The Nine Eyes of Goolge Maps Street View – Jon Rafman (2009)

Over the past 150 years, advances in digital technology have seen the evolution of human vision to be capable of perceiving its world in entirely new ways. Whether that is through complex visual data representation, the image created by an electron microscope, or something as simple as a seeing the map like layout of the world from the window of a plane.  Since the creation of the first fixed photograph in 1816, photographers have been following and progressing this expansion of the human vision aided first by the mechanical eye and with the turn of the century, the digital eye.  Such has the development of photography enriched one’s perception of the world that today, thanks to Google’s massive ongoing Google Maps Street View (GMSV) project, the 21st century flâneur can virtually stroll through the static photographed streets of the world from the comfort of their couch.  GMSV represents both a new virtual environment in which to view photography, as well as a providing a new platform on which to create art works, such as used by the subject of this essay, Jon Rafman’s series The Nine Eyes of Google Maps Street View, 2009 (9-Eyes).

9-Eyes by Jon Rafman resembles a blog like series of screenshots taken from GMSV during the artists ‘travels’ throughout the world as captured by Google’s mechanical eye. Google’s camera is mounted onto a moving van and captures a 360 degree panorama of the world systematically through its 9 lenses, hence Rafman’s series’ title ‘Nine Eyes’. (Figure 1) The images captured by Rafman from this project are unaltered to the extent that they still wear the navigational tool in the top left hand corner almost as if the mechanical artist has signed his work. The images have a strong sense of ‘digital texture’ and warped panoramic view due to the ‘form follows function’ objectives of Google’s project and Rafman has chosen not to disclose the location of his images, allowing them to maintain an ambiguous and mysterious nature.  Upon first viewing, Rafman’s images don’t appear have much coherence in regards to theme or subject other than the unexpected and weird, (Figure 2) and have been criticized for lacking in such.  Rafman himself admits his fascination with the ‘spontaneous aesthetic’ and ‘urgency’ of the imagery found on GMSV, and it is through this spontaneity that unity is created in Rafman’s body of work.

Despite the wide range of subject matter in Rafman’s 9-Eyes, the scope of the images is limited to the van’s view of the street due to the parameters of the project. Rafman comments on this limitation pointing out that the imagery captured by Google’s van often reveals the more vulnerable and marginalised members of a society. Many of Rafman’s images depict poverty, prostitution, and street violence. (Figure 3 and 4) However, Rafman has managed to capture an astounding range of different subject matter and imagery within the bounds of the world’s streets. The overall connection throughout his work seems to be in capturing the moment in which the world is caught unprepared. (Figure 5) There are many reoccurring subjects and themes in 9-Eyes including animals in outside of their expected environments, (Figure 6) people caught on the precipice of strange places (Figure 7) oddly beautiful digital glitches (Figure 8), the unnoticed landscape (Figure 9) and just the weird and at times disturbing nature of human beings. (Figure 10 and 11)

Arguably however, the most interesting element to this series is in the images containing a certain melancholy atmosphere dispersed throughout the collection of more active images. (Figure 12 and 13) The handful of quieter images in this series gives depth and seriousness to the work. There is a feeling of waiting and stillness in these photos combined with the element of surprise that characterises the series. (Figure 14) There is a feeling of the involvement of fate as no photography before has so relied on as the passing van captures exactly what is there at the moment it travels through an environment. Equally, Rafman’s job also relies on an element of fate as Google Maps Street view covers a massive 5 million miles of unique road which is next to impossible to explore in its entirety.

This image of the abandoned baby (Figure 15) left of the street out the front of a Gucci store exemplifies many of the different themes in Rafman’s work; waiting, melancholy, irony in the juxtaposition of environment and subject, the subject’s vulnerable position within that environment, and of course, the strangeness of human nature. The detachment of the mechanical photographer to the subject is glaringly obvious within this image, as one would imagine a human photographer, after investing such attention to his small subject, would be compelled to intervene with the environment and come to the small child’s aid regardless of how stringent an anonymous street photographer he was. The Google Map’s van however would make no alterations in its path upon capturing such an image, unless perhaps the human driver happened to notice the baby’s friendless state.

It is in situations like this that the ethics and motivation for photography are brought into question. In 1993, photojournalist Kevin Carter created an ethically controversial image (Figure 16) that is in a way comparable to Rafman’s  ‘Gucci Baby’. Carter was photographing the poverty in Sudan when he came across this emaciated young girl struggling on her journey to the UN feeding shelter. He noticed an encroaching vulture nearby and allowed it to approach until it was within his photo’s frame before chasing it away from the vulnerable girl. Soon after publishing this image, Carter was bombarded with criticism for his conduct and for not helping the girl. Years later he committed suicide, unable to bear the memories of pain and suffering he had accumulated over his career as a photojournalist.

 In the pursuit of information one must ask themselves whether it is better to witness such atrocities and ignore them or to be blind and ignorant to them completely? Whether we are more comfortable with the information collected by a fellow human being, or by a soulless mechanical eye? If one does not have the power to actively aid its subject, does it have the right to take something from them? To record their suffering? Is it enough to empathize? Do the potential benefits through the power of exposure outweigh the act of taking without giving? These questions have remained potent and unanswerable throughout the course of photography’s history. Rafman too is aware of these issues in his own work with GMSV, remarking that ‘…its cameras witness but do not act in history. For all Google cares, the world could be absent of moral dimension.’ But that he sees it as his job and the role of the viewer to ‘re-inject’ human feeling and compassion into the images captured by the mechanical eye of Google’s cameras.

Rafman’s role in the making of his series 9-Eyes is difficult to define. Can he be called a photographer, or his he merely a kind of curator or editor of the photographic work of Google’s mechanical eye? Is photography defined as photographing the world as we know it, or is it defined as photographing a world, any world, such as the static, street bound world of GMSV.  Technology has forced the art world to redefine many of the parameters surrounding what is to be seen as ‘Art’. Google has created a virtual space into which the public, including artists, can enter and explore.  If one is to update the definition of photography to be the process of capturing images in a world and not just the physical world, Jon Rafman should be seen as not just a curator of work already made, but a photographer like any other who enters into a world and composes a image from his observations.

The relatively young medium of photography has undergone a rapid development and evolution over the past 150 years from its early beginnings in the first Daguerreotype in 1839 to the bombardment of imagery flooding the Internet today. The public has historically regarded the photograph as a source of ‘ultimate truth’, however, such a truth, with the development of the digital age and editing technology, is often questioned. What is unique about Rafman’s photography is that Google’s project aims to provide a unbiased and accurate recording of the streets of the world, so the images that Rafman captures from within GMSV retain that authenticity so often lost in the age of cynicism and Photoshop.

Jon Rafman was born in 1981 in Montreal, Canada. Educated at The School of Art Institute of Chicago, and has exhibited in many major galleries all over the world. Rafman represents a 21st century evolution of the 20th century flâneur; an unobserved observer of public life who, with camera in hand, became known as the street photographer, or documentary photographer.  Charles Baudelaire’s famous definition of the flâneur describes the man whose profession it is “to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world” suggesting that the world is not influenced by his presence. However, complete anonymity and separation from one’s subject is in reality almost impossible. In order to take a photograph the photographer had to travel to and enter into the environment of their subject, and often does not escape without the notice of the subject itself as discussed above in regards to the photojournalist Kevin Carter. Through the development of technology, Rafman in his work is finally able to boast complete anonymity and separation from the subject as he is accessing the street at his will, invisible, without any capacity to influence his subject.

However, the original footage that makes ups the GMSV world was not created by Rafman, let alone by a human behind a camera, it was created by a automated camera mounted on top of a moving van bearing the Google logo (Figure 17) and to this presence the subject is often fully aware and influenced by the mechanical photographer’s presence. Another artist that works with Google maps street view is Micheal Wolf who has made a series of screen captures of people expressing their hostility to the presence of the Google van and its intrusive presence within their environment (Figure 18) This image of a dog urinating on a wall whilst staring at the Google van’s camera is an amusing addition to Wolf’s series of photos depicting people ‘giving the finger’ to the passing Google van. These photos portray an obvious example of how the photographer-less camera still has the power to influence and provoke a reaction in its subject. Rafman is therefore creating work through a complex system of photographing his subject, through his own instincts and interests, caught in the moment of reacting to the presence of Google’s van.

9-Eyes by Jon Rafman represents an evolution in the scope of art and art making due to advances in technology. Such an evolution gives rise to many new and old questions regarding the definition of art, ownership of art, and the ethics of making in regards to photographing the world. Rafman’s role in the process of collecting these images is as challenging to define as it is to hold, as he as an artist is constantly juggling the relationship between the subject, his Google camera counterpart, himself, and the viewer.  As a type of 21st century flâneur, Rafman is capturing these images within this static and virtual, yet accurate documentation of our own world without the influence or notice of his subjects. Yet, despite his anoyminity, upon capturing these images, is still subject to the ethical and moral responsibilities of any photographer. Within Rafman’s series 9-Eyes, it becomes apparent that no matter how far developments in technology progress the making of art, the same age old questions, ethical and aesthetic considerations, responsibilities, and of course, the necessity of the artist will still remain unchanged.

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