Monday, February 18, 2013

Doug Rickard - A New American Street View.

A New American Picture by Doug Rickard is most simply described as a book of images harvested from Google Street View, which show downbeaten and neglected views of America. But this belies a complexity of thought and ideas which underpin the work.

Rickard’s previous projects - American Suburb X (ASX), and These Americans, show him to be deeply engaged with photography as a medium, and well versed in its history and canon. Looked at as a view into Rickard’s mind, they attest to an ongoing search for the iconic image which transcends its specificity, and an obsessive collecting and cataloguing of what might define the American psyche.

Now focussing his gathering, collecting and editing eye through Street View, Rickard appropriates and recontextualizes as social documentary, an image originally created as pure documentation. The social aspect of this is important, and Rickard cites his conservative upbringing and subsequent study of civil rights and slavery as formative for his work. The book’s essay by David Campany also draws Rickard’s work into the tradition of street and documentary photography the likes of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, but also other artists concerned with the day-to-day “beneath the canopy” of American idealism, such as Edward Hopper, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison.

The use of Street View to source images immediately raises questions and encourages debate about the very nature of what it is to be a photographer, and more so what it is to be a photographer in the art world. It recalls long standing and recurring debates surrounding the validity of the ready-made as artwork, and the merits of photography as art. It also raises new questions about privacy, the place of technology in the world and the consequence of its ubiquity for photography. 

The process which Rickard uses is relatively straightforward — he searches until he locates the exact view he wants, composes the image on screen, and re-photographs it with a 35mm camera directed at the monitor. It is a process accessible to almost anyone, and does not necessitate a visit to the location in the image - a fact which draws criticism of his work.

51.310296, Amite City, LA (2008), 2010

The very specific technology of multiple wide-angle captures shot from well above eye level and stitched together, creates a look which has a particular feel. As Rickard says, “the actual dynamics of the camera within Google emphasized the way that I wanted to speak in these images.” (From interview recorded as part of a TV segment on Rickard). Particularly striking features of the look are the strong diagonals stretching out to the edge of the frame, the sense of looking down into a scene, and even the lense flares Rickard often includes in his captures. Additionally, the incredibly poor quality, the antithesis of ordinary photographic competence, lends a softness and which recalls early photography or even painting.

42.418064, Detroit, MI (2009), 2010

Initially selecting locations based on what people consider areas to avoid, Rickard also searched by the key phrase of “Martin Luther King”, which invariably located impoverished and neglected urban landscapes to select images from. Seeking a capture which speaks precisely of the place where it is located, he seeks within a frozen world exactly what he thinks is there to be found — an archetypal image. Framed and presented as a large glossy printed, they also wander into the tricky territory of the aestheticizing poverty - beautification possible through the safe access allowed by Street View.

Each picture in the book is identified with a number sequence and place as its title. Whilst based on the geographic location of the image, Rickard has manipulated it to ensure the exact location of each capture cannot be identified. This reinforces the anonymity of the works - connected to the world, but disembodied from it - perhaps similar to the experience of actually using Street View.

Yet the images somehow possess a kind of intimacy too. Rickard has sought out images containing people — never crowds, but almost always there is a lonely figure or small group present. The images draw us in with their universality and apparent glimpse of how other people live their lives. They also feel intimate in their familiarity. However, the blurred faces and the camera perspective which forces even close figures into the distance, emphasise again the effect of anonymity and isolation. As Rickard puts it, “the subjects then are really symbols or icons, and not individuals”.

39.259736, Baltimore MD (2008), 2011

So, A New American Picture is not so much about being completely new, as harnessing technology of the current time to produce something intimately connected and conscious of what has come before it. It also straddles various tensions — of intimacy and distance, placeness and universality, photography and the painterly, the aesthetic and the social. That each of these are palpable in the work ensures it lives beyond being a simple screen capture, and has a power that resonates wider.

Space Framed 2013 - Week 5

This week we will be looking at projects that survey the American Landscape:

Timothy O'Sullivan - Survey of the 40th Parallel (in the book Framing the West)
Various Photographers - New Topographics
Stephen Shore - Uncommon Places, American Surfaces
Richard Misrach - Desert Cantos, Chronologies.

We will be reading the essay by Britt Salvesen in the book New Topographics, on temporary reserve in the Richview library.