To illustrate this month's cover story, "Cranespotting," San Francisco turned to local artist and Stanford lecturer Jenny Odell, best known for her meticulous photo collages made with Google Earth images. The cover, shown above, mixes some of the most iconic buildings in the city with other structures that haven't even been built yet. We spoke to Odell about her painstaking process.
Most important question—how’d you do it?
It’s screen shots from Google maps, mostly, that I cut out in Photoshop. The hardest part is fitting them all together. One of the biggest challenges for these pieces is to achieve a sense of balance and space. I don’t want the buildings to get overwhelmed by the composition. As hard as it was, I had to delete some to give them the space to breathe. I wanted just enough to get a sense of the city, but not too much.
So, what is the idea of the city that these buildings represent?
I was trying to get buildings that are recognizable. It’s hard because everybody has a different view of San Francisco. I live in a quiet neighborhood in the Mission with smaller buildings. I don’t live downtown—that’s not my experience of the city. I try to avoid downtown, which I find overwhelming. If it were my view of the city, I would have Bernal Hill and a lot of funky houses over on Laidley Street. All those crazy houses that were built by the same guy. That’s my experience of the city—older and a little wacky.
You must have liked some of these new downtown buildings, though, right?
The new SFMOMA looks really good. But I’m not a big fan of any of the glass condos. I used to work close to the Infinity Tower. To each his own, but it looks to me like it landed from outer space. It is important for buildings to have continuity with their surroundings. I like the buildings that don’t look conspicuously new. Those big downtown ones don’t speak to place or history.
You’re a photographic artist who doesn’t work with her own photos. So what does that make you?
I’m a search engine artist. I exist in this increasingly large group of people who are sifting through data to curate and composite information. Now that there’s this huge volume of images, what does that allow you to do with them?