exercise 2.3 – is appropriation appropriate?

Read Geoff Dyer’s article on photographers using Google Street View by searching “​How Google Street View is inspiring new photography​” on The Guardian Website. You can also read blog posts on the weareoca website by searching: “​Appropriation: photography into tapestry​” and “​Who’s Afraid of Appropriation?​”

Have a look at the artists mentioned who appropriate images taken by other people and write around ​300 words​ describing your response to artists and photographers working in this way.

– ph5lpe coursebook (p.83)

Unsurprisingly, we spent quite a lot of time considering issues around appropriation during Digital Image and Culture. My position has not changed greatly since then. I think there is a great difference between buying bundles of orphan photographs in flea markets or junk shops and then using them for your own ends (like Joachim Schmid or Eric Kessel) and trawling the internet to find pictures which still have an active link to the person who put them there. It is one thing to take an image to use as-is and something else completely to using it as the basis of something more easily seen as being ‘your own.’

fig.1: after Ruscha- (one of) thirtyfour parking lots in los angeles, redux  (The Hollywood Bowl)

The extent to which you transform ‘found’ images into something different – through treating an individual image in some way, by combining it with others in some form of collage, or  by putting it together with other, similar images to make a contextual point – is the extent to which appropriation stops being a euphemism for theft.

The three articles cited in the brief for the exercise are thinking about three totally different forms of appropriation.

Geoff Dyer is (mainly) concerned with photographer-artists using Google Street View as their camera viewfinder, and then homing in on situations they can use as a distanced form of street photography. I would question whether this is ‘appropriation’ at all. Physical space has been replaced as the place where a photographer works by Virtual space. As such it’s not really about appropriation at all (and Wolf’s Transparent City photographs are made traditionally with a LF camera on a tripod and a very long lens, so don’t involve the internet in any way) but rather how this affects the relationship between photographer and subject. The question is not whose photograph is it? so much as one of personal risk.

The three photographers who feature here are all working within the bounds of ‘Street Photography’ but – unlike traditional street photographers, such as Gary Winogrand or Henri Cartier-Bresson – they are not working among the things and people they are photographing. The sense of detachment gained by being on the other side of a screen (attached to a whole network of servers and fiber-links and so on) instead of the other side of a 35mm lens totally eliminates the possibilities for interaction – good or bad – with the photographer’s subjects. Cartier-Bresson may have regarded himself as a hunter,  but using the internet is more akin to being a sniper or the pilot of a drone, taking out a wedding a couple of oceans away. Dyer characterises Jon Rafman – who ‘mines Google to uncover a parallel history of [photography]‘ (Dyer, 2021; p240) as possibly ‘never hav[ing] set foot outdoors […] he might as well be gazing at life from a distant space station.‘  (ibid); Wolf  – whether exploring online or behind a long lens – is in no danger of violence from people who object to his activity.

The photographer Dyer seems most interested in is Doug Rickard, partly because he has seen physical versions of Rickard’s work, in a gallery (which is interesting in itself during this particularly online moment where we currently find ourselves) and also because he engages with the both the social implications of his work and also the way in which Google Street View’s method of working (with a 360° camera mounted eight feet in the air above a car) alters the relationship between people caught as they pass the car and the viewer. Both Dyer and Rickard  – in an interview reproduced on his site – liken the effect to that of the pictures taken by Paul Fusco from the train that carried Robert Kennedy’s coffin from New York to Washington after his assassination in 1968 and both muse on the differences between  the trackside mourners and the random passersby caught on Streetview.

I think I shall do more research on Rickard’s work, and what it means.

Who’s afraid of appropriation? is concerned with artists straightforwardly copying  images (or parts of images, or of graphics) owned by others and then using them as the basis for work of their own. It lumps together people who have radically transformed their source material (Lichtenstein with frames from comics; Warhol with newspaper photographs) and people who do much less to it (like Richard Prince) beside maybe altering the images’ size.

Essentially it is about questions of copyright and ownership of images; about issues surrounding consent, both explicit and tacit. There are interesting questions here (just as there are around what Picasso was doing when he – culturally – appropriated African masks as the model for the faces in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) are around the extent to which anything can be original – I’d say Lichtenstein’s alteration of scale while maintaining the method of reproduction for his comic strip frames is radical enough to free them from issues of commercial copyright; likewise with Warhol’s soup cans – rather than the question of whose art is it anyway?

Finally, Appropriation: photography into tapestry isn’t really about appropriation at all – the tapestry in question‘s creator ‘acquired the rights of the iconic image’ from the photographer, before making use of it as the basis for a number of works in a variety of mediums. I’d say this has more in common with the afterlife of Susan Meiselas’ photograph, Molotov Man (of a Sandanista lobbing a petrol bomb at government forces during the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979) than it does with the work of three artists discussed by Dyer. Although of course, the work that uses Meiselas’ photograph as their template share their lack of personal risk, when compared with Meiselas exposure to real violence when she took the original…

Whether or not you feel appropriation is something you might work with at some point, the mapping resources available for free on the internet are an invaluable practical tool for planning landscape shoots of any kind.

If you haven’t yet done so, read ahead to the brief for Assignment Two. Write down your preliminary thoughts and ideas for how you might approach this assignment. Use Google Maps and/or any other mapping system and print off, photocopy or save some maps of the journey you’re thinking about documenting for this assignment. Use the map(s) to help identify any details or aspects of the place or route that might (or might not) be of interest.

– ph5lpe coursebook (p.83)

The assignment brief asks us to ‘explore the idea of, a journey through a landscape.‘ (Coursebook; 93)

The journey I have decided to make runs pretty much south-north, following the path originally taken by the River Lea (or Lee) as it links the Thames to Luton. I’m not going to go the whole way, but instead will concentrate on the section between Tottenham Hale and a bit to the north of Waltham Abbey.

fig.2: map – from flickr, showing location of geo-tagged images

This is the area where London becomes the Green Belt and city gives way to country.

At both ends there are are areas that – while maintaining some of their traditional uses – are increasingly being seen as locations for leisure pursuits.  Both these areas have been heavily photographed (as is shown by the map, above, of photographs in the River Lee and Lee Valley group on Flickr ) but the stretch between them remains much less popular either for walking, rowing or cycling or as a photographic subject.

I already have the three Ordnance Survey Explorer (large scale) maps that cover the area from Hertford down to the Thames, which give a detailed geographic/topographic picture of the area covered by my proposed journey, but to get an idea of the kind of things I might experience on my way, I went onto Google.

fig.3: google maps – ponder’s end

Google Maps are essentially a huge, world-wide advertising hoarding which allows businesses to buy space to show what they are and to link to their own sites, so it is quite easy to get a very different view of what you will encounter, as you follow directions generated by its integrated SatNav engine.

fig.4: directions from Tottenham to Cheshunt

My original intention had been to travel a route between  Ferry Lane – where the River Lea and the Lea Navigation are the border between Tottenham and Walthamstow – and the M25 – where London stops and the green belt begins in Hertfordshire – ducking underneath the North Circular on the way. On the East bank there’s the line of reservoirs that provide London with drinking water; a few hundred metres west of the water – cutting through housing and light industry – a railway line connects London to East Anglia. The Lee NavigationWikipedia is another invaluable online resource when conducting background research – was built to distribute goods through the London docks at Limehouse (and to distribute imports in the opposite direction).  It is the path taken by goods coming from Hertfordshire (and beyond) as they were taken by barge to the docks at Limehouse. On its east bank is the site of the Royal Gunpowder Mills and the Woolwich Arsenal is over the Thames at the point where the two rivers meet. It is one of London’s arteries.

However, during a recce (described in more detail here) I became more and more aware of the way double (and triple) rows of electricity pylons marched alongside the canal as the national grid carried electricity into the city from the power stations ringing it.

From a day out, years ago, I remembered that – a bit to the north of my original end point, there was a massive substation, partly hidden by trees in the middle of a country park.

fig.5: two pairs of pylons (ponder’s end again)

Back on Google, I followed the line of pylons (which are visible as shadows if you swap onto satellite view in maps) all the way up my route and then on, beyond Waltham Abbey on the north side of the M25 as far as Fishers Green in the Lee Valley park, where – surrounded by trees and wetland, next to a bittern hide – a massive electrical substation which acts as a major node of the national grid can clearly be seen.

This – seeing the navigation as tracking source of much of London’s electricity – has given me a suitably  19th century survey-type goal for my journey of exploration, and also a nicely punning title for my work on this  assignment – Against the Current.

Google’s maps (like Google Earth) give you a method of accessing Google  Street View (GSV). Despite the fact that most of my proposed route is along narrow canal  towpaths and is not accessible by car, almost all of it is covered on GSV.  This is mainly down to the work of Dr. Uy Hoang, described on his family website as a ‘public health specialist and health services researcher with extensive experience in the public and charitable sectors’ who has a sideline in 360° photography.

fig.6: rammey marsh lock – my image over a section of one of Dr. Uy Hoang’s 360° ‘bubbles’ with GSV ‘furniture’

Clicking on the link that replaces the link to Google in the Street View info block – where you can also replace the latest set of Street View images with timestamped, earlier versions, if any are available –  at the top left of the window, opens up a sidebar detailing the extent of Hoang’s contribution (many thousands of images) and inviting me to add my photographs. This opens up all sorts of options for displaying my work, but I don’t think I’ll be following it up at the moment. I don’t think the GSV images remove the need for me to take my own images for my journey either.

I know former OCA photography student Rob™ has already used Street View to compile Ruscha’s Gasoline Stations Revisited (and has done the same for Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places)  so by way of an idle distraction (or in journey terms, a diversion), I found myself wondering about the extent to which Google Earth could be used instead of a drone, or a light aircraft to reproduce Ed Ruscha’s 1967 book Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (see fig.1) from the comfort of my own home. I assume someone has already done (and someone else has redone and someone else again, re-redone) 1966’s Every Building on Sunset Strip...

Dyer’s examples are all working in the people-centred genre Street Photography; Landscape is harder to depict through selections of what are fascinatingly (and frustratingly) unframed images. While I now have some idea what it is I will find, I still feel a need to choose my own spot to plonk down a tripod and then exclude the bits  of the view that I don’t want to isolate within a single, still frame.



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