"Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer's house; a tankard, the tavern. (...) If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city's order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe that you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.
However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant..." Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Michael Wolf recently sent me some images from his current work on Paris, made using Google's Street View technology. For a photographer whose previous series were done on a large format camera, with extraordinarily detailed results, these super-pixellated street shots came as a bit of a surprise at first. But it didn't take long for them to make sense to me: Wolf is not so much a photographer of architecture as of the city in all its forms and I see these images as a logical progression from his architectural work. To his studies of density, privacy and voyeurism, he is adding the idea of representation and symbolism.
As I have written before, I think Paris may now be one of the hardest cities to photograph as it has changed so little over the last century and, through the work of Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau or Ronis, has become part of an almost universally recognisable photographic iconography. How can you take pictures in this city without just repeating clichés or, conversely, trying to run away from its overwhelming photographic past?
Wolf's Street View work brings an interesting answer to this question. By making use of Google's pixellation, superimposed lines, arrows and geometric shapes, he forces Paris's Haussmanian architecture into the present day. Just like in Italo Calvino's imaginary Tamara, Paris is a city where everything is invested with some symbolic reference to the past and by adding a layer of contemporary symbols to the city's old ones Wolf is suggesting a new way of reading the city.
Since Street View has been launched, a number of people have started combing through this tool (check out Jon Rafman's piece for an example) to find the strange moments that Google's cameras end up catching on their way around the world. Wolf's approach is different. He is not only searching for specific moments, but also for photographs within them by "trying various crops/styles (Frank, Doisneau, Ruscha)". These are "photographs of photographs" that recognise the weight of their heritage. And in a city where almost everything has been photographed, this strikes me as a pretty interesting way to go.
The full series is available on Wolf's website.