Rearranged: Finding Art Images in Google Maps Street View

Google Maps have been an invaluable tool for finding my way around cities I am not familiar with. It has made impromptu travel accessible and attractive. The Street View element of Google Maps is one of the strangest things I have experienced. Many times I have looked up old places from childhood, only to find the places I thought I knew vanished into ever-invading change. My nostalgia is overridden often by the misremembering being unmasked by the reality of the photos. For instance, the infinite yard I mowed for my grandmother during the summers becomes just an ordinary, slightly oversized yard. Of course the photographed world is not necessarily Truth, but a vision of possible truth as captured by the machine in the employ of a human. I have been seeking some of these truths by comparing historic landscape prints by artists with their “real,” contemporary world counterparts on Google Maps Street View as produced by those funny little Google cars with the 360 degree cameras.

The first print/world counterpart I found a few years ago was the impetus for my curiosity. The etching is by Andrew Karoly, and features a group of women by a bridge, likely washing clothes, several other figures walking or standing on the bridge, and the Chartres Cathedral towering over buildings in the background. Karoly was a Hungarian born artist who worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), during the Depression (1930-1939). I think of Karoly sitting by the side of the river, perhaps outside a café, sketching the scenery, acting as a documentarian of sorts. Since the print was made in 1940, the printmaker was looking back to the 19th century to find the people to populate his world. When at the cathedral myself, something struck me odd about the way it seemed to float above the landscape. It was no easy feat finding the exact place in the world of Street View, but after a lengthy virtual trip up and down city streets I found the place.

Andrew Karoly, Chartres France, 1940, etching

Google Street View

The first thing that became obvious was that the buildings had changed little since 1940. They were updated with new windows and new siding but remained structurally the same. One also notices the rearranged landscape. The bridge in the etching has a dramatic arched wall; the modern bridge is mostly horizontal. This may be an invention of the artist, or it could be that the bridge was remade by the city to allow automobile traffic to pass easily. It may also have suffered at the hands of explosives during the Second World War.

The biggest overall change, which I suspected, is the way Chartres Cathedral is rising above the buildings in the etching. The flying buttresses, and the Rose window can be seen very clearly. To compensate for this rise Karoly has invented an additional row of buildings, as if the approach to the cathedral were up a steep hill. In the street view images the scene is far less dramatic, and most of the cathedral is blocked by the buildings, and has been for a long time. The Karoly etching is quite dramatic, and this huge edit to the view makes sense if one wants to portray the grandness of the Chartres Cathedral, a monolith towering above the mortal world.

In his etching Grand Central, New York, (date unknown) the city breathes, changes its clothes, moves on. A camera would have snapped the scene quickly, but the printmaker has wrought the moment in metal, in his own hand, with the filter of his genius. The artist etched the work in stages to create its atmosphere. The sidewalk, street, and far off buildings are hazy, but the façade of the Grand Central Terminal, and the overhanging Art Deco awnings, are defined by dark line. Karoly has lengthened his Grand Central perhaps, unlike the claustrophobic pressure in the Google Street View imagery. The crush of traffic against the viewer creates a shallow space in the “real world” image. In Karoly’s print the gulf between the viewpoint and the far side of the street is quite deep. I wonder how much of the actual traffic Karoly filtered out for his image, or is it a manifestation of eighty years of automotive commerce? In the interim of years the Art Deco façade passes away, replaced by the austere Post-Modern banking aesthetic. The streetcars make their final circuits. The Commodore Hotel becomes another Hyatt Regency, its walls a reflecting pool of sky and concrete. Something of that dwindling world is saved from demolition in the paper and the ink.

Andrew Karoly, Grand Central, New York, (date unknown)

Google Street View

Charles Turzak (1899-1986) was born in Streator, Illinois. His woodcuts specialized in narratives about Illinois history, and the landmarks of the Second City, Chicago. He also worked for the Federal Art Project and the WPA during the 1930’s. His black and white prints resemble many of his contemporaries, in what could be called the Regionalist style. In his Washington and Lasalle, (1934) he depicts Chicago where the current city hall sits. The image replicates the dizzying feeling of tracing a skyscraper into the sky from the ground. In Turzak’s world these towering marvels become thinner, like daggers or 2 x 4’s stabbing the air.

The largest of the buildings at the center in the print is the Foreman Brothers Bank Building, a towering Art Deco testament to the upward expansion of architecture in the 20th century. Behind the Foreman Building is the United Methodist Church atop the Chicago Temple, followed by the Fornelli Tower in the Pittsfield Building. Turzak effectively condenses 5 blocks of Chicago into his thin image. In the foreground are the only buildings that have been eradicated from the Chicago skyline since the artist stood on the sidewalk and made his composition. Where the Washington Hotel, and the original Chicago Stock Exchange Building existed stands a 169-meter high bit of Post-Modernism called 30 N. Lasalle.

Two other Turzak prints from Chicago are his woodcuts featuring the Merchandise Mart Building at 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza. In this version from 1930 the artist has made a three-color scene of the river and the Merchandise Mart. The print shows a bustling dock with cranes, numerous low buildings on either side of the flowing river, steam, and people. It’s a dramatic view that evokes the frenetic hum of the city hub. It’s also mostly invented, or at least a composite of the architecture. When you compare this print to the Google Maps Street view it becomes clear that the Merchandise Mart comes right to the edge of the riverbank. If you make a virtual crossing over the Franklin-Orleans Bridge you can see that where Turzak’s invented buildings stand is on the river walk, and Merchant Mart Plaza. The area affords very little room for an extra row of buildings and a train yard as seen in the print. Like Karoly’s Chartres scene, the dramatic effect is more important than a mere replication of the actual view. In a later version of the same view the invented elements are missing, and the distinctive Second Generation Chicago Bridge at North LaSalle Street can be seen in the foreground.

Charles Turzak, Merchandise Mart, 1933

Google Street View

Too often artists are seen as replicators of reality, or merely documentarians of moments. Certainly the works here are to an extent a result of the desire to capture a scene, but they create mood, or amp up the hyperbole to capture something of the character of Place. The draftsmanship, the skill with which the matrices were created, and the precision of printing move beyond Google Maps photography into the realm of creation. Of course there is the question of reality versus fiction in the Photograph, but that is another story.

*The author's opinions are his own.

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