The devastation that Hurricane Sandy wrought on Chelsea’s galleries provides a timely echo for the economic depredations documented in Doug Rickard’s photographs of such American basket cases as Detroit, New Orleans and Baltimore. Weedy lots, boarded-up windows and liquor stores are the signifiers for a landscape of abandonment only intermittently interrupted by lone figures or small knots of seemingly aimless wanderers—all of them African-American. We’re not in Kansas, anymore, obvs, though it’s fair to say that these images are less an exercise in slumming than a comment on the medium’s historical relationship with the same.
For one thing, Rickard didn’t take these photos, or at least not in situ; they’re Google Street Views shot off a computer, found by the artist typing “Martin Luther King Boulevard” into the search box. Still, he imposes impressive referential control over his source material, visually namechecking the antiseptically ironic road pictures of Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, and Joels Meyerowitz and Sternfeld, as well as the post-Becher school of German photography. His scenes are depicted as barren spaces locked into tight formal schemes: the x of an empty traffic intersection, say, or the latitudinal bands of colors painted on a ghetto supermarket.
You do have to wonder what impact, if any, these images would have without their methodological twist. But the lesson here—that the things we prefer to ignore are as far away as the moon and as close to us as our desktops—is hard to ignore. As Sandy reminds us, cataclysm can lap around the well-heeled just as easily as the down-and-out.