Tag Archives: Retouching

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.

Retouching a Classic: ‘Less Américains’

In the digital age, touching the work of established photographic masters can be sensitive business. Recently a Swedish artist named Sanna Dullaway applied her colorizing skills to several historical photographs that included Dorthea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Eddie Adams’ harrowing image of an on-the-spot execution of a Vietcong on the streets of Saigon. The debate surrounding these modified versions was whether the interpretation was an improvement that could somehow be more powerful emotionally—due to addition of a color palette and the ability to reach newer generations who disconnect when they see black and white images—or simple vandalism.

The artist Pavel Maria Smejkal in his Fatescapes series took his appropriation of historical images one step further by digitally removing the people from images such as Nick Ut’s photograph of a young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack and the aforementioned Adams image. By leaving only the landscapes or streetscapes to play on our subconscious memory of historical places and events, he questions the limitations of a photograph’s accuracy at the representation of history.

Perhaps the most provocative example in terms of potential copyright infringement is when the artist Sherrie Levine re-photographed some of Walker Evans’ famous images from the 1930s Farm Security Administration project and presented them unaltered and with her name (the series was called After Walker Evans). Many viewers were outraged. Her act called into question many issues regarding a photograph’s author, copyright (Legally the FSA photographs are owned by the American public, which financed the project so there is no copyright infringement case that could be brought against Levine) and the portrayal of the poor. To some it was Art, but to others, it amounted to Blasphemy.

After Evans, Robert Frank may well be the most influential photographer the medium has seen. Frank’s book The Americans, published in the United States by Grove Press in 1959, was equally celebrated and reviled for its view of the U.S. and its citizenry. Today there is hardly a contemporary photographer who does not acknowledge that Frank accomplished greatness while photographing America for two years on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The Americans hasn’t escaped its own touches with appropriation. In his newest bookwork Less Américains, London-based artist Mishka Henner takes his humorous title from the French Edition of Frank’s book Les Américains, published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris. By scanning and applying Photoshop to Frank’s images, Henner has proceeded to remove most of the vital subject matter from all 83 photographs—leaving only small details hovering around the frame like background props on an empty theater stage.

Of course, as the title suggests, Less Américains does away with the “Americans” in Frank’s photographs so all that remains, for example, of the Hoboken City Fathers are a line of hats and some political bunting hanging on a two-by-four. And what has been spared in the most famous of all New Orleans street car picture which so perfectly expressed the implied race hierarchy of Jim Crow in the United States? A few vague, unidentifiable shapes that sit within the frame like mismatched puzzle pieces. To quote Jack Kerouac, who wrote an introduction to the American edition of Frank’s book, “The humour, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures (!)” linger like a ghost in these secondary elements.

Less Américains includes an introduction by the artist Elisabeth Tonnard that takes the form of a concrete poetry version of Kerouac’s prose. Tonnard’s approach was to systematically white-out the individual letters A.M.E.R.I.C.A.I.N.S. from Kerouac’s text, leaving an incomprehensible soup of vowels and consonants. His “…basketa pittykats…” becomes the even more cryptic “…B k t p tty-k t …”

Well, what can we make of Henner’s reworking of this masterpiece? I think Kerouac said it best: “What poem this is, what poems can be written about this book of pictures some day by some young new writer high by candlelight bending over them describing every grey mysterious detail.”

Less Américains was published earlier this year.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his blog here.

TPP Chats With One of NYC’s Best Retouchers

TPP recently sat down with the dashing Alberto Milazzo of LaBoutique NY to discuss the state of the art… of retouching.



TPP: How did you get started in the industry and where?

AM: I’ve been a retoucher for 9 years. I originally went into Graphic Design and went to school for it in the UK, I liked it but I started enjoying manipulating images and incorporating them in my design pieces more than the actual “designing” of the project. So after I was done I did a lot of self teaching at home, while I was working for Blockbuster Video and trying to break into acting. My agent told me to go get some headshots. I went to a photographer they recommended and turns out, he was in need of of a graphic designer/digital retoucher to set up his new digital department. I jumped at the chance. Acting quickly became secondary, and after I had proven my worth, I ended up working full time for him. I started retouching wedding shots and drool off of baby’s mouths – and I loved it.

As I retouched more, I became faster and more confident. Through that job I started meeting other photographers and was suddenly thrust into the industry where I learned a lot, fast. After a couple of years there I started freelancing for the big boys and really got my face out there to whomever had a minute to see me. As I grew my skill base I also grew a portfolio, which was starting to circulate… even all the way across the seas to NYC.

I got a call from a friend who had moved there and were in need of good retouchers. To my surprise, they offered me a freelance gig in NYC. I was on the plane before I could say yes. Two weeks later the company offered me a sponsorship and a full time job. That was 5 years ago and I have worked very hard in the industry since then and have worked with many professional photographers, clients and fellow retouchers.

TPP: You are one of the most sought after retouchers in the business – what would you say is your philosophy when taking on a new client or project?

AM: Clear, concise and honest communication. I take direction very well and its all down to taking the time to listen and asking the questions that will lead to a great image, story or campaign. I have also taken the time to grow strength in previously tough areas such as product retouching, which is more technical and precise when compared to fashion or beauty. I am a well rounded retoucher. Another huge advantage when working with new clients is knowing when I need to put my ego aside. This industry can lead anyone with a creative streak or skill to question their abilities or to get personally effected by an unhappy client. You can’t please everyone. I do my best and apply all that I have learned plus a dash of passion & commitment into what I’m working on. I believe this is key when meeting a new client or starting a project.

TPP: You clearly take a creative approach to retouching – what/whom are your current influences/inspirations?

AM: There are many photographers that I admire and who inspire me. To name a few in an otherwise long list; there’s Guy Aroch, Mert & Marcus Piggott, Richard Avedon, Ben Hassett and Tyen. I find myself being inspired by so many of the images that I see both consciously and subconsciously. I mentally log a specific color, a certain density, a particular contrast or palette they use when I retouch, this enables me to stay focused on new trends and augment my skill base to keep up with the demands of new and existing clients. It is very important for a retoucher to be versatile , you need to remain as unbiased with your technique or/and creative opinion, to stay as flexible as possible when tending and respecting one photographer’s style to another.

TPP: A lot is changing in the photo industry right now – what are some of the current challenges facing the retouching industry right now?

AM: A lot has changed, this is definitely true. I have seen a huge shift in the 9 years I’ve been working as a professional retoucher. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the lack of boutique-style retouching that I was originally taught in London – to sit with either the client or photographer when working. At least for the first or second ’round’ – to build a solid working relationship whereby making sure that no markup-up or direction is lost in translation. These days all a clients need to do is call and upload files and instruct a retoucher to “do the usual”. This can be very challenging and sometimes arduous. I struggled with this for a while until I managed to shift my way of working to suit this “in and out” method which is also brought on by small retouching budgets. No one wants to pay for good retouching anymore it seems. It pains me to see a wonderfully shot subject or story by a talented photographer ruined by sloppy cheap retouching.

TPP: I know retouchers get crazy requests – without naming names, can you tell us about some or one of the most outrageous/challenging requests you’ve had?

AM: I have retouched many celebrities. I have worked with all sorts of clients. Among the usual head switching, body shaping, acne removal and skin coloring, here are a handful of the most absurd comments and requests I have encountered : “Make her look like a Barbie doll”, “This is one image needs to be composed from 32 shots”, “Make her breasts look natural”,”lets change her skin color, I’d like her to look latin”, “Whatever you do, DO NOT touch the mole on the face, its her trademark”, “I don’t like her body shape, use body from a shots of (another person) and lets see” ( After 13 rounds of changes ), “I still don’t like it, lets go back to the first round and start over” and my favorite of all time : “We need to change her face completely, she looks awful, but its important that she still looks like her as her fans won’t recognize her”.

TPP: Any before and after’s you can show us? If so, can you walk us through your strategy in approaching this image?

AM: It is generally understood that showing any before and afters of work a retoucher has been paid for is out of the question, so, I took the liberty of shooting someone myself to show a typical beauty before & after. As you can see, its a huge difference. I chose a beauty image because they typically involve a lot more skin work, hence the dramatic difference. This is only scratching the surface of how different some images end up looking after rounds and rounds of changes. Here I started shaping the face, more symmetrical ( considered more attractive ), Then I moved on to some light general color moves and density/contrast shifts to generate a pleasant result. Then comes the skin and hair work which takes the most amount of time. There are a few techniques for retouching skin, I choose the ‘dogde and burn’ method in Photoshop, which was originally used in film photography to manipulate exposure of a selected area(s) on an exposed print. Dodging decreases the exposure for areas of the print that the photographer wishes to be lighter, while burning increases the exposure to areas of the print that should be darker. I use this to lighten unwanted shadows, a blemish mark, brightening up eyes or to enhance shine of lips or to darken a bright spot etc. For this particular image I had to completely replace her left eye from another shot, the original eye was too dark and the shape was unflattering.



TPP: Retouching is so much about staying ahead of current trends and technology. Can you tell us a little bit about how you stay on top of these developments?

AM: I am always in a constant state of absorption. A vast amount of information is presented to me daily from my clients. The camera equipment used for a particular shot, the lighting effects as well as particular color choices are all part of a photographers style. Knowing your client/photographer, their work, and what they expect from you is important in understanding the trends that are being set. As far as technology goes, it is imperative to stay current. I am always reading articles online about emerging products that will aid or change the industry. I try to stay on top o fall the latest camera technology, hardware to software… it can get exhausting when the industry perpetually pumps out new products throughout the year. I also find it imperative that if in fact some new product emerges that we incorporate it onto our practice if I feel it will benefit me or my clients. For example: In the studio we use EIZO screens. Theses screens are the top of their class. They allow consistency with color and give one of the best monitor-to-print matches around. Color calibration and consistency/prepress industry standards are crucial to the retouching industry. With technology such as this we are able to deliver more accurate results to our clients.

TPP: What is your favorite tool in Photoshop and why?

AM: Without a breath of hesitation, my favorite tool in photo shop is known as “curves” which is a color adjustment tool. The reason is simple: I love color. Whether you are looking at a photograph, a work of art, or out your window color is what makes the world around us interesting. Having the curve adjustment tool gives me the option to change the color and intensity of any given image and/or area. Its comparable to giving someone a blank canvas and an infinite amount of color and saying… Have at it! This tool allows me to set the mood of an image by making color moves. I can make the image warm, cool, give it the appearance of being vintage, or poppy and fresh regardless of the images subject matter which I find exciting. Color is everything!

TPP: Any advice for anyone who is interested in becoming a retoucher?

AM: I know so many different people from all walks of life who enter into this industry. In all honesty I believe it is a career choice that most retouchers fall into. For instance I studied graphic design and photography, and for me the transition was predictable. However, I know of some very successful and talented retouchers who have emerged from the hairdressing business, music and modeling industries. To my knowledge there are no decent retouching classes available. If there are, and I am mistaken, I would just like to ask where are all the good retouchers? I mean it is very hard to find a skilled and talented retoucher. Anyone can buy a copy of Photoshop and learn the basics by means of one vehicle or another but there is so much more to retouching than software or hardware. There is a sensibility involved, knowing just how far to push a color, a pixel, or even someone’s nose. Coupling tact with technique is key. The greatest advice I can give to someone is to cultivate your abilities through practice after learning the basics, and to not become to greedy with Photoshop; develop the sense to know when to stop pushing an image and you’re already in the right direction. Have fun with it!

Looking for your Dream Job? TPP Can Help.

Oh hello there, reader. We have an exciting announcement about a new feature here at TPP: A JOB FEED!

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But if you want to work with photographers, studios, magazines, ad agencies, post-production companies, printers, or retouching houses, you should stay right here.

Since we have thousands of visitors from the photo industry a month, it seemed like the logical extension to TPP’s growing community to offer industry specific classifieds and, most importantly, an employment search tool that connects talented, experienced job seekers in the industry with the employers that need their skills.

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Soviet Aviation by Rodchenko and Stepanova

The book that won Best Photography Book of the Year at PhotoEspana is Editorial Lampreave‘s facsimile of Alexander Rodchenko and Vavara Stepanova’s Soviet Aviation originally published in 1939. This was one of the famed “World’s Fair” publications (along with a series of small booklets) created to show off the Soviet Union’s advances in science, technology, and all great affairs of the State structure. Rodchenko and Stepanova were assigned the task of designing three which also included Moscow and A Pageant of Youth which featured sports and athleticism as its subject. With seemingly endless amount of money flowing from the State into such publications the design and craftsmanship that went into some of these propaganda books is now known to be extravagant. Often with die-cuts, gatefolds, use of different paper stock and fine art printing, the results can be breathtaking.

The genesis of Soviet Aviation apparently happened at breakneck speed. According to the dates and terms of the original publishing contract, Rodchenko and Stepanova had only eleven days after signing onto the project to show a complete mock-up of the final book and had less than one month to fully realize and present final art work to the printer – much of it requiring heavy retouching to the original photos.

Rodchenko was in charge of design and Stepanova handled the “object” and “story,” but Point 8 of their publishing contract terms effectively erased public knowledge of their authorship by stating “the artist will not declare any right to intellectual property.” In all three books, neither Rodchenko’s nor Stepanova’s name can be found but rather a credit that these books were simply, “printed in the Soviet Union.”

Soviet Aviation is a beautiful book with many page spreads that show Rodchenko’s brilliance towards dynamic layouts. Some pages have stand alone images which are perceived as simply pictures in an album while other spreads form incredible photomontage and graphics we have come to be familiar with in other Rodchenko and Stepanova collaborations like Moscow Under Construction, First Cavalry, and Ten Years of Uzebekistan.

That said, Soviet Aviation is also one of the simpler books in terms of it bells and whistles. There are no die-cuts or gatefolds and unlike several other publications that employed the use of different toned inks in their printing, this one is printed in a uniform monochrome blue making it in comparison much less dynamic. Of course, this makes it a curious choice of all of the Rodchenko and Stepanova books to reprint but ultimately the most practical. The cost to a modern publisher (surely not working with State monies) to reproduce all of the extravagances of those other titles would be certain to strain the budget to the breaking point.

Soviet Aviation present the entire original book in full scale – standing 15″ high. Included are two contemporary essays in the back – one written by Rodchenko’s nephew Alexander Lavrentiev – that discuss the history of the book and the Soviet Union’s advances in flight. Both are well written and vastly informative.

Printed over seventy years ago, the original was meant to be a celebration of flight and innovation created by the anonymous hands of a collective society. That voice, carefully crafted by two geniuses of book objects and design, may have wanted to appear to be spoken from a unified nation but the nuance of language belongs to just Stepanvova and Rodchenko.