Street View Screenshots: Photography or Plagiarism?

In 2011, photographer Michael Wolf was awarded Honorable Mention in the World Press Photo 2011 contest for screenshots taken from Google Street View. It immediately sparked a debate regarding whether or not the work should even be considered “original photography”. The Independent has an interesting article about a different Street View “photographer”: Jon Rafman, whose work we’ve featured here before.

At first, [Rafman] would spend eight to 12 hours at a time traversing the globe from his desktop. “It was destroying my body,” he says. But when the images he’d collected went viral online, he began to take submissions from other users, too. Some had collected images of prostitutes at work, others presented car accidents, even dead bodies left by the side of the road – and, presumably, ignored by Google’s drivers. Many of the images in the exhibition have now been wiped from the web: the perps lined up against a wall by the São Paolo police are gone from Google Maps. A man sitting with his legs splayed strangely around a lamppost in Toronto has been blurred into obscurity.

Rafman’s images, by contrast, are almost entirely untreated. He even leaves the Google Street View navigation tool in the top-left corner of each photograph. “The work is connected to the history of street photography,” he explains, “but also to the 20th-century ready-made movement. So leaving those artefacts in the image is extremely important. In the bottom-left corner of each picture is a link that says, ‘Report a problem’.

His work, titled The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, will soon be exhibited at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

Google Street View photographs: the man on the street [The Independent]

  • Andersen

    Imho photography and not plagiarism. There are so many images, angles and situations in Google Street View, that it still needs a talented eye, to actually see and shoot / crop the good stuff. Yes, things like exposure and aperture are already pre-set, but so are they with DSLRs or compact cameras on “Auto”. I really like those Google Street View pictures.

  • Tam Nguyen Photography

    Awesome. I’m going to start taking screen shots from different corners of my Word and Outlook, then I’ll call it photography too. Look, I think I got a nice one with the giant Office button!

  • Fra Lippi

    I think the work has merit. If you want to call it editing instead of photography that’s fine. But here’s someone who is finding and presenting interesting images. He wasn’t the one who pressed the shutter button, but finding the images is still work and selecting the right ones takes talent.

  • checkmate

    I don’t get it…..what in the hell are you talking about?

  • opiapr

    This is by no mean original photography. Investigative work maybe but no matter hiw much time it take for him to find a good image at the end of the day he did not take it.

  • yeahright

    So sitting on your a** for 12 hours is the “artist suffering for the work” credential in this story? Really? Also to try and put it in Dada context, a context art has moved so far past in the almost 100 years from why Dada was done is just artist statement BS for justifying sitting on your a** for 12 hours.

    At most this is poorly done grand-stand curating.

  • SwedishKiwi

    So… I have about 25,000 images in my Aperture library, taken during the last couple of years. If someone went through those images and found a few that really stood out and published them on the net, would that also be considered “original photography”..?

  • Per-BKWine

    This seems to be straight forward copyright infringement, doesn’t it?

  • 9inchnail

    Trying to be funny and sarcastic. Failing miserably.

  • 9inchnail

    How can you make an exhibition with these photos? Wouldn’t you need much higher resolution images to make halfway decent prints?

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    Of course it’s copyright infringement. It doesn’t matter that there’s a lot of photographs and a lot of angles etc., they are copyrighted. But it’s a nice editing work and I hope google endorse it.

  • timegoat

    He’s a collector, not a photographer.

  • Rob LaRosa

    All he’s doing is cropping a photo taken by someone else. That’s plagiarism, pure and simple. There’s no originality in that. I can’t believe people actually buy into this crap.

  • michaelp42

    succeeding quite well to anyone with a sense of humour i’d say!

  • clovenguth

    No one cares about that sort of stuff anymore don’t you realize? The ones putting on the show know it’s just going to be “controversial”, which of course it’s so far from being, but it sounds controversial, contemporary so lets wing it and make it seem important work to show!

  • Keiran Blackwell

    Absolutely copyright infringement. he didn’t take those photographs. The staff working for Google Street View did, if I were to upload thousands of photographs taken while I’m walking around and someone else decided to crop one of those and claim it as their art frankly I’d file under the DMCA.

  • Ralph Hightower

    This is plagiarism. Google is the one that commissioned the Street Views; even if a Street View driver wanted to take pictures of his drive, the pictures belong to Google.
    Okay, there are a few exceptions. I have seen some awesome videos of time-lapse photography taken from the International Space Station. That’s government and NASA; NASA allows use of their photographs as long as you provide them credit. Let’s face it, no one has the budget to go to LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Google is a for-profit company; the photographs that they take are their own.

  • David Tribby

    Simply by using google maps/street view/earth you are acknowledging these are copyrighted imagery of google. This shouldn’t even be a debate.

  • bob cooley

    This is not original photography (by Michael Wolf) – Under copyright law its clear that Google owns the images. Taking screen captures does not make it a derivative work (a photo of a photo is not derivative).

    What he DID do is curate a collection of really interesting images that were taken by what is the equivalent of a robotic photographic process, and found the nuggets of gold in the desert of mundane images created by the streetview process.

    He definitely deserves credit for the searching and curating of these images, but in no way should he get any credit for their creation, nor should he be honored for them as a photographer.

  • sglau

    Chiming in to agree that this is not photography. It might be a compelling work of research:you could argue that it’s art, but since he didn’t create the image he is not the photographer.

  • Scott A.

    Not original. Definitely plagiarism. Amazing how so many people work hard to get great images and someone using copyright infringement has their own show.