Anyone who has used the Street View function of Google Maps is, in a sense, already familiar with the work of Doug Rickard. The ubiquitous Internet tool, with its 20 petabytes of data, allows users to virtually traverse five million miles of the world’s roads and byways. But it’s not only for navigation. Street View’s watery pixels, warped perspectives and ghostly inhabitants with blurred faces have made the gadget digital manna for certain artists.
The formative route that Rickard (b. 1968) traveled is most intriguing: His father was a televangelist who counted Jerry Falwell as a confidant; many of his relatives are pastors and missionaries. He studied U.S. history and sociology at U.C. San Diego and, in the process, was bitten pretty severely by the Civil Rights bug. He presently lives outside Sacramento.
Rickard came to photography late but has obsessively overcompensated. Since 2008, he has amassed upwards of 100,000 web-sourced images, all of which are now fastidiously categorized, archived and currently in use or awaiting deployment in various of his online projects, such as “American Suburb X” or “These Americans” and in his printed work.
To create his ongoing series “A New American Picture” (ANAP), begun in 2008, Rickard grabbed 10,000 frames from Street View. Selected images were rephotographed with a 35mm camera and then cropped to produce an aspect ratio similar to that of a flat-screen computer monitor. Of these images, 79 were chosen for an Aperture monograph, and 20 archival pigment prints made the final cut for exhibition. The artist employs Photoshop to remove Google’s proprietary markers and adjust the source material. Since Google, like all things digital, continuously upgrades and erases previous iterations of itself, Rickard is also helping to protect one of our newest endangered places: the vanishing Internet.
For the ANAP project Rickard used Street View to identify very specific places where (almost) no one would want to go. He made his choices with the help of databases that provide housing tips (including, for instance, neighborhoods to avoid) or that compile poverty and crime statistics. Rough spots in Detroit, Baltimore and Camden, N.J., are among the recurring areas that he “photographed” but never actually visited. Street View performed the panoptic scouting; Rickard the OCD composition work.
There’s a sense of resilient alienation within the images. The blurred human subjects exist in distressed environs, often appearing as if they were survivors of an infrastructure apocalypse. It’s somewhat rare for the ANAP photos to not contain people, but in those few cases the effect can be even more unnerving. There’s no one visible in, for example, #104.100061, Roswell, NM (2008), 2011, or #32.700542, Dallas, TX (2009), 2010, or #34.546147, Helena-West Helena, AR (2008), 2010. (The unwieldy titles refer to GPS coordinates and the years that Google and Rickard produced their respective images.) In Roswell, a car at a barren highway intersection dissolves in a combination of inclement weather and lo-res fuzz, and seems to hesitate, as if for lack of a meaningful direction. Helena-West Helena features a sunrise (or sunset) over a mammoth puddle, an upended child’s toy and a forlorn ranch house. And in Dallas—in a relatively uncommon moment for both Street View and Rickard—the viewer is allowed to make eye contact (or something of the sort) with an unattended pit bull roaming some vaguely familiar yet nondescript stretch of suburbia. For whatever reason, Google decided not to blur that creature’s particularly abject face.
Photo: Doug Rickard: #34.546147, Helena- West Helena, AR (2008), 2010, from the series “A New American Picture,” pigment print, 26 by 411⁄2 inches; at Yossi Milo.