A STREET VIEW: DOUG RICKARD AND THE NEW AMERICAN PICTURE
Photos: © Doug Rickard, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco
With so much emphasis—especially as of late—placed on the wealthy and middle classes of America, the collection New American Picture by Doug Rickard showcases the invisible side of America where poverty and decay are the perpetual daily catch. The collection—currently featured at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan—is a series of photographs showcasing poverty and depression in major American cities.
Rickard grew up in what he calls “this real 1950’s, Reagan, super patriotic, very conservative environment,” in which he was surround half by preachers and half by artists. His father was a TV evangelist whose church had over 8,000 followers and many of his other family members were painters. “I was obsessed with artists as a boy and doing art everyday. I had my teachers telling my parents, ‘He’s going to be this famous artist. He’s got this gift.’”
It was during his schooling that Rickard found the obsession with America that has become the underlining theme of his work. “As I was growing up, I was shown only the strengths and the best, brightest side of America. And when I went to school, all of a sudden I studied our past, our history and why things are the way they are from a socioeconomic perspective.” The strong feelings that followed ultimately led Rickard to study History and Sociology at the University of California, San Diego.
The genesis of New American Picture began under a working title called Empire. With this project, Rickard was interested in showing the invisible and decaying portions of America. Using the Internet as an access point, he began to look at Google search returns for keywords such as Detroit, poverty, etc and ultimately stumbled upon Google Street View —an application on the search engine in which you can quite literally drop in on the streets of America and look around. The excitement at finding this platform started him exploring and immediately taking photographs of the computer screen on his phone, the wheels turning. Very quickly (the next day) he moved to a tripod in a darkened room making the photographs using a 35mm DSLR and photographing a large computer monitor. He worked for a few months to polish that approach and determine the collection’s aesthetic – he then would spend the next year and half in deep exploration of the country.
“I saw it as this potential new aesthetic where the broken down elements, the picture, even the crummy resolution ones actually heightened the atmosphere of the sense of menace and isolation, alienation and almost disrespect.”
It was this technique that Mr. Rickard feels sets the work apart from traditional photography. “If I were to go there and take pictures in the devastated part of any city, I would really want to have a certain amount of rapport to build up with the people. I would want to explain what I’m doing. And then it would be something different.“ His technique with Google Street View allows for “the look of alienation and anonymity because these pictures were initially made by a machine with anonymity.”
The photos in the project are grainy, blurry, and imperfect, a combination of factors that lead to an atmospheric and broken feel. In the past year, the cameras on Google Street View have been updated to high definition cameras, which Mr. Rickard says, “pulls a different meaning,” changing the feeling of each photograph. Gone are the grainy images that heighten the feeling of decay and poverty in favor of clear, crisp images that can look almost contrived.
As he expanded his scope from the streets of Detroit to other cities around America, he was aided by a website in which new residents to areas around the country can partake in a forum and ask which areas to avoid and which to frequent. On this site, Rickard was introduced to a very comprehensive dialogue detailing areas of decay in cities large to small. “I knew that Akron, Camden, Buffalo, Philadelphia and many other American cities were in decay but places like Orlando were a surprise. Orlando, the place where Disney is located, has this other side to it where everything is broken down and the poverty level is huge.”
Soon, Rickard found himself with an archive of close to 10,000 photographs detailing various American cities over the course of three years. From these photographs, Rickard was tasked to tightening the collection down to a number feasible for showing. To do this, he focused on the photos that gave off what he thought to be the correct and authentic atmosphere for each city. “I wanted each picture to give off a sense of place. I wanted Detroit to feel like Detroit. And part of that is based on my own idea of Detroit, but a lot of it has to do with the architecture and so forth.”
When asked if he has thought about expanding the project beyond the borders of America and into other, foreign cities Rickard said quite simply, “I feel in Mexico City or Russia or China it should be some artist who has grown up in that country. I think someone living there can do better justice to the real voice and reality of the country over what I could.”
While Rickard admits that the photos are, “political by nature,” as they deal with society, economics, race, etc., he is adamant in saying that he is not trying to take a purely political stance with his work but instead trying to paint a social commentary on the state of America that we may not be privy to.