In 2007, Google sent out a fleet of vehicles - some unmanned - each with 9 cameras attached, to photograph every accessible street in the world. A year later, they released their Street View on Google Maps: a huge task and one that has raised a multitude of questions. Artist Jon Rafman explores one aspect of this in the Saatchi Gallery's new exhibition: the moments in time, untainted by human hands, that were never meant for public consumption.
In one respect, Rafman's preoccupation with the camera's neutral gaze is a question that has haunted the photographic world for far longer than any internet search engine's lifetime. But it was and is a project that has fascinated many people. His interest in Street View is ongoing, and this project only represents a fragment of the images of which he has taken screen shots. How he actually goes about it is not quite explained: one can only imagine him trawling each street and avenue looking for a meaty moment.
The concept is a nice one: there is something still sellable about presenting a more 'true' moment in time (even though 100 years of photographic history has taught us there is no such thing). The information board outside the exhibition quotes the artist's interest in the images. He describes them as "unspoiled by the sensitivities or agendas of a human photographer" - which sounds pure and appealing enough, except that I entered the first room to be confronted by a selection of photographs that resembled the street photography of so many artists gone before. The influences of Martin Parr, Weegee and William Klein are all present in a sense. The thing that Rafman seems to have overlooked is that his human hand has selected, from all the Street View possibilities, these images for the gallery space – and presumably he had an aesthetic agenda behind this selection. The images are of varying quality, and so have evidently been cropped and zoomed. The composition, subject matter, and size have all been chosen – from within the Google Street View material of course – but doesn't that constitute a human hand?
That isn't to say that the images are unsuccessful - far from it. Some of the images work really well. The photograph of a moose racing down a road in Norway is a strikingly wonderful scene. Similarly, an image of seagulls in Portugal stands out as an eye-catching composition, a split second in time amongst so much action.
However, what becomes evident after spending some time within the two rooms is that the majority of pieces could be grouped into three themes: Crime, Prostitution and Wildlife. I wondered if the artist had done this intentionally, since it was so blatant to the viewer. And if so, why these themes? Are the most interesting things that happen in the world related to some form of anti-social behaviour, sex or animal behaviour? The fact that groupings like this exist points to the hand of the selector himself – the artist Jon Rafman. He must, in a sense, think this is worth drawing our attention to, and it would be interesting to see how he acknowledges this.
The exhibition certainly presents some food for thought and some mildly pleasing moments captured by Google. As a friend of mine commented whilst we toured the exhibition, "After reading the board outside, I probably didn't need to come into the exhibition". She's probably right: Rafman's concept sounds interesting, but the images just don't always live up to it. They rely so heavily on this idea of the untainted automaton image, eschewing a human agenda but ignoring the fact that most of the images are carefully chosen and edited. The project will not doubt catch some people's eye – as Saatchi exhibitions tend to do – but I just wish he had done something more interesting with it.