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Google Street View as Art

A collection of images snapped by chance by Google’s street view trucks is strangely compelling.
November 19, 2009

The folks at NPR’s Picture Show blog have collected a slideshow of beautiful, wistful, dramatic moments on the street caught by Google’s Street View. In 2007, Google sent cars carrying an eyelike sphere fitted with nine cameras to capture images for its Street View application. In the blog they jokingly compare the Internet giant to some of the greats of street photography, but looking at the collection of accidental images makes you wonder.

Credit: Jon Rafman/Google

The NPR story was inspired by this essay by Montreal artist Jon Rafman about curating screenshots from the web service. The essay makes a case for Street View as an art project and a cultural text in whose images we can read almost anything. Photos of sprawled homeless people and buildings on fire suggest “a universe observed by the detached gaze of an indifferent Being. Its cameras witness but do not act in history,” Rafman writes. “For all Google cares, the world could be absent of moral dimension.” On the other hand, the cameras also captured small moments of joy on the sidewalk–a couple lifting their child off the ground by both her hands, for example. From the essay:

One year ago, I started collecting screen captures of Google Street Views from a range of Street View blogs and through my own hunting. This essay illustrates how my Street View collections reflect the excitement of exploring this new, virtual world. The world captured by Google appears to be more truthful and more transparent because of the weight accorded to external reality, the perception of a neutral, unbiased recording, and even the vastness of the project. At the same time, I acknowledge that this way of photographing creates a cultural text like any other, a structured and structuring space whose codes and meaning the artist and the curator of the images can assist in constructing or deciphering.

Credit: Jon Rafman/Google

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