In September, Aperture released A New American Picture, a collection of images California-based artist and so-called “Armchair Explorer” Doug Rickard snapped from Google Street View with a 35mm camera, ironically the weapon of choice of traditional street photographers. By re-photographing existing images from his computer screen, Rickard also repurposed them. What began as pictures taken by Google as merely factual geographic markers, have been transformed by Rickard into a magnifying bell jar he uses to define the deepest depths of ignored and abandoned areas of America. Through his decidedly un-Rockwellian slice-of-life photographs, Rickard gives these ghostly outliers a voice, and aims to challenge and provoke viewers.
A product of the radical late 1960s, Rickard was raised in a privileged suburb of San Jose by idealistic, religious parents. His father was a pastor of a 6,500 member mega-church and most of his male relatives and ancestors were also religious leaders and missionaries. It wasn’t until attending UC San Diego and earning a degree in American History–including courses in civil rights and slavery–that he learned of an alternate American reality that was so different from his own idyllic and sheltered upbringing.
His immediate reaction to the less-than-ideal circumstances of his fellow citizens was furious indignation, and it became his mission to shed light on members of society who were, until the all-seeing robotic eye of the Google Street View vans, out of sight and out of mind. Perhaps paralleling the shock he himself felt and no doubt still feels, Rickard presents his provocative images in a very bald, unapologetic way, forcing his audience to confront the societal and racial disparity that would be so much easier to ignore.
At first glance, the nearly 80 images in the book seem to be centered on bleak and deserted landscapes, the overlooked back-roads of the United States. The anonymous human subjects that were accidentally present in the original Google snapshots are small, darkly lit, faceless, and cast-aside; secondary or even tertiary components of the meat of the photos, but in fact, the pictures are about people. Their stories are best told by showing the places in which they live and move around, how they are trying to survive in the environments in which they have found themselves.
His process in choosing locations and images to present in his collection was very deliberate and painstaking. Often, a first step would be to look up locations using the key phrase “Martin Luther King,” a name that is usually equated with hope, freedom, and improvement, but geographically, usually means certain poverty and disrepair. “It was almost without exception the most broken part of every city,” he muses.
However, what is more critical in this collection is not the “where” but the “everywhere.” Forgotten, forsaken places like the ones Rickard hones in on exist ubiquitously throughout America, a country synonymous with progress, technology, and betterment, and one whose reputation rests upon the idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
The book represents a sort of patchwork roadmap of the USA from coast to coast, but in fact one photo is no different than the next, each deserted cement lot, decaying bodega hawking Super Lotto tickets, the $2 car washes and misspelled graffiti could be almost anywhere in any state. What’s more is that although he calls his body of work A New American Picture, his subject matter, which is without exception dilapidated, dusty, rusty, and deformed, is anything but “new,” and barely even recognizable as America.
Not surprisingly, Rickard’s work has ruffled more than a few feathers among photography purists and art enthusiasts. A lot of the backlash that Rickard has received revolves around whether or not to call him a photographer, editor, curator, or activist. Reviews have ranged from praise and appreciation to online comments like “Lazy”, “turgid”, and “extremely uninteresting.” In defense of his work, Rickard points out that art is about ideas, not the tools one uses to create it. He sees Google Street View not as a library of pre-existing images, but rather as a new tool in street photography, like cell phones cameras or hipstamatic. His talent is pinpointing the exact image, angle, and horizon that will provide the most effect. Consider that any people in the images are there by chance–it’s purely by coincidence that these characters were photographed by Google, which had no intention of capturing these poignant moments loaded with societal and racial context. It was Doug who found them, zoomed in, and hit “Print.”
Rickard is the first to admit that a lot of the impact of the pictures is due in large part to Google. Google’s specialized cameras, perched atop tall, moving vehicles, shoot downward, and the dramatic, dizzying camera perspective results in pixilated images and skewed lines and angles. On top of this, Google’s cameras automatically blur faces, and together these effects create a haunting feel that, as the artist puts it, lends a “claustrophobic feel of decay.”
Rickard does step in to manipulate the images, lightening or darkening them to further convey a sense of isolation. Because Street View provides a 360 degree image, the characters are literally and figuratively frozen in time and stuck in place, so Rickard has all the time in the world to play around and explore angles and vantage points before settling on an image that best communicates his unique message.
Art is not static, but it is certainly an industry that doesn’t always take a shining to the introduction of new technology and new mediums, so it’s not hard to imagine a time when even conventional photography was met with controversy. Now, with smart phones replacing traditional cameras and instagram filters ruling out a need for editing, everyone is a budding photographer and expert. When anybody can use an iPhone to take pretty decent photos, and even win awards for their work, where do we draw the line at using internet technology as a tool to take a picture? And, does actually having been present in a space and time legitimize the overall effect of an image? Not having been there and experienced it yourself is akin to saying you’ve visited a city when you’ve only been to the airport during a layover. Technically, yes, but, emotionally? Mentally? Metaphysically?
Although Rickard’s methodology is both praised and eschewed as the photography of the future, he is actually obsessed with the past–both America’s at times disproportionate history and the history of photography. Ironically, Rickard is exploring some of the same streets that his heroes and fellow documenters of the plight of the poor–street photographers like Walker Evan and Ben Shahn–immortalized in pictures almost a century before, and in the meantime, not much has changed.
Images from A New American Picture (Aperture Foundation, $60), are on display from coast to coast – They are a part of the permanent collection at the SFMOMA, and will be exhibited at Yossi Milo Gallery in NYC through November 24th.