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Francesco Lapenta, 2008, “Mapping the World.

A Brief Essay on the Changing Staus of
Digital Photography. Google maps, Photosynth, Flickr, iPhoto 2009 and the Digital Merging of
Collective Image Production.”, www.visualstudies.eu

I am in my house. It has many rooms and many objects in it. I can take many pictures to portray all the
rooms and several others to depict the many objects it contains. I could also take a video and while filming
comment on the many rooms and the same objects. Each picture (re)presents a frame of my house. This one
portrays the studio desk and the library behind it. This other one the books and my computer on the same
desk. In the video I can pan from a wide angle shot of my studio down to the desk and the books, and my
computer. There is another alternative. I can take all the pictures I have taken of my house and merge them
together in Quicktime VR (Quicktime VR, Apple 1995) or better in Photosynth (Photosynth, Microsoft
2008). Instead of a series of pictures or a fixed sequence of a video showing my house, I have now a
navigable virtual photograph of my house. I can pan right, top, down, left in one room (with Quicktime VR),
or zoom on the table, focus on the computer on my desk, pan to the left and move into the corridor, and then
into the living room (with Photosynth). If not satisfied I can go out the front door, zoom out and see my
neighbourhood, move down the street (Google Street View 2007) or fly high to watch the all neighbourhood
from above (Google Earth 2006, Google Maps 2005, Live Search Maps Microsoft 2005). Remindfull of a
technology that Ridley Scott created for Rick Deckardhas to use in his 2019 Los Angeles (Ridley Scott,
Blade Runner 1982). As it happens reality has exceeded the fantasy allowing us to seamlessly move from
one image into another in a virtual continuum of increasingly global spatial representations. As the map of
the Empire that the cartographers continued to grow with increasing levels of detail, the virtual map of the
world is acquiring a scale and scope that further exceeds their ambition. This virtual map deserves attention,
because it is different both in its genetic nature and in its multiple evolution. It combines elements (Image,
Text and Sound) that never before could be combined so seamlessly together. The map is built by the
cooperation of two entities. On the one hand we have the (soon to be interconnected) platforms that are
offered for its growth, we could say this is the equivalent of the kind of “surface” that is offered for the
renditions of the map (in our case Google Earth, Google Maps, Photosynth, QuickTime VR, iPhoto 2009 etc,
etc). And on the other hand we have the new generation of cartographers comprised by all the individuals
around the world that contribute with pieces of representation of the world to the enormous puzzle of the
virtual map. The new cartographers of the world produce images (but also texts and sounds) that are geo-
positioned on the virtual map. Both the map, and the pieces composing it, are in continuous growth and
evolution. The virtual map adapts and follows the lives of its cartographers. It changes continuously by
means of ever new contributions and representations that either replace (like the images of Google Earth that
are continuously updated), or supersedes the existing ones (as it happens when specific contributions become
more popular or are replaced by others).
Although comprised of integrated images, the virtual map, as the map of old, is still predominantly visual. Its
particular symbolic system, once solely graphic has now become hybrid photo-graphic (soon will be audio-
visual too). A puzzle of countless photographs are seamlessly merged together to constitute the new map on
which signs, texts (and sounds), are pinned down and juxtaposed. This new kind of map and its photographic
representations profoundly questions the tenets of the photography of old. It transforms a time-space unicum
(the photograph taken at a specific time, in a specific place), in a fractured time within a space continuum (a
-mimicked- photographic image that merges different times and contiguous spaces). The desire to stop time
is either a fundamental feature, or one of the historically strongest bias in the history of photography. Since
its invention photography as been described or wilfully constructed as a key witness to a passing moment or
event (a “time-biased” medium Innis (1950) would say). This fundamental feature of photography is
profoundly transformed in a range of new photographic practices, in which a photograph (and I wonder if
this is still the right name to indicate what this image is) is able to seamlessly merge, in one present image,
many images of contiguous places taken at different times.
It is not my intention in this context to focus on the more generalised theoretical implications of this
transformation. I want however to focus on its theoretical outcomes for our subject matter. Once the two key
dimensions of a photographic image, its time and space, are operationally separated they give space to new
possible forms of communicative re-articulation. In the case of live audio video communications for example
space is bended in favour of linear time, the image is transformed in a complementary token of exchange
between different spaces to sustain the conditions of a “live” (continuous time) face to face communication.
Conversely in the virtual map images taken at different times are combined together in a contiguous linear
space, juxtaposed, superimposed and merged by means of spatial (and not temporal) relation. In this system
space, not time, is perceived as the existing continuous relation. Time is bended to sustain the natural
conditions of objects coo presence and spatial relation. The contiguous space of the image is always implied
in each photograph, but not directly acknowledged (represented). Any photograph is a photograph of
something, but also a non photograph of what it excludes. If space is the key variable, all the pictures of the
world then can be seen as interconnected, by relations of relative distance and proximity from/to one another.
A system that articulates these spatial relations (such as Google Earth or Photosynth) generates a systems
that mimics a fundamental condition of the existence of real objects, their spatial relation. They also create a
paradox for the photographs they correlate and merge. On the one hand they reinforce the “realist bias” of
photography (Burgin 1980). The historical bias that has reinforced our perception of a photograph as a proof
of the existence of the objects it represent. These spatial relations create yet another link between the
represented (the object) and its representation (its image) knotting them together at a certain location by
means of proximity to other images (and objects). On the other end they sanction the (transition of the
photograph to Baudrilad´s third phase of the image) with a progressive redefinition of the ontology of the
image that is transformed from a physical relation, that of the image with the object of its representation. To
a cognitive relation, that of the image with what we know to be true, or we think to be true, of the object, (its
condition of spatial relation to other objects for example, but also its aaesthetics).
Debord was already well aware of this transformation when he described modernity as an immense
accumulation of spectacles (Debord 1967: 2). An immense collection of images of every aspect of life that
fused in a common stream created “a pseudo-world apart”. A world where a partial reality, the images
detached from every aspect of life, fuse in their own general unity as “a world of autonomous images”. It is
not difficult to see the new digital map of the world, constituted by the many separate images of the world
merged together in a pseudo-systemic digital representation of it, as just an evolution of the “spectacle” of
old. This is however where the similarities between the old and the new spectacle stop and where the
differences begin. But this will be discussed in the forthcoming article “Geomedia. The Rise of Social
Navigation Systems”.