Beyond Google Earth

Satellite imagery might seem neutral, but it is constructed by systems which not only present but also transform the visual data.


In our image-saturated culture, it’s natural to feel skeptical about the veracity of photographs — we understand that an image shows nothing more than a decontextualized slice of space, a particular spot at a moment in time. Yet certain types of photography have yet to earn our distrust. I am thinking especially of satellite photos. Offering what can appear an almost definitive god’s-eye view, and avoiding the subjective biases of human picture makers, machine-made satellite images might seem the ultimate example of neutral, just-the-facts visual documentation.

Once limited largely to weather forecasts and military operations, satellite-based photography has in recent years become an integral part of our daily lives through Google Earth and other networked mapping services. Easy access to satellite imagery has indeed provided us an apparently infinite source of information about the surface of our planet. Yet this neutrality is illusory: satellite imagery is constructed by systems which do not simply present but also interpret and transform the raw visual data, affecting how and what we see.

It’s natural to question the veracity of photographs. Yet certain types of images have yet to earn our distrust.

Mishka Henner, whose work I recently explored in this journal, deploys networked satellite systems to create images that at once document land uses and explore how the imaging systems are altering these uses. For his series “The Fields,” Henner focuses on oil fields in the western United States, especially Texas — sites of large and critical energy infrastructure located in relatively remote places, hidden in plain sight, you might say. Here the satellite view serves to flatten space, and the results are arresting aerial typologies; the various sites read like the evolving variations of an abstract painter’s work. It is important to understand that each image is incredibly detailed, stitched together from hundreds of individual photos: these abstractions are composed of facts-on-the-ground, facts whose scale —and impact — is geological.

For “Dutch Landscapes,” Henner takes a subtly different approach. The images in this series seem to be composed of mosaics of brightly colored polygons nestled into views of countryside landscapes. But these patterns are not painterly abstractions inserted by the artist; they are software-generated obfuscations meant to conceal military installations and other sites deemed sensitive by the Dutch government. These patterns are visually stunning; at the same time they remind us that the apparently open visual access to the world afforded by satellite image systems is limited by vested government and corporate powers.


Daniel Leivick is a Los Angeles-based photographer who, like Henner, uses satellite photos to create highly detailed, large-scale images. But unlike Henner, Levick makes images that are fictionalized, collaged together from disparate sites. The images in his series “Heliopolis” read like the remains of a parallel civilization in an austere, cloudless desert. Mixed in with familiar sites like roads and housing developments are marks on the earth and human-altered landforms that seem like ciphers from a mysterious future. But Leivick assembles his fictions from images of real places, and the views thus seem not only desolate but eerily familiar. Leivick’s strange future is now.

Clement Valla is a New York-based artist who explores the cracks in the seemingly seamless worlds created by Google Earth and similar services. “Postcards from Google Earth” features infrastructural landmarks such as bridges, dams, and roadways — but shows them as severely warped and distorted by rendering errors in the software. Spend any amount of time online and you will come across these kinds of glitches; it’s easy to laugh and dismiss them as minor goofs. Valla’s work underscores their meaning: the virtual reality of Google Earth is not a true mirror of the world, but rather a constructed space.


Building on “Postcards,” Valla has used large-scale printouts of satellite images to create the sculptural installations of “The Universal Texture,” which attempt to reconcile Google Earth’s anomalies with the real space of the physical world. And his online project “3-D Maps Minus 3-D” lets us browse the raw visual information of Nokia’s 3-D maps, before it’s been processed into readable images with the illusion of dimensionality. Thus we select a city and see various surfaces from multiple perspectives — patches of streets mixed in with building facades, rooftops, and natural features. Bits of familiar landmarks might be recognizable, but it’s impossible to apprehend any unified space. Paradoxically, the experience has more in common with our fragmentary, on-the-ground experience of urban space than with the omnivorous satellite view. The ultimate indecipherability of “3-D Maps Minus 3-D” reminds us of the gap between the tangible world we experience and the world our computers show us.

Aaron Rothman, Mishka Henner, Daniel Leivick, and Clement Valla, “Beyond Google Earth,” Places Journal, May 2015. Accessed 20 Mar 2023.

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