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A while ago, I sat in on a talk with Penelope Umbrico, who just published a book with Aperture featuring her various photographic projects. The most well-known (and also the cover of the book) is Suns, a collection of over 2 million (and counting) photos of sunsets found on Flickr, which she then crops, prints, and assembles into giant photo installations.

A good part of her talk focused on the legal ramifications of her practice. She is not the original photographer, and does not credit the people whose photographs she uses. Her other projects are much the same; she also collects and presents photos of TVs for sale on Craigslist, and photos of fake libraries from corporate sales catalogues. Her major point was that, as a photographer working in the Internet age, she is no longer bound by antiquated legal notions of authorship and copyright; for her, the Internet functions as just another street, with screen capture or Save Image as her camera, and the sunsets her always, already mediated version of the Bechers’ watertowers.

To my mind, Umbrico is not a photographer, and her copyright argument a pretty flaccid justification for intellectual property theft; she is an archivist, or more generously, an artist who uses photography (see: Fischli Weiss). But the idea of the Internet as a new kind of street is interesting, and it has been picked up on by several photographers (artists?) who use Google Street View to find and capture some amazing images. Jon Rafman’s practice is the simplest – arresting images found after hours of trolling the routes Google’s cars have taken. Doug Rickard’s project, called A New American Picture, is more poetic and powerful, exploring the disintegrating suburbs of America’s lower classes as seen through Google’s all-seeing, objective eye. Mishka Lenner’s No Man’s Land is perhaps the most journalistic, using Google to document sex work on the back roads of Europe. Michael Wolf is the most classically photographic, and also the most classically artistic; he zooms in on the faces Google blurs out to protect privacy, and then photographs his computer screen, doubling the moire-like effect of Street View’s already low resolution imagery.

Unlike Umbrico’s project, redolent of the appropriation 80’s, these projects raises the stakes for photography in the age of the Internet. It is unclear where they will lead (aside from phD theses), but at least they are pushing the boundaries in new and interesting ways.

Photography, top to bottom, by Doug Rickard, Jon Rafman, Michael Wolf, and Mishka Lenner


  1. Dana wrote:

    Just one opinion but using images from the web should be fair use. However, using them in a money making way and not giving credit is just plain wrong!

    Still, if you don’t want your images used, don’t post to unprotected sites or make sure you display the correct license.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 16:48 | Permalink
  2. Ian wrote:

    Using single images from the web is not fair use. Compilation images however, where no sign of any individual image is left, seems ok though, even without attribution. I saw someone doing this on Flickr, with 100s of images of a covered bridge in New England and the response was however not exactly supportive! Whether that is photography in and of itself is a different question.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 17:17 | Permalink

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