Google Street Views, a body of work by Jon Rafman consisting of an on-going tumblr blog, a book published in conjunction with Golden Age in Chicago, a photo essay on the Art Fag City blog, and a series of glossy c-prints, is—in each of these versions—a collection of images found by Rafman while surfing through the “Street View” feature of the Google Maps application.
(Street View is a massive venture sponsored by Google in which vehicles armed with multi-lensed cameras drive all over the world, taking automatic and indiscriminate street photographs which are themselves, then, composed into 360 degree panoramas which can be virtually navigated through on the computer.)
In each case, one views a landscape (any landscape, rural, urban, suburban, whatever, just so long as it’s a view from a street) depicting either a figure or a group of figures, architectural details, empty vistas, or camera glitches.
It should be said, though, that the bread-and-butter of the project is the series of images depicting a figure or group of figures in isolated settings, suggesting a sense of loneliness or alienation.
For example, in Rafman’s Sixteen Google Street Views book, one views hikers dwarfed by a sublime, snow-covered landscape, a man taking a secret photograph of a group of teenagers in a public square, a small girl sitting by herself to the side of a street, an arm sticking out of the window of a white building, a naked woman staring into the ocean, a man staring into an empty landscape of the American west, and so on and so forth.
In each case, Rafman isolates a view on human action in which that human and their actions are viewed as insignificant or lonely.
When these images are taken by themselves, they often border on the sentimental, but when they are paired with the iconography of the Google copyright and directional compass arrows familiar to users of Google Maps, they take on a new significance.
The Google-ized images, after all, are produced without any moral, humanistic point of view.
In regard to this point, Rafman writes:
Google Street Views present a universe observed by the detached gaze of an indifferent Being. Its cameras witness but do not act in history. For all Google cares, the world could be absent of moral dimension.
The driver of the Google vehicle pauses every ten to twenty meters so that the automated cameras can take a picture—the objective is to map out geography photographically (à la Borges’ map of the world at a 1:1 scale), not intentionally suggest anything in particular about that geography.
As such, these images are all but devoid of the human hand in their production, going beyond even Ed Ruscha’s book Every Building on the Sunset Strip in which Ruscha turned on the street photography tradition of, say, Cartier-Bresson by cataloguing “every building on the Sunset Strip” in Los Angeles with an identically wide, frontal framing in every shot, that, then, compounds the endless, lonely sameness of the L.A. landscape.
There are no “decisive moments” in Ruscha’s project as every image is meant to be banal and stricken of any point of view.
In the case of the Google street view camera, this connection between the human hand and the representational image is even further separated, underlining the increasing disconnect between human beings and lived experience—even taking a photograph is more efficiently executed by a machine than a person.
However, whereas Ruscha’s project is anti-aesthetic and largely conceptual, demonstrating a certain deskilling of the artist’s hand, Rafman’s project comes full circle in a way, re-introducing a mode of skilled artistic craftsmanship not, in this case, in taking the photographs, but in searching through Street View and choosing unique images to isolate and re-contextualize.
Without ever intending to do so, the totally automated, impersonal Google Street View camera often picks up stray moments, off-hand glimpses of human personality.
Rafman’s vision of street photography hearkens back to Cartier-Bresson by tracing the (virtual) landscape, seeking out these rare gems—the “decisive moments” accidentally caught by Google–which tell the viewer something particular about where it is they exist.