Virtual Photography with Google Street View

Monday, 10th May 2010 by

Today we've got a special guest post by Matt Bucher, a writer living in Austin, Texas who publishes a blog of photographic images taken from Google Street View, called Apres Garde. We love Matt's choice of images, and he agreed to write this piece to explain a bit more about his images, his blog, and his thoughts on Street View.

The first time I felt compelled to take a picture of something on Google Street View was because of this:

I was exploring the Texas coast on Google Maps and I was fascinated by that arrow pointed towards nothingness. It's a throwaway image - I probably wouldn't post it now (Google imagery often has these sorts of idiosyncrasies), but it was powerful enough at the time for me to upload to my foundering tumble-log. Ever since, I've only posted screenshots from Google Street View, almost always thinking: is this just cool or could it be art?

Mostly now, I think of mine as a photography blog (the title of the blog is an allusion to the novel Infinite Jest and has nothing to do with anything). I'll zoom in on something or move the camera angle up or down, just like you would as a photographer. This image is mostly sky because I've panned up severely:

But I don't crop the images. They are all screenshots of an uncropped browser window. I've had a couple of people request that I link to the map of the location or embed a zoomable map of the location and I just don't want to do that. For me, Street View is about exploring the world—and I'm doing that and reporting back to you.

If you want to explore and post your photos, I'd love to see them, but in a way the static image out of context can be more powerful than the embedded map. It takes some of the fun out of it for me1. For example, in this photo, you could pan around and see that it's not actually a Vermeer-era farm, but a Dutch theme park (and what's the fun in that?):

Most of the photos I like are from Europe or Mexico or Canada or one of any of the locations with updated photography. The older imagery of the US and Japan is just terrible quality, although that sort of lighting and color can sometimes lend itself to a 1970s-album-cover effect, like this:

or this:

But compare that with the lighting and resolution of the newer imagery:

In fact, when I first plopped pegman down in Northern Italy and saw this, I thought it was fake, or CGI:

Sometimes I'll browse around all day and not take any screenshots. Some days I'll find ten things in five minutes. I keep a folder of images on my desktop of 20 to 30 images and edit those down to something worth posting. Some days I'll post two images, but I've never posted three in one day. That's just overkill.

There are some themes that run throughout the blog (boats, carousels, animals, the beach), but primarily these are just things that I believe are beautiful or interesting. Images with people in them tend to be more interesting, but I am also drawn to landscapes, sculpture, architecture, found objects, and natural or man-made wonders, like this:

But the images with people tend to tell their own stories. They offer opportunities for us to imagine what was happening in a precise moment in a precise place, like this couple walking down the street in France:

Or these children sitting across from the beach:

I especially appreciate the captured moment in an out-of-the-way place that only appears in one frame, like this girl catching a smoke on her makeshift balcony:

Or this kid getting sprayed with a garden hose (both on the same street as it happens):

Or one of my all-time favorite images:

This woman in Sweden (possibly a widow?) having tea by herself in a car park. What the camera doesn't reveal here is that this woman is part of a tour group. There is a tour bus near here and most of the elderly folks are milling about the bus with their china tea cups talking to each other or taking in the view. A photographer could not better select her regal red coat to contrast with dull brown asphalt.

For anyone out there just exploring Street View for pleasure, my advice is this: drop in to ten different places on the same map before you write it off as uninteresting. Sometimes you drop in to Street View and right away are transported to something like this:

(a tunnel/art exhibit in Mexico City)

Or this:

(made twice as interesting by the serendipitous presence of the jogger)

Or this fellow looking at the camera:

I believe that Google Street View (along with Wikipedia) is one of the greatest inventions of our lifetimes. It is a cache of billions of images, each of which can load almost instantly and give you an intimate portrait of places in which you will never set foot. As a source of information, adventure, and art, I hope to see Street View expanded to all parts of the globe.

  1. I usually prefer to leave out the location box in the upper left corner. The way to do this on screenshots is, on a Mac, to hold down command+shift+4, take the screenshot, but before you release the keys, hold it for a couple of seconds and the location box, the "user photos" box, and the direction arrows on the street fade away. To me, this makes for a cleaner image most of the time. ↩︎