Jon Rafman’s work enjoys a deservedly high profile at this year’s Contact Photography Festival. Six images from his ongoing The Nine Eyes of Google Street View series (2009–) are included in the “Public” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, and his concurrent solo show at Angell Gallery offers a more in-depth look at his output, including a broad variety of his Nine Eyes shots, a selection of CGI “sculptures” from his New Age Demanded series (2011–), and his video You, the World and I (2010). The latter presents a handy narrative key to Rafman’s other work: it’s a pseudo-documentary that portrays Rafman as a searcher in the Romantic mode, combing the sublimely indifferent vastness of Google Earth and Google Street View for a glimpse of a lost lover. The video’s keen blend of irony, pathos and insight into technology’s impact on our most intimate experiences is typical of Rafman’s work as a whole, and these qualities are the crux of its appeal and accessibility.
Given that the overarching theme of this year’s Contact Festival is “Public,” stimulated, as artistic director Bonnie Rubinstein writes, “by the renewed global interest in street photography” and aiming to highlight “how photography shapes collective experience and makes things public,” Rafman’s work couldn’t be more relevant. His visually stunning and often funny or poignant screen captures from Google’s all-encompassing photo-documentation service aptly demonstrate how the Internet is making everything public: information, images, even physical geography. The whole world is rapidly becoming a browsable archive, but the price we pay for this access is 24/7 technological surveillance—sometimes benign, sometimes less so.
Rafman acts as a witness: surveilling the surveillers, if you will. The nine lenses of Google’s vehicle-mounted cameras are all-seeing, but uncaring. So, presented with such an enormous wealth of images—and Street View must be the most comprehensive street-photography project of all time—it falls to an artist to find the stories and moments that Google captures by accident. Simply by sorting and selecting, Rafman gets to play at being nearly every kind of photographer. His project includes majestic nature images, gritty urban scenes, family snapshots, New Topographics–style ethnographic landscape, and even, through the occasional software malfunction, surreal abstractions—all without him actually touching a camera. In Rafman’s show at Angell, for instance, you can find a forest fire in the Yucatán, wild horses galloping by a seaside cemetery in Britain, a prostitute presenting her nude posterior in São Paulo, and a couple of particularly spectacular colour errors that produced neon horizons in Norway and Australia.
His appropriation of pictures taken by what are essentially robots exemplifies both the conceptualist tendency towards deadpan photography and the dream of objectivity harboured by so many street photographers throughout history. And while his Nine Eyes images are freely available and widely circulated on the Internet, it pays to see them in person. Printed in large scale, Street View’s unique aesthetic hallmarks—the directional crosshairs, the low-res and oddly distorted texture of its panoramic imaging, and the ubiquitous (though not always effective) blurring of faces, licence plates and other sensitive subjects—take on an iconic quality. More so even than the scenes they depict, it’s the look of these images that captures what reality feels like today: increasingly inseparable from its digital mediation.