While flipping through National Geographic Magazine’s photography issue (October 2013), I came across a Norwegian landscape with a lake in the foreground, distant hills, a gray, cloudy sky, and—surprise!—a lone reindeer, galloping along the road.
Rv888, Finnmark, Norway, 2010 by Jon Rafman
The image itself was not especially memorable except for the fact that the artist did not shoot this photograph; he found it. Jon Rafman has turned scouring Google Maps Street Views into an art by combing through various areas of the world in search of surprising moments like this one.
Our customers spend all day displaying and organizing their data in Veoci on Google Maps. Despite my familiarity with the application, and in this case Google Street View, I had never imagined that there was art hidden in these scenes. I decided to hunt down the image myself. I had seen reindeer in zoos, but now I wanted to go on a safari and see one in the wild, or at least, “live” on Google Maps.
The caption states that the photo was taken along Rv888 in Finnmark, Norway, and the writing on the road is clearly “Riksveg 888”. But when I typed that into the map, I saw that Rv888 is no small road, and Finnmark is an entire county. The distance is 101 km. Assuming each click on Google Street View advances about ten actual meters, I would have to make about 10,000 clicks to traverse all that ground. The photo itself provided a few more clues: the road has a bend to the right going past a lake, there is a distinctive railing, and thanks to the compass in the corner, I knew that the image faced west, and the road bent sharply north.
I spent the next couple hours flipping back and forth between Google’s satellite and map views, clicking into areas that matched this description, searching for my reindeer. Wildlife was scarce, and I didn’t see a single person, although at one point I found myself following a semi-truck as I inched forward in pursuit. A motorcycle went past me going in the opposite direction. I was in Norway on my high-definition monitor. I must have browsed over a hundred locations, nearly giving up twice.
Finally—long after I had actually skipped past the reindeer on the other side of the railing—I eventually circled back and found what I was looking for. It was the same reindeer, but the image was snapped as the Google car drove past it. You can see the progression of stills for yourself by starting at the link below and inching forward in very small increments (Go slowly! It’s very easy to skip over the reindeer and miss his crossing!).
To me, an artist is someone who shows us a subject—often something that we take for granted—and presents it in a way that we might not recognize; it transforms our experience or our opinion of that thing. I’m not sure Rafman would fit my definition of a photographer, and I can’t say that I have a new-found appreciation for Norway or reindeers, but he has transformed how I view and experience Google Maps, which makes him an artist in my book.
-Dr. Sukh Grewal, CEO Grey Wall Software, developers of Veoci