Archive | November, 2011

Old German movie, new internet technology; go!

27 Nov

In 1994 Wim Wenders made a film called Lisbon Story, which I didn’t discover until about a decade later. It’s a simple but rich film set in Lisbon (duh) and, to many viewers, a spare and beautiful love letter to the place. To any image maker however, the film is a somewhat terrifying portrait of the interior crisis we often face over how to create a “true” image. In it, a photographer has gone on a somewhat cracked-up quest after finally becoming convinced that the act of looking at an image, never mind planning it, inevitable pollutes and distorts it. He’s strapped his camera to his back and, unable to see what it’s filming and thereby unable to frame or influence it, believes he’s finally taking images in a truly objective way. Naturally, he’s also storing all of the film away somewhere where it can never be viewed, because to view it would also alter and diminish it.

Or, uh, here’s a summary by an online reviewer who manages to be more eloquent and simultaneously way more convoluted than I: “In the Year Zero of the fledgling megalorepublic of Europa, an ambivalent image-maker, world-renowned, resenting the idolatry of images and his own complicity in their propagation, has gone missing, lost on a quixotic quest to give birth to cinema again, blaming the eye itself for seeing images and after-images in the infinity of the cranial cavity.”


Of course, this seems like a far-fetched character, but one  I’ve always loved for the conversation he provokes (a conversation between myself and myself at least, in my head) about image making. When I first saw Lisbon Story, it spoke to the ex-photographer in me; photography was the first art form in which I trained, and extensively, but it’s also one I abandoned a long time ago due to some of the same ambivalence. I haven’t thought about the film in a long time, until today, while I sacrificed hours to a great gorge of research into art and documentary projects that have been made with Google Street View, one of my abiding obsessions.

How interesting to realize that the Google Street View car, which was “born” in 2007, 13 years after Lisbon Story was made, has essentially taken up the same cause as the film’s captivating and mostly-absent main character.  I often dedicate countless late-night hours to investigations of remote areas in Google maps (and Jay calls me out on my craziness when I claim to be “driving” the Google car, as well as “driving” the Google earth satellite), and find this genuinely exciting. I’ve had a profound desire of late to work this fascination into some new art projects, so I’ve been trying to figure out the irresistible appeal of the Street View images. I now realize that the Google Street view car, like the Lisbon Story dude, is fascinating for its seeming pursuit of neutrality. It documents, but in a completely automated way. It shoots with its nine lenses every 10 to 20 meters while the driver of the car, completely uninvolved with the camera, drives a pre-determined route. The camera may as well be strapped to someone’s back; it seems as dispassionate and objective as a camera could possibly be. Ditto the Google Earth satellite, for I am not really driving it. It simply travels, capturing what it sees without intention or judgement.

Seems to me that this automation and objectivity is what leaves room for fascination, for us to feel as if we may use these technologies to truly investigate,  and with the hope of seeing something that hasn’t been seen before. Because who knows what was documented behind the google car, while the driver was looking forward? And has any human truly looked over the satellite imagery from this little corner of the forest? Or this one?

Unlike the images in Lisbon Story that end up hidden away, the Google Street View images end up on the internet, being viewed and interpreted and contextualized and altered by millions of viewers. A number of people have begun pushing this further, curating very striking images from Street View for artistic and documentary projects. Without getting into discussions about copyright or voyeurism or any of the other interesting issues these projects bring up, I just want to share them.

Aaron Hobson’s “cinemascapes” of striking, remote areas.

…and a great interview about his project.

Jon Rafman’s 9-eyes project

…and an essay about the 9-eyes project

Michael Wolf’s “Unfortunate Events”

And that is that for now. Enjoy.