Seeing, believing

(Maybe we should become a photography blog.)

Probably by now you’ve seen this site linked by one or another of your Facebook friends. It’s apparently a collection of frames from Google street views, treated as art photos. Like this one:

Lots of the photos are pretty great, although some are strange. It’s hard to tell why there’s a Google street view of a killer whale show, for example:

Somewhat oddly, you have to scroll down a bit before you get to the first photo where anyone seems to have noticed the Google truck driving around (not that I’d notice a Google truck, I guess):

And these guys don’t seem happy to have been spotted:

All together, the collection of photos teeters on the uncanny boundary between banality and beauty: the banality of everyday moments, usually observed as the objects are unaware; curated into a collection that presents the most surprising or visually pleasing; but in a medium — low-res digital photographs — that again underscores the scenes’ banality. But then again, when you think that these are just a handful, a tiny sample of all the images collected by Google’s weird panoptical imaging trucks, there might be something of the sublime in it after all.

Scrolling through the photos, I saw so many things familiar in my own experience — children playing, people sitting around on a warm summer’s afternoon — but also so many things either partly or wholly unfamiliar: storefronts with signs in a language I don’t understand, teenagers lined up with their hands behind their heads and policemen’s guns trained on them. What do we know when we see a photograph, and what do we merely think we know?

Sometimes, of course, photographs are useful because of what they don’t show us. I don’t particularly want to be hanging out on a dirt road in god-knows-where with a squad of soldiers coming towards me, although I don’t mind seeing a photo of the situation on a blog. Writing about unmanned dronesĀ in The National, Manan Ahmed says that the flattened, unhelpful images they give us are desirable precisely because if Americans really came to understand the people the drones are used against, our imperial project would become less sustainable. (This seems a bit optimistic in light of the history of British colonialism, but whatever.) “The appeal of the drone’s eye is precisely that it does not see everything, because it carries no understanding of the things it records.” You’ve now gotĀ U.S. drones being used in Mexico (with “unrestricted respect” for Mexican law, whatever that means) to help fight the drug cartels. And you’ve got the kind of semi-effective surveillance the police use in The Wire, maybe best symbolized by the little clip during the opening credits where one of the project hoppers throws a rock at a CCTV camera a knocks out the picture. Partial seeing in the service of empire might actually be one of the key features of imperial activity.

I guess there’s not much of a point here beyond what I imagine Sontag said (I haven’t read the book), so I won’t go on about it. (Not about how a deceptively edited videotape nearly took down NPR, or how we all sit at the TV or computer looking at images of the nuclear plant in Japan, knowing you can’t see radiation, wishing seeing could tell us more.) I wanted to end with this, sort of the reverse of a pic from an aerial drone, although equally unrevealing, by Nathan Harger — looking up at the sky above Brooklyn:

 

9 responses to “Seeing, believing”

  1. lane says:

    nathan hargar!

    and google,,, and yes, more photos please!

  2. SG says:

    Do you know if the Hanger photos are one single collaged piece or do they hang separately? I love it/them either way. I think I’d like them more as individual pieces, though. As if my opinion matters…

    Thanks for the mellow and enjoyable post. It IS all gonna be alright, right??

  3. F.P. Smearcase says:

    Mutual Friend O and I had the immediate, irresistible impulse to figure out where the pictures were taken, in the few instances where it’s possible, and wonder obsessively about the rest. There was one you could actually locate down to the intersection in Chicago because of a sign, but I was pretty sure it was Chicago anyway. O said she was certain some of them were Eastern Europe based on the architecture. I decided one of them was Riga based on absolutely nothing. It goes without saying I have not been to Riga.

  4. LP says:

    Wow – I love this site! The photos capture such perfect little microcosms by chance. I love the dog squeezing through the gate, the moose, the baby at Gucci… And weirdly, that’s a DeLorean sitting at the meter outside that very plain looking apartment complex. This is so fun to scroll through.

    My brother was showing his kids how Google Earth works when it first came out. He typed in the address of the house they own in Florida, and when they started zooming around, looking at the rest of the block, they saw that the house across the street was in flames. Moment, captured.

  5. lane says:

    #5 … Crazy!

  6. swells says:

    Thank you so much for this–I’ve been back again and again. Didn’t know about it. And am not totally clear–are these all taken by actual people in a Google van, or is it just drones that are being flipped off in various countries? Drones–is that a real thing?

  7. LP says:

    It’s a car with a multi-eyed camera on top. Looks like this. Weirdly, I saw one for the first time on the day this post appeared – I smiled and gawked until it passed by.

  8. LP says:

    Actually, the camera on the car I saw looked more like this.