or beautiful in their own right, an illustration of a lapse in time may be enough to utterly reconfigure our understanding of the photograph.
West Side Highway, New York, NY
Or of a single morning.
6th and Western, Los Angeles, CA
Or of a small-scale war on Western Avenue in Los Angeles. We can collapse years in a single image; it forms a bi-stable impression of a place through time that tells a story of reconstruction, of a Korean-American community’s persistence in the face of struggle.
We are forced to grasp at an unencumbered image of the city that Giacomo Balla depicted in a moment of crisis; paintings are charged with the emotion and intellect of the artist, where photographs are among the ultimate works of “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Benjamin’s sense. Street View, as an assemblage, will allow future scholars of the Occupy movement to image Downtown Oakland in that era, if not that critical moment.
16th and Telegraph, Oakland, CA