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Equivalence: obscured by cloud

For over ten years, from 1922, Alfred Stieglitz photographed cloud forms as metaphorical abstracts, amassing several hundred images. Stieglitz trained his large and medium format cameras on the sky, looking up, once commenting “some people feel I have photographed God. May be”. Satellite imagery takes a God-like view, looking down on the earth from on high, viewing clouds from above, although not with the same metaphorical intentions that Stieglitz intended when he named the series Equivalents.

Google has a mercurial relationship with clouds that might be summed up as ambivalent at best. Half the time intent on removing them, but when it suits, dressing them up with contrast and adding shadows. In a way, resolving each version of a cloud in a commercial environment much like Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds in Leo Castelli’s gallery – where they hovered in fictionalised environments and might be released into the atmosphere while staking out the ‘end of painting’ and being imminently saleable.

Google’s dual approach to clouds is utilitarian. It acquires the satellite imagery from 3rd parties for use in its mapping apps and for the weather layers. Clouds are enhanced to emphasise shape and sometimes have added shadows when they are used for weather services. At other times, clouds are a hinderance, obscuring detail on the landscape and various algorithms act in attempts to remove them.

One study shows that almost two thirds of the earth’s surface is under cloud cover on average. That is not obvious from Google’s presentation of maps but its algorithms can be seen at work (or failing) at times. Partials of clouds are left, odd combinations and mappings can occur. Clouds can appear truncated, under water and unnaturally hugging hills.

Although these are temporary glitches, which capture moments in time in the ongoing development of these tools, these cloud forms can be just as symbolic as Stieglitz’s Equivalents. The glitch as metaphor is appropriate for these techno-unstable times, where a cloud becomes soft, malleable, not able to be grasped. And what is behind the fluffy exterior is a complex of technical and cultural decisions that impose a fiction on what we think we know.

These images and gifs are shown in accordance with Google’s attribution requirements, sources for which are:
Google Earth, SIO, NOAA, GEBCO, US Navy, NGA, Landsat / Copernicus, Maxar, CNES / Airbus, TerraMetrics, US Geological Survey