By Jeff Ladd, 5B4, November 2010
The older notions of photographers physically exploring their world may have in some ways come to pass. The Egglestons, Shores, Levitts, Winogrands ventured out with perhaps only the loosest intentions or framework of a “project” and allowed the world to provide. It is common now for artists to conceive of a project first and then impose that view almost filter-like upon what they are looking at. I would never argue that one approach is better than the other as long as – in the case of the latter – the work doesn’t become a mere illustration of an idea. For me, I learned photography through an ability to trust in the world and a rather strong distrust of “ideas,” so clever frameworks rarely excite unless the work from image to image surprises and transcends. Doug Rickard’s work in his book A New American Picture has me excited, perhaps a bit disturbed, and completely captivated.
Rickard’s work on this project has a clever framework. He has been exploring the world through Google street views. Google has been mapping the world from the vantage point of the center of its streets. The camera, tethered to a GPS system, is mounted on a car and takes wide angle images every twenty feet or so from a fixed height of about 7 feet. The user of Google’s street views can not only pan 360 degrees but pan up and down and zoom in on a part of the image. The final images are run through facial recognition software which attempts to blur the faces of people unintentionally recorded when the camera car passed by.
Surveillance cameras in banks or on city streets have the potential to record an image which is as worthy of high praise as any made by Frank or Evans. So is the case of the billions of snapshots made around the world every day from amateurs. Rickard has been sifting through Google’s images to – like any photographer working in the streets – find interesting things to stare at and photograph them off of his computer monitor. In terms of street photography, several factors have been taken away; one is timing as the photographs are triggered by the GPS system when the car passes over a specific coordinate and the second is vantage point, so the usual “finding out where to stand” element is off the table as well.
In A New American Picture, which through its title and chosen locations I sense a nod towards Evans’s American Photographs, you will find hints of the historical reference points which have certainly informed Rickard’s work. The photographers I mentioned in the first paragraph are brought to mind and Rickard’s attraction to a certain color palate is common to the 1970s photographers working in color, especially Eggleston.
A grid of these images are on display at the new Le Bal museum in Paris alongside Anthony Hernandez, Lewis Baltz, Chauncey Hare, Walker Evans and others and I was struck by how the splayed perspective of the camera-car’s wide angle lens (which seems to be around a 24mm in 35mm terms) echoed Hare’s interiors or the field of view from Hernandez’s Los Angeles bus stop images. This wide field of view presents interesting photographic problems that fascinated artists like Garry Winogrand – one of which is asking the question of how small can an element such as body language or gesture be and still carry some of the weight of an image. In most of Rickard’s choices people are reduced to basic features which rely on such elements for meaning.
The places he has chosen to “google” were often spots Rickard has physically traveled to at one time or another and then when back at home, looked for that same place on street views. Most often he is drawn to the outskirts of cities where the fabric of society is being tested by poverty and run down infrastructure. A majority of the citizens caught in his frames are black, the homes bring to mind the bleakness of Evans’s descriptions of depression era houses – an appropriate concentration on the part of Rickard considering the recent economic blight in America.
If I find flaw in A New American Picture, it is with the edit. I happened to see a talk on this work with David Campany and Sebastian Hau at Le Bal and if my memory serves me, there were several images I found captivating in that slideshow which are missing here in the book. The book does have a page noting Plates 1-69 which seems to hint at further volumes and Campany mentioned editing the Le Bal exhibition from over 300 of Rickard’s images. This edit favors more images of a single person alone in the landscape which I find a bit repetitive.
I have heard that there might be a larger publisher planning a different book of this same work but either way, it is books like these which show that the history of the photobook is still moving forward and Parr/Badger should start working on volume III.