Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Google's streets

I first became aware of Google Map's "Street View" feature sometime in the summer of 2006.

I was already about halfway through shooting New York in Plain Sight when my downstairs neighbor Kevin invited himself up to visit and with the sort of shit-eating grin that never bodes well told me that I "had to look at this — now."

(If by any chance you've never looked at Google's "Street View" yourself, then you too have to look at it — now.)

Even four years ago it was stunning, despite the primitive quality of the low resolution images and the clumsy "street level" navigation. Now, at least in New York and surely many other cities as well, the image quality has been improved enormously and the navigation too (though it's still not as fluent as I, for one, would like).

Not only can you look at every street corner on the island of Manhattan (should you wish to), you can view everything on either side of every street in between the intersections as well, and move your apparent point of view around in the image, e.g., from one side of the street to the other, or from this end of the block to that one, or around that corner and up that street instead.

For someone who remembers, as I do, some of what was involved in digital mapping and imaging 35 years ago, the achievement is still breath taking, no matter how often I use Google Maps and its "Street View" feature (which is very often indeed).

Of course what Kevin was smirking about in the summer of 2006, and what I'm still frequently asked about, is the question, what's the point of New York in Plain Sight when "Street View" offers so much more? Isn't New York in Plain Sight as obsolete as Frank Dibdin's grand "virtual cities" project, for which he photographed every building in the city of New York? (Not to suggest that I myself think that Dibdin's work is obsolete — quite the opposite, in fact.)

My first response of course is that the photographs of New York in Plain Sight are better than what "Street View" delivers: far higher resolution, much wider color gamut and dynamic range, etc., etc.

Broadway & 13th Street, Southeast Corner

But, I remind myself with a glance back to digital mapping and imaging as it was 35 years ago, these superiorities, such as they may be, are surely temporary, and soon enough (I don't doubt this for a moment) we'll be looking at "Street View" in 3D as well, at which point, technologically speaking, New York in Plain Sight really will be totally obsolete.

Well, so much for that kind of supposed superiority.

Try again: the photographs of New York in Plain Sight were made by an artist (however minor and obscure), by an individual human being, while "Street View" is the mechanical product of what amounts to a spectacularly glorified surveillance camera.

But aren't those among my desiderata for New York in Plain Sight (see my earlier post "In plain sight"), to avoid "art" at every level and to exclude from the photographs of New York in Plain Sight the subjectivity of the photographer, i.e., myself?

OK, try this: the photographs of New York in Plain Sight are taken from a more realistic or at least more appropriate vantage point (eye level on the sidewalk vs. Google's mid-street van-top elevation), given my intention to capture "the sense of life at street level in daytime Manhattan."

This — I want to believe and do believe, though not without some frayed edges of doubt — has some merit to it, though it comes down to just asserting that my pictures are better for my purposes than theirs are.

Well duh.

Or I could argue, more dialectically, that it is the inevitable failure of my attempt to exclude both "art" and myself from the photographs that makes the New York in Plain Sight project and even the individual photographs, or some of them, into something more — "better", "more interesting," etc. — than what "Street View" delivers.

But now this really is clutching at straws.

Is there no way out of this impasse?

No — but then again, yes.

No, if the question is "which is better, 'Street View' or New York in Plain Sight."

But then again, yes, if we drop the competitive question "which is better" and simply look at either or both for whatever they are and whatever — if anything — they give us.

If New York in Plain Sight doesn't do anything for you, or doesn't give you what you need at this moment, while "Street View" does, then go to "Street View" — I for one am very grateful to have "Street View" at my fingertips.

If New York in Plain Sight does speak to you, in some way or another, at least some the photographs some of the time, well — great: enjoy!

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