A figure confronts the camera. He or she appears to be wearing some form of headgear, and a loudly-checked jacket, perhaps with a hood. The picture is made from a vantage point - its subject is looking up. Grinning or grimacing, she or he raises a gloved hand and gives the photographer, and viewer, the finger. Fuck You. The details are indistinct, a mesh of pixellation intervenes. The gesture could be a joke, could be playful. Or defiant: a threat.
A youth has pulled up the collar of his T-shirt to obscure the lower half of his face. Again, a fine gridded gauze veils the image such that the outlines are a haze. Tonal gradation is minimal; the colours are reduced to blocks. But his pose is unmistakable and his intent seems less ambiguous - less playful - than that of the figure in the checked jacket. Arms aloft, middle fingers outstretched, Fuck You… twice.
The pictures are by Michael Wolf, working with a macro lens to re-photograph, re-crop and re-present Google’s omnivorous Street View project. FY is just one series of several on which he has worked (Paris Street View, Manhattan Street View, A Series of Unfortunate Events are amongst the others). In each, Wolf - an established and successful photographer of the urban world out there, need it be said - has confined his practice to re-imagining the digital streets made available by servers, screens and, let’s not forget, capital.
Perhaps the origins of the FY series can be traced to an earlier moment in Wolf’s career. Here he is (in Artforum, 11/14/2008) discussing a picture from the technically accomplished, large format ‘Transparent City’ project. "One evening I was looking at a photograph I had shot and I saw in it a man giving me the middle finger. In the exact moment he made that gesture I pressed the shutter, even though I had probably been standing there for 20 minutes. It set off a chain reaction in me, and I began to look through every file at 200 percent magnification to see what else was going on in those windows. I saw hands on computer mice and family photographs on the desks of CEOs; I saw people watching flat-screen TV’s in the evening… By zooming in on the details, I manage to introduce a certain vernacular visual language…"
In subject and location Wolf's FY series is a form of street photography - yet it dispenses with many of the niceties of the genre. Gone are the tasteful compositions, and all that fussing with geometries of light and shade. Gone too are precious coincidences, artful juxtapositions and delicate ironies - the quarry, for so long, of legions of urban photographers. And most emphatically rejected is the notion that the street photographer must remain unseen, that the picture be a candid record of life as it would have happened anyway. Wolf's delight is in those moments of rupture when the conceit is exposed.
So, what remains? What is there to salvage from Wolf’s wilful disregard for the etiquette, ‘quality’ and finer points of street photography - his bonfire of its vanities? More than might be expected, it turns out. For the brute vernacular he employs proves strikingly expressive and pointedly suited to the job at hand. Wolf’s streets appear loutish and defiant, contested and recalcitrant. Just like the real thing.
FY and A Series of Unfortunate Events are published by, and available from, Peperoni Books.