All media have a place in the world, but some have a more engaged sense of place than others. Maps are perhaps the most familiar, offering orientation, information and location; photographs often reveal their locations, but only sometimes set out to document them; and today’s geo-locative media converse with location as a condition of their being. So, too, documentaries. All of them take place, but only some use the means at their disposal to explore and interrogate location.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Fire insurance maps preserve detailed records of locations lost to history.

Towards the end of the 18th century, surveyors began to systematically map cities for fire insurance companies. These firms—founded in the wake of the 1666 Great Fire of London—needed detailed information about the buildings they insured. The mapping industry grew following the 1850 invention of lithographic printing, which made fire insurance atlases cheaper and easier to produce.

In 1867, Massachusetts surveyor D.A. Sanborn completed this fire insurance map of Boston, drawn at a scale of 50 feet to one inch (15.24 meters to 2.5 centimeters). Over the next century, the Sanborn Map Company would produce more than 50,000 maps documenting 12,000 American cities and towns. Housed at archives across the United States, Sanborn’s fire insurance maps reveal the geographies and peculiarities of place that defined Americans’ lives for generations.


Minard’s Map

Nineteenth-century mapmakers like Charles Minard explored the links between statistical data and geography, laying the groundwork for modern information graphics.

Called “the best statistical graphic ever drawn” by Yale statistician Edward Tufte, Charles Minard’s 1869 map of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia pioneers the overlay of data on geographical space, a practice continued by Tufte and many of today’s information artists.

Stretching from the Neiman River to Moscow, Minard’s map narrativizes Napoleon’s movements across Russia, revealing the story of his army’s dwindling numbers. Drawn at a scale of one millimeter to 10,000 men, Minard’s map represents Napoleon’s forces in red as they enter Russia, and in black as they retreat. An axis across the bottom of the map charts declining temperatures, revealing the Russian winter’s toll on the French army.

A civil engineer by training, Minard pursued mapmaking in his retirement. He completed this map—his best known—in the last year of his life.


“Local Films for Local People”

British filmmakers Mitchell & Kenyon used the new technology of the movie camera to film local communities.

While many early filmmakers captured footage of locations that would be unfamiliar to their audiences, Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon made movies intended for the communities they filmed, using the slogan “Local Films for Local People.”

Mitchell and Kenyon are particularly well known for their films of workers leaving factories. These “factory gate” shorts were often commissioned by local showmen, who would exhibit the films in town halls, or other public spaces.

Mitchell and Kenyon’s Messrs. Lumb and Co Leaving the Works, Huddersfield screened in the Huddersfield town hall on November 3, 1900. According to contemporary accounts, ventriloquist Loder Lyons, who appears in the film, provided live voices.


A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire

Turn-of-the-century filmmakers used moving cameras to explore and document the environment.

In the spring of 1906, filmmakers Harry, Herbert, Joseph, and Earle Miles placed a camera at the front of a San Francisco, California cable car, capturing the city’s bustling Market Street. A Trip Down Market Street was sent to New York City for screening on April 17, 1906—the day before a devastating earthquake leveled 80% of San Francisco, including the Miles Brothers studio. Spared from destruction, the film was retitled A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire.

Market Street was one of a growing number of silent “travelling” shorts that used camera movement to explore location. The Lumiere Brothers 1896 film Venice Gondole, purported to be the first film to use a moving camera, tracks along Venice’s Grand Canal.

Shipped worldwide, these “travelling” shorts often screened far from the places where they were filmed, bringing audiences glimpses of distant locales.


Fifth Avenue, New York, From Start to Finish

At the beginning of the 20th century, photographers used portable film cameras to systematically document cities and towns.

Near the turn of the 20th century, professionals in various disciplines undertook systematic documentation projects. The widespread availability of photography made it easier to capture and catalog the natural world, as well as human achievements.

As part of this movement, photographers documented cities block-by-block. In 1911, photography firm Welles & Co issued Fifth Avenue, New York, From Start to Finish. A meticulous record of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, the Welles photographs recall modern-day street documentation projects like Google Street View.

This picture of Fifth Avenue and East 43rd Street shows Temple Emanu-el, Harriman National Bank, and Delmonico’s, an iconic New York City steak house.


Tape Recording Clubs

Amateur tape recording clubs captured the sounds of their local communities.

“Don’t get the impression we are too lazy to write.” 
-John Buckler, Leicester Tape Recording Club, 1959

When inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorders became available in Britain in the 1950s, amateur recording clubs sprang up across the country. Members captured the environmental noises of their towns and cities, often mailing finished tapes to fellow recording enthusiasts. The Federation of British Tape Recordists was established in 1958 to encourage communication among recording clubs in the U.K.

Members of the Leicester Tape Recording Club, pictured, documented the sounds of their city using portable tape recorders. Founded in 1959 and active through the 1970s, the Leicester Tape Recording Club also participated in “taperesponding,” or corresponding via audiotape. Members communicated with relatives, friends, or other recording enthusiasts by sending tapes through the mail.


The film medium has long taken pains to distinguish between scenes filmed ‘on location’ and those produced in the malleable ‘any place’ of the studio.

Location in this sense makes a claim for something special, for some attribute of the setting to manifest itself in a particular way. In the case of this timeline, the claims regarding location are even stronger.

In some ways, we might think of location as a character –a unique material presence embedded in a particular time and playing a distinctive role. Some media projects take great pains to portray that ‘character’, going beyond merely ‘taking place’ to giving us additional information about a location that enables us to imagine its behaviors and interactions with other characters. Location becomes a key part of the story. Neither accidental nor ambient, it motivates our imagination and understanding.

As our examples show, the form that location takes in documentary – whether traces of image or sound, abstractions of data, or layers of information – is less important that the role that it plays.

Sony Video Rover

Like today’s mobile phone cameras, the portable video recorders of the 1960s allowed people to document environmental changes as they happened.

In 1967, Sony released the Video Rover, a video recorder and sound system light enough to be carried by one person, and affordable enough for consumer use. Portable and accessible, “portapak” cameras like the video rover revolutionized moviemaking– empowering people to record their local communities, and document the locations in which they lived.

Video artists and guerilla television producers embraced portapak filmmaking. New York City’s Downtown Community Television (DCTV) and Paper Tiger Television collectives used portapaks to capture the stories of their local neighborhoods. Portapak’s instantaneous playback features gave filmmakers greater control over the narratives they created.


Flight Patterns

Flight Patterns from Aaron Koblin on Vimeo.

Data visualizations can reveal human effects on the landscape.

“It’s one thing to say there are 140,000 planes being monitored by the federal government at any one time, and it’s another to see that system as it ebbs and flows.” 
-Aaron Koblin, February 2011

Each day, the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tracks an estimated 140,000 planes through American airspace. In 2005, artist Aaron Koblin began to visualize the FAA’s data with colleagues at UCLA’s “Celestial Mechanics” project. Built using the open sourcing programming language Processing, Koblin’s Flight Patterns visualization captures the rhythms and spatial patterns of North American travel over a 24-hour period.

One of the many artists pioneering the growing field of data visualization, Koblin continues to explore the intersection of data and aesthetics at Google’s Creative Lab.


Google Street View

Google Street View uses digital technology to systematically document the local environment.

Throughout history, people have used new technologies to document their environments. Turn-of-the-century filmmakers Mitchell & Kenyon turned their camera on the towns and people around them. A decade later, photography firm Welles & Co. captured New York City’s Fifth Avenue block by block.

Digital photography and computer storage capacity allowed the team behind Google Street View to undertake a street documentation project of unprecedented scale. Launched in 2007, Google Street View presents navigable images of roads worldwide. Cameras are mounted on Google Street View cars, tricycles, and—if necessary—snowmobiles to record environmental panoramas, later stitched together to create 360-degree views. As of June 2012, the Street View team had documented 5 million miles of roads across 39 countries.



Location-based mobile applications like Foursquare add interactive layers to the local environment.

With the widespread adoption of mobile phones, entrepreneurs and developers began to explore how these devices might help people interact with their environment. One early experiment was Dodgeball, an SMS texting service launched in 2005. Users texted their location to Dodgeball, which replied with tips about the neighborhood.

In 2009, Dodgeball founder Dennis Crowley co-launched Foursquare, a social-networking application also focused on location. Using Foursquare and their mobile phone’s GPS, people can “check in” to local businesses, earning “badges” and other rewards for repeat visits. Within a year of its launch, Foursquare was available worldwide, and today claims 25 million users.


A Childhood Walk

A participatory trip down memory lane, Ze Frank’s A Childhood Walk explores the connections between location, technology, and memory.

Online performance artist and humorist Ze Frank routinely investigates the links between community, digital technology, and memory through participatory web projects. In Young Me/Now Me, Frank asked web visitors to recreate photographs from their childhood. For his 2010 project, A Childhood Walk, Frank challenged people to retrace childhood walks using Google Street View, recording their memories along the way. Participants emailed Frank screenshots of locations that sparked remembrances.

The 13 submissions that make up A Childhood Walk include anecdotes—humorous and poignant alike. Although the project is now closed, Frank invites site visitors to take their own childhood walks.


The Wilderness Downtown

For Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait”, celebrated music video director Chris Milk combines music video iconography with the computer’s multi-screen potential to create a multimedia narrative that unfolds as the song progresses.

This interactive music video of the song “We Used to Wait” by the American indie band Arcade Fire was made partly to exhibit the power of the new web standard HTML 5 and Google’s browser Chrome. Director Chris Milk combines music video iconography with the computer’s multi-screen potential, going a step further than a simple split screen. In The Wilderness Downtown, windows are stacked digitally over one another so that scenes play out on multiple levels.

Before viewing, the visitor enters the address where he or she grew up or another that will evoke some sense of nostalgia. This interactive application then accesses Imagesof that location from Google Maps and Google Street View and integrates them in the multimedia narrative that unfolds as the song progresses. Pop-up windows then appear and disappear at various positions, displaying custom-made images in an exciting choreography, showing nature gradually taking over the user-selected neighborhood, much as the multiple pop-ups take over the screen.

The making of the Wilderness Downtown. from B-Reel on Vimeo.

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