Tag Archives: Conceptual Photography

Street View and Beyond: Google’s Influence on Photography

When Google Street View started as an experiment in 2007, the company sent SUVs equipped with cameras, GPS and lasers to collect its first pictures. The idea of capturing images of the entire world from the perspective of the street was revolutionary, if not a little insane. Now, five years later, Google has recorded 360-degree photographs of streets in more than 3,000 cities in 43 countries around the world. Google Street View cars—along with snowmobiles, giant tricycles and Trekkers–have covered more than five million unique miles of road since the project began, making tens of millions of still images in even the most far off places on the map, such as Antarctica.

The massive and growing archive has spawned a virtual world of images like we’ve never seen before in the history of photography—and its accessibility has inspired a new generation of photographers who are using the tool to document the world while simultaneously redefining the boundaries, quite literally, of contemporary art photography.

While critics bemoan the trend of artists using Google imagery in their works, the artistic appropriation of photos is as old as photography itself, employed by everyone from the Surrealists to the post-modern Pictures Generation of the late 1970s.  Google’s Street View images aren’t a commentary on the world, but are surveillance photos taken for the practical purposes of just showing us places we may not be able to visit. The machines and cameras used to collect them have no discretion, much less artistic influence. Through meticulous research, framing, grabbing and reformatting, photographers themselves are assigning photos artistic value, in much the same way they do when  shooting, toning or retouching a raw file or an analogue negative. “In its raw form, satellite imagery can be quite dull,” says Mishka Henner, an artist who often works with Google’s images. “Cropping, adjusting, and forming a body of work out of them completely transforms these images into something that can be beautiful, terrifying and also insightful. If the internet remains free and open, I’m confident that in ten years photographic work like this will be as prevalent as imagery produced by hand-held cameras.”

Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images

The Google street view mapping and camera car is seen as it charts the streets of Washington, DC, on June 7, 2011.

At this point, all the Street View images are created by a human-operated Google cars with a spherical camera affixed to the top. The device looks like an all-seeing eye that has nine directional cameras for 360° views at a height of about 2.5 meters. The new high-resolution replica of the world that Google provides is every voyeur’s dream—one can virtually visit an endless variety of places from the comforts of one’s own home.

In the catalogue to the show Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera since 1870, editor and curator Sandra Phillips compared the biblical story about elders spying on Susannah to present day, saying: “Today, however they would use cell phones to grab a picture of a young woman in a compromised position and send it to friends, having located her garden through Google Earth. Human hunger for seeing the forbidden has not changed. The technologies to facilitate it have.”

And she’s right—this technology has been adapted quickly by artists and devoured by the art world. Doug Rickard used Google Street View to see the back roads of the nation in a series called A New American Picture, which was featured at New York City’s MoMA last year and is currently on view at Yossi Milo Gallery. Geoff Dyer wrote extensively in the Guardian about Rickard, saying: “Any doubts as to the artistic – rather than ethical or conceptual – merits of this new way of working were definitively settled by Rickard’s pictures. It was William Eggleston who coined the phrase “photographing democratically” but Rickard has used Google’s indiscriminate omniscience to radically extend this enterprise – technologically, politically and aesthetically.”

Rickard says he probably made 10,000 images of this work before narrowing the selection down to just under 80 images. “The only difference [between this work and traditional street photography] is that the world’s frozen, so you’re limited to that surrounding,” he says. “You’ve got a fixed lens and your distance is determined by the width of the street, not where you walk. But there’s a lot in kinship with traditional photography that was really partly responsible for me being able to embed 1,000 hours into this in four years.”

Jon Rafman’s project 9-Eyes captures uncanny images of reality and provides a case study on the unrelentingly objective aesthetic that comes from Google Street View. ”The potential sentimentality of these photographs is counteracted by the manner in which they were captured,” he says. “There is a tension between the indifferent robotic camera, and the human gaze that sees meaning and interprets narratives in these images. That tension is the essence of the project. People often say that technology is changing our perception of the world, changing our perception of reality, but I think that the inverse is also occurring—a technology becomes successful because it taps into something fundamental about contemporary consciousness, it expresses how we are already experiencing the world.”

Some artists, however, are looking at another aspect unique to the use of Google imagery. Clement Valla, through his project, Postcards from Google Earth, is finding the glitches and bugs unintentionally captured by Google Earth’s lens and documenting them to comment on the mistakes resulting from technology’s limitations. “Because Google Earth is continuously updating, there’s kind of no archive of these particular moments or situations,” he says. “So I thought it would be interesting to take them and print them as postcards.”

The prevalence of Google’s imagery and technology is already permeating the aesthetic of more traditional photography and even artists working in myriad disciplines from sculpture to street art. Manuel Vazquez still begins his process with taking his own pictures but later intergrates the aesthetic of surveillance imagery and Google Street View, as seen is his project Lonely Crowd, which incorporated the pixelated nature of digital works to convey the physical and emotional distances between strangers in a crowd. “The web has changed the way we access and read the city, through technologies that have shortened and broken the boundaries of space and time,” he says. “It is like a walk with no specific destination, affecting time, space and perspective with every click. There is not a linearity of past-present-future. It feels like a continuous flow of information that is updated.”

Fake Google Streetview car urban invention by artist group F.A.T. Lab, February 2010 at Transmediale 2010, Berlin. Image courtesy of Aram Bartholl.

Fake Google Street View car urban invention by artist group F.A.T. Lab, February 2010 at Transmediale 2010, Berlin

Interdisciplinary artist Aram Bartholl, meanwhile, has used Google imagery as the inspiration for some of his work but hardly produces only photography. Bartholl creates sculptural objects that represent virtual objects such as the red map marker icon found on Google Maps. “Services like Google Maps change the way we perceive the city,” he says. “I remember once I had a parcel service on the phone claiming my address didn’t exist because it couldn’t be found on Google Maps.” His works, which have been shown at Rencontres d’Arles, among other festivals, aim to explore how technology imitates reality and vice versa. “The map marker icon is just a 20 pixel interface on the screen, but when you switch to satellite mode and then zoom in more, it looks like it becomes part of the actual picture, casting a shadow on the city,” he says.

Despite the growing number of photographers who use Google in their works, it remains unclear how this technology will influence our perspective in photography—and perceptions of spatial reality—outside the virtual world.

In the meantime, we’d love to continue the conversation and hear your thoughts about how other artists are using Google Street View and Google Earth in the comments section below.

Paul Moakley is the Deputy Photo Editor at TIME. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulmoakley.

Reporting and interviews by Zara Katz, TIME photo intern and graduate student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow her on on Twitter @zarakatz.

Conceptual photography

For its latest issue (#71), Source magazine is asking the question, “What is conceptual photography?” To go along with the mag they have produced three short talking-head videos exploring this question with a handful of artists and critics. The importance of the “concept” in contemporary photography has always interested me. In the photo-world, the question regularly pops up about why “straight” photography isn’t taken seriously by the art world. Those in the straight photography corner often appear to see conceptual photography as impure in some way, as if it were not what photography is really about. Without wanting to spark off another one of these debates, it seems to me that concept is indeed considered paramount in Western art photography today (in my experience, this is not at all the case in Japan, where “serious” photography can still very much be about wandering around with a camera and taking pictures). For example, I’m often struck by young photographers struggling to hang an ill-fitting artist statement with some big ideas in it over the shoulders of work that is clearly not conceptual in the slightest… presumably because they have been taught to do so in art school. Wherever you stand on this question (or however delightfully far away you stand from it) these videos provide an interesting look at how photography became so excited about concepts and what the hell “conceptual photography” is even supposed to mean in the first place.

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Sophia Wallace, Untitled (Girls Like Us)

Sophia Wallace, Untitled (Girls Like Us)

Sophia Wallace

Untitled (Girls Like Us),
Brooklyn, 2012
Website – SophiaWallace.com

Sophia Wallace (b. 1978) is an artist working in conceptual photography and video. She received a BA from Smith College in 2000 and an MA from New York University and the International Center of Photography in 2005. Her work has been exhibited at Kunsthalle Wien Contemporary Museum in Vienna, Colgate University’s Clifford Gallery, Milk Gallery, Aperture Gallery, and Carnegie Art Museum among others. Her solo exhibition showed at Leslie-Lohman in 2010. Wallace is a 2012 Van Lier Fellow with awards including PDN’s Curator Award and Critic's Pick by the Griffin Museum. Notable publications include Identities Now, a book of contemporary portraiture by Peter Hay Halpert Fine Art and No Fashion Please! a hardcover catalog. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

The New York Times Magazine Photographs Panel Discussion at B&N

Join us for a panel discussion with longtime photo editor Kathy Ryan. She will discuss her new book, The New York Times Magazine Photographs (Aperture, 2011) at Barnes and Noble, along with photographers Gregory Crewdson and Taryn Simon.

The book reflects upon and interrogates the nature of both photography and print magazines, at this pivotal moment in their history and evolution. It presents some of the finest commissioned photographs worldwide of various types, including reportage, portraiture, style, conceptual photography, and photo illustration. Also addressed are issues of documentary photography in relation to more conceptual photography; the efficacy of storytelling; and what makes an image evidentiary, objective, subjective, truthful, or a tool for advocacy; as well as discussion of whether these matters are currently moot, or more critical than ever. As such, The New York Times Magazine Photographs aims to serve as a springboard for a rigorous, necessary, and revitalized examination of photography as presented within a modern journalistic context.

Kathy Ryan (editor) is the award-winning photo editor of the New York Times Magazine. Ryan was recognized as Canon Picture Editor of the Year in 1997 at the Visa Pour l’Image festival in Perpignan, France, and in 2003 was named Picture Editor of the Year by the Lucie Awards.

Thursday, November 17, 2011
7:00 pm

FREE

Barnes & Noble Bookstore
150 East 86th Street
New York, New York
(212) 369-2180

Aperture Fall Book Preview!

Aperture is proud to share our upcoming season of beautiful books with you! See below and visit our website for a sneak peak of our diverse line up, from The New York Times Magazine Photographs to Is This Place Great or What, by Brian Ulrich along with many more. Click on the titles and sign up to be notified when each book releases. Stay tuned for details of events, exhibitions and more!

The New York Times Magazine Photographs, Edited by Kathy Ryan, (October 2011)

For over thirty years, the New York Times Magazine has presented the myriad possibilities and applications of photography. Edited by Kathy Ryan, long-time photo-editor of the magazine, this volume presents some of the finest commissioned photographs worldwide in various sections: reportage, portraiture, style, and conceptual photography including photo illustration. Check out spreads from The 6th Floor blog here.

Subway, Photographs by Bruce Davidson, (September 2011)

In 1986, Aperture first published Bruce Davidson’s Subway – a groundbreaking series that has garnered critical acclaim for its phenomenal use of extremes of color set against flash-lit skin. In this third edition of a classic of photographic literature, a sequence of 118 images (including twenty five never-before-published) move the viewer through a landscape at times menacing, at other times lyrical, soulful, and satiric. An exhibition of this work will be on view at Aperture Gallery this fall. More details to be announced.

Koudelka: Gypsies, Photographs by Josef Koudelka, (September 2011)

Koudelka: Gypsies, lavishly printed in a unique quadratone mix by artisianal printer Gerhard Steidl, rekindles the energy and astonishment of this foundational body of work by master photographer Josef Koudelka. This stunning new edition includes thirty never-before-published images and a new text by Roma scholar and sociologist Will Guy, who also wrote the essay for the 1975 edition.

The Latin American Photobook, By Horacio Fernández, (October 2011)

A growing appreciation of the photobook has inspired a new flood of scholarship and connoisseurship of the form – few as surprising and inspiring at The Latin American Photobook, the culmination of a four-year, cross-continental research effort led by Horacio Fernández, author of the seminal volume, Fotografia Pública; other advisors include Marcelo Brodsky, Iãta Cannabrava, and Martin Parr.

Is This Place Great Or What, Photographs by Brian Ulrich, (October 2011)

Is This Place Great Or What, Brian Ulrich’s long-awaited first monograph, presents the photographer’s decade-long exploration of the shifting tectonic plates that make up American consumer society. Tracing a palpable trajectory from irrational exuberance to debt-laden hangover, Ulrich has successfully managed to get under the skin of the current economic crisis, providing a sobering document – both personal as well as sociologically astute – of the American consumer psyche in the first decade of the twenty-first century. An exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art will open on August 27, 2011 and is Ulrich’s first solo museum exhibition.

The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the Unconscious, By W. M. Hunt, (September 2011)

The Unseen Eye resents a wonderfully idiosyncratic and compelling collection of photographs assembled around a particular theme: in each image, the gaze of the subject is averted, the face obscured or the eyes firmly closed. Amassed over the course of thirty years by New York collector W. M. Hunt, the collection includes works by masters such as Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Imogen Cunningham, William Klein, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Robert Frank as well as lesser-known artists and vernacular images. An exhibition of will be on view at the George Eastman House, Rochester, opening on October 1, 2011.

Diane Arbus: A Chronology, (October 2011)

Diane Arbus: A Chronology is the closest thing possible to reading a contemporaneous diary by one of the most daring, influential, and controversial artists of the twentieth century. Drawn primarily from Arbus’ extensive correspondence with friends, family and colleagues,; personal notebooks; and other unpublished writings, this beautifully produced volume exposes the private thoughts and motivations of an artist whose astonishing vision derived from the courage to see things as they are and the grace to permit them simply to be. On the fortieth anniversary of Arbus’ death Aperture newly reissues the universally acknowledged classic, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph and Untitled: Diane Arbus with image separations specially prepared by Robert J. Hennessey using prints by Neil Selkirk.

Photographer #267: Angela Strassheim

Angela Strassheim, 1969, USA, has worked as a forensic photographer for several years before focusing on her conceptual photography.  Her experience from the forensic background and a violent crime involving a student where she was teaching at the time were the triggers for her latest project. She used BlueStar, a reagent whose purpose is to reveal blood stains, at places where crimes had been committed, to take photographs of the interiors. These houses, often inhabited by people unaware of the violent history, showed evidence of past crimes. In her series Left Behind she concentrated on her childhood and adult memories. The domestic narratives show an unsettling world. Pause focuses on significant moments in a girls and womans life. Her images are sharp and hold a deeper layer. Angela received an MFA at Yale University in 2003 and has exhibited extensively. The following images come from the series Evidence, Left Behind and Pause.

Website: www.angelastrassheim.com

But is it photography?

Thomas-Demand.jpg

By now you might have heard of Sean O’Hagan raising a ruckus about the Deutsche Börse Prize and the Photographers’ Gallery. Apparently, there has been some debate about the gallery, which I haven’t followed. If what I see is correct, it’s about whether or not the gallery’s curators are doing a good enough job picking photography. O’Hagan uses this as a backdrop to complain about the Deutsche Börse Prize: “I have already written on this subject with regards to the Photographers’ Gallery, and stand by my conclusion that it should rebrand the Deutsche Börse as a conceptual photography prize.” (more)

First of all, I always finding arguing about prizes a bit silly, because, let’s face it, a prize is a prize. There might be a lot of money attached to it, but we’re not really talking about the Nobel Prize here. And even the Nobel prizes have these kinds of debates every year. Just look at how people complain about how the “wrong” person won the Peace or Literature Prize.

That aside, here’s the Deutsche Börse shortlist from 2010: Anna Fox, Zoe Leonard, Sophie Ristelhueber (winner), Donovan Wylie. Here’s 2009: Paul Graham (winner), Emily Jacir, Tod Papageorge, Taryn Simon. Here’s 2008: John Davies, Jacob Holdt, Esko Männikkö (winner), Fazal Sheikh. And let’s do one more, 2007: Philippe Chancel, Anders Petersen, Fiona Tan, The Atlas Group (winner). We can probably all agree that that’s a pretty diverse group of photographers, isn’t it? Would it make sense to rebrand the Deutsche Börse Prize as a conceptual photography prize given the variety of photographers shortlisted over the past years? You decide.

But there’s more. In his article, O’Hagan then singles out Thomas Demand and discusses his work, writing “Demand is essentially an installation artist, who builds three-dimensional, life-size replicas of places he has come across in found photographs.” (That’s a Thomas Demand photo at the top of this post) As you can imagine this set-up inevitably leads to the question: “The question is, though, is he the most intriguing photographer? Is he a photographer at all?”

The first question is either yes or no, depending on whether you think Demand is the most intriguing photographer. I don’t think so, but I’m perfectly happy with other people disagreeing with me. I’m not the biggest fan of conceptual photography, because for me, it’s usually too obvious. But should Thomas Demand win the Prize (I have no idea), I’m perfectly happy with that. You can say whatever you want but Demand’s approach to investigating what images say and mean is pretty unique.

The second question really gets me, though. Is Thomas Demand a photographer at all? Well, let’s see. When I go to an art gallery to look at a Thomas Demand exhibition, what do I see? Photographs on the wall. You can’t miss them. They’re huge. So why is Demand not a photographer?

OK, I was a bit facetious there. But still… Of course, Demand photographs installations that he creates based on older photographs. The end product – that is photography. Demand is not showing the sets he builds. In a sense, the sets are irrelevant for what he is after. To focus on the sets is like focusing on the fruits and vegetables in a still life and to then argue that the photographer is in fact in the fruits and vegetable business.

Photography has come a long(ish) way (let’s try to remember photography’s real age compared with other arts forms). It now contains a plethora of different types and ideas, ranging from street photography to photography done by machines, with a ton of stuff in between. Each of those different types offers different things. The real promise of contemporary photography lies not in what one type has to offer, but in the combination of what all of them combined have to offer. For any one type we should not be asking “Is it photography?” We should be asking “What is this type of photography doing? What is it telling us?”

And we might not like one type (or more than one). But I think we should be careful not to exclude some types of photography simply because we don’t like them, or because they’re not “photographic” (or orthodox) enough. Photography is what it is, and over the next decades it will probably include even more types. That’s what makes contemporary photography so exciting.