How do we experience the world today? Much of what we see and hear is, in a sense, not real. While the images we see reflect light much the way the object photographed would, and while the sound waves we receive through our radios and televisions very much resemble those we would experience while standing in front of a musical performer, the experience is a very different one. Much of what we experience on a day-to-day basis has been recorded, broadcast, translated, and re-translated a number of times before it even reaches us. Our experience of the “thing” is mediated, however, we do not perceive the mediation, but rather the “thing” itself. In the case of the photograph (QUOTE ABOUT HOW WE EXPERIENCE WHAT IS IN A PHOTOGRAPH AS THE REAL. IT IS NOT A “PHOTOGRAPH” OF A PERSON, BUT THE “PERSON” THEMSELVES)
MARSHAL MCLUHANS IDEA OF THE TRAVEL BROCHURES AND HOW WE EXPERIENCE TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY
Eugene Atget and “Documents for Artists”
In the 1890s, a little known photographer began photographing in the streets of Paris. He would claim not to be an artist, but rather a documenter who set about to make images to be used as aides for artists. Over the course of his career he would shoot 10,000 images of Paris, creating one of the best historical databases of a specific place and time period ever.
Eugene Atget was born in 1857 outside the city of Bordeaux. Early in his life he had a short-lived career as a sailor on liners that were crossing the Atlantic. He quit being a sailor / cabin boy to pursue his passion for acting, although he was not very successful at that either. At the age of 40, Atget decided to take up photography.
He and his wife settled in Paris in the 1890s and around 1895, Atget bought his first camera. He began photographing using a wooden large format camera with a rapid rectilinear lens and used 18 x 24cm dry glass plates.
Over the course of more then 30 years, Eugene Atget relentlessly photographed the streets of Paris. Much like a location scout does today, Atget’s intention was to create a “database” of images. Artists, mostly painters whom painted their scenes from photographs, would come and search through Atget’s archive looking for scenes they wanted to use. Atget would then sell them a print of the negative for their use.
Google’s “Street View”
On May 25th, 2007, Google introduced the world to “Street View”. This was a new way of looking at maps (and was integrated with their “Google Maps” website. The process was vast yet simple. A Google “Street View” car would drive every street in a given area. This car would have a 9-way camera attached to its roof. At measured intervals, the camera would take an image, tag that image with GPS coordinates, and upload the image along with the location information to Google’s servers. Then, using the coordinates that were logged with the image, a specific spot in “Google Maps” would be associated with that set of photographs. Once enough of these photos had been uploaded and stitched together, it would be possible to virtually “drive” the streets of a given area. However, what Google was inadvertently doing, just like Atget, was recording a specific place during a specific time period with great detail.
In addition to the general public, Google’s “Street View” has become a popular tool with artists and internet enthusiasts who try and find interesting moments that the cameras have accidentally captured. These enthusiasts will spend hours searching through the streets documented by Google looking for oddities.
Google and the “decisive moment”
In a 1957 Washington Post interview, Henri Cartier-Bresson described the impetus behind the “decisive moment”:
There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.
Google’s cameras abolish the notion of the artist’s creativity defining the “decisive moment”. Google’s “Street View” cameras are not operated by humans (other than the on/off button), they are robotic and know nothing about being “creative”. They measure the distance that the vehicle they are attached to has traveled, and once they have traveled the predetermined distance, they take a photograph. Google’s cameras capture events as they happen to pass by them.
While there is no longer an “artist” to lend their creative eye or influence to the capturing of the image, the “decisive moment” still happens. Michael Wolf commented on this in an interview with the British Journal of Photography in 2011:
[I]t’s just a matter of being and doing something long enough that you’re going to come across almost everything which happens in life. It can be a cat falling out of a tree, it can be a woman giving birth, it can be a man stealing something (shoplifting), a father shooting his son in the back. Everything is possible and everything will be recorded if the cameras are out there at some point in time.
These “decisive moments” exist everyday, but it used to be that a photographer could not be in so many places at once or capture so much photographic material in a lifetime as Google can capture in a day.
Michael Wolf’s Paris Street View
Michael Wolf is a German born photographer. He had been living with his wife in Hong Kong and had been photographing the condensed and drastically expanding city space. In 2008, his wife was offered a job opportunity that she was unable to refuse. Much like Atget did in the 1890s, Wolf and his wife relocated to Paris. Wolf needed something to photograph. His photographic work had always centered on his location, however, to Wolf, Paris was uninspiring.
He had been interested in Hong Kong mainly because it was expanding so fast that the city didn’t know what to do with itself. Marc Feustel wrote about Wolf’s Architecture of Density and interest in Hong Kong:
Hong Kong and China, where Wolf has shot several series, are places of flux: the architecture and structure of their cities is constantly being reinvented and there is little sentimentality about the preservation of traditional architecture. The buildings in these cities are replete with fascinating details as they wear the signs of their inner life on their surfaces: pipes emerge from walls at random, telephone wires are tied in inextricable knots and balconies are transformed into overflowing outdoor storage units.
Now Wolf found himself in a city that “shows few signs of contemporary life on its surface” and, to a great extent, had not changed architecturally in the last hundred years. (Attesting to the speed of Paris’ architectural development is an anonymous quote generally attributed to Marcel Duchamp stating, “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges”).
There was also a fear in the back of Wolf’s mind. Everywhere he looked he saw a photo that he had seen before. Whether Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, or any number of famed photographers that had taken the city as their muse over the past century had taken it. So he retreated inside, not knowing what to do with himself, until he discovered Google’s “Street View”.
Google had just made the “Street View” platform available to France and Italy in July of 2008, which marked the first introduction of the platform outside of the United States. Wolf decided that this was an avenue that he could exploit in an effort to explore the city in a way that the Masters before him were unable to. He gradually traveled down all of the streets in Paris, not by walking them, but by sitting in front of his computer screen and looking at the imagery that Google had captured. He began to look for images that were out of the ordinary, images in which Google’s cameras had unintentionally captured a “decisive moment”.
He began to photograph these scenes. He did not simply record them by taking a “screen shot” or marking the scene on a map and posting it for others to see and visit themselves. Instead he got out his 4×5 (???) view camera and took a photo of his computer screen. He photographed the found scene as he would have had he been there, witnessing the “moment” first-hand. An important element when looking at the photographs that Wolf captured is that he does not try to hide the fact that the images he was shooting were on a screen. In fact, the elements of Google’s virtual world (the graphic, directional arrows, street names, and vehicle paths) were readily identifiable, not just as the virtual world, but as Google’s “Street View”.
This is important because it clues the viewer into the fact that these scenes were not witnessed by the photographer, but rather by a robotic camera. It also has the ability of placing the viewer in the “real” space. This is because in several of Wolf’s images, he has included Google’s screen text that gives the street names, addresses, or intersections where Google’s cameras were when the “Street View” image was taken.
Michael Wolf’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and the Redefinition of “Street Photography”
Recently, Wolf’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, a derivation of his Paris Street View series, garnered an honorable mention at the World Press Photo Awards. This is an interesting development for an association like the World Press Photo because Wolf’s photographs are hardly the type of “documentary” photography that World Press Photo is know for recognizing. Wolf talked about the honorable mention with the British Journal of Photography. Wolf says,
I think it’s absolutely astounding, I won First Prize twice in the competition in 2005 and last year, but this honorable mention is worth hundred times more to me because it’s such a conceptual leap for the World Press jury to award a prize to someone that photographs virtually. It’s mind-blowing.