Google Street View and Authorship


General Photography

The relationship between photographic authorship and Google Street View authorship could probably be compared to the relationship between musicians who compose and record music and artists who remix already recorded music.

In a couple of recent posts, Pete Brook addresses what I think is the key issue of all Google Street View (GSV) work: Authorship. The first post, Navigating the Puzzle of Google Street View ‘Authorship’ investigates two recent project, which has a curious overlap of imagery. Perhaps not surprisingly, both Jon Rafman and Michael Wolf consider the images in question “completely different images, altered by their own hand.” (more; updated below)

I do agree about the aspect of authorship, theoretically speaking the images are different. But what kind of insight do we gain from saying that? I’m not so sure. In particular, I was struck by the following explanation by Wolf (quoted from Brook’s article):

“The only thing they have in common is they were taken from the same street-view page. But the resulting images are very different. It’s as if you would say an image taken by Martin Parr of a beach in Rimini is a repetition of an image taken by Massimo Vitali at the same beach. They both happened to have photographed the same location, but their images are not in the least similar, or ‘repetitions’ of each other.”
I don’t find this very convincing. There is a clear difference between two artists working on exactly the same source image to create something new (a variant of the original image) and two artists literally taking images themselves on a beach.

The problem here might simply be that the term “authorship” is simply too broad so that it ends up lacking the critical descriptive power needed. The relationship between photographic authorship (the Parr, Vitali case) and GSV authorship (Rafman, Wolf) could probably be compared to the relationship between musicians who compose and record music and artists who remix already recorded music: While they both produce music, they are clearly not the same kind of beast.

If we separated out these two types of authorship, I think it would be easier to talk about the merits of individual GSV projects: Do we like the remixes or not? Are they interesting? Do they offer anything that goes beyond offer visual jokes? Do they require us to come back to them, to find something new in an image we’ve already seen?

Of course, there is a second issue here, something Brook addressed in his second post, Photographing the Prostitutes of Italy’s Backroads: Google Street View vs. Boots on the Ground. In that post, Pete compares two project that both document prostitutes on back roads in Italy, one being done using GSV, the other one by a photographer in person, along those roads. The first, immediate, problem is that the GSV project, done by Mishka Henner, relies on research done online. You’ll have to decide whether that’s good enough for you. In contrast, Migration by Paolo Patrizi had the photographer visit the women in person.

From what I’ve seen online over the past few days, most people prefer Patrizi’s work over Henner’s. Writes Brook

“Henner’s work allows us to keep a safe distance. He even saves us the trouble of finding these scenes on our own computer screens; we’re detached one step beyond. We are cheap consumers.”
“Much like the clients of those prostitutes,” one might add. That safe distance seems exactly what one would wish a photographer to overcome. Henner essentially is producing visual statistics, with the women in question being reduced to ciphers, to small, often blurred, shapes that come with a label (“prostitute”). In contrast, Patrizi works on bridging the distance, on making us care. That is the crucial difference, at least for me.

What I’m taking away from these debates is the following. While we are still figuring out how to treat GSV work, in order to determine merit we might just use what we have been using for years when talking about photography. Which means that for some projects, GSV might just be ideal and bring something very exciting to the table. For others, it is just a flawed way to approach a topic.

Update (23 August 2011): I’ve seen some comments online where people say Google Street View work is more like a collage, not a remix. I disagree. In most cases, a collage uses elements from different sources (images etc.) and puts them together. In contrast, most GSV work uses just one larger source image - this is more akin to a remix where a remixer uses a single song and maybe adds some of her/his own (unpublished) bits.