In the 1960s, this was the procedure for taking satellite photos of Earth: 1. Launch satellite. 2. Satellite automatically takes photos on film. 3. Satellite ejects completed roll of film which falls into the Pacific. 4. Air Force attempts to catch canister mid-fall. Failing that, Navy recovers it from the ocean.
I tell you this story to bring into focus the quotidian miracle that is Google Maps’ satellite view. "We don’t usually stop and marvel at it," says Paul Rademacher. "We only run across it while accomplishing some other task." When we’re looking up driving directions or some place we just heard about on the news, the imagery is secondary. This is why he made Stratocam.
The site is built on top of the Google Maps API, but to emphasize the images, the interface has been stripped down. You can advance back and forth through a slide show of images others have found, you can up or down vote what you see and you can navigate anywhere on the planet to take a snapshot of your own. Rademacher says the biggest challenge was finding a good balance of simplicity and features. "The site is a sit-back slideshow, but also a voting game, and a still-photography app."
The best shots are surprisingly zoomed in—views you’d likely never find in your own random browsing. Superficially, the project invites comparison to Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Earth from Above. Both projects share a perspective. Both tend to be attracted to the same types of subjects—there’s a lot of striking patterns, industrial and exotic landscapes.
For my money, Stratocam has more in common with Jon Rafman’s The Nine Eyes of Google Street View. Like Nine Eyes, Stratocam divorces the moment of framing from the moment of capture in photography. Automated processes capture the images, but it’s not until people come along and decide which to emphasize and which parts to ignore that we begin to see an artist’s eye. "The Google Maps satellite image is a single photograph that stretches over the entire globe," Rademacher says. "Thousands of people could pore over it and still not discover every highlight." So far, people have contributed over 10,000 shots.
Stratocam is part of a larger obsession with maps for Rademacher. "I’ve been a geo guy for several years," he says. He created the very first Google Maps mashup, the Google Earth browser plugin, and a tool to help you visualize the size of the Deepwater Horizon oilspill. "I love maps because they’re the connection between an abstract concept and the real world," he says, "A city becomes real once you see how its streets are laid out."