A Series of Unfortunate Events

Michael Wolf, 2010

Publisher: Wanderer Books.

ISBN: 978-3941825109

Dimensions: 6.14 x 0.59 x 8.07 in

Pages: 72
Photojournalism was yet-again re-defined earlier this year when Michael Wolf was awarded an honorable mention in the World Press Photo competition for photographs he took of his computer screen. 

Wolf spent literally hundreds of hours at his computer, trolling virtually around the world, looking for anything weird or bizarre that had been captured by the ravenous cameras mounted on the top of Google’s special GPS-coordinated Street View camera vans.

When he found an image that fit his project, Wolf mounted his own camera in front of his computer screen, cropped the part of the Google image that he wanted, and made his own picture of that picture.

The final body of work, which he titled, A Series of Unfortunate Events, is completely composed of selected personal calamities (in progress, or about to happen) caught by random chance by the automatic cameras of Google Street View roving vans from around the world — and the results are often quite astonishing and amusing. 

It’s an obsessively clever idea, like high-tech dumpster diving, or sorting through junk at a flea market to find a hidden gem. But the “legitimate” world of photojournalists took offense at his award, and it therefore created quite a bit of controversy. 

Can this really be considered “daily life” documentary photography when it was captured first by chance, and then again by someone glued to a computer in a darkened room, sifting through thousands and thousands of random images in search of only the quirky ones?

The idea of documenting everything on every street in the world may have found its genesis in the cool, stunt-like art project initiated by Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), a book of continuous photographs of a two and one half mile stretch of the 24 mile boulevard. And certainly the discovery of evidence via closed-circuit surveillance cameras is even more commonplace today than it was darkly envisioned by George Orwell in his novel 1984

Wolf’s project (as several of his other projects) creates a whiff of voyeuristic uneasiness similar to what one experiences when viewing movies like Antonioni’s Blow-Up or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. And without doubt, the art world is filled with appropriation of the work of others, self-reference, and hall-of-mirrors introspection. So, is it art, appropriation, visual sociology, journalism?

Wolf’s series does provoke thought and discussion, with repercussions well beyond the whimsical notice of unfortunate events. The world (and our own lack of privacy) is changing whether we like it or not, and who better than an intelligent former-photojournalist to point it out?