March 12, 2013
When I was seven, my parents bought me a globe, and my life was never the same. I religiously studied every longitude and latitude on that magical orb and soon had every country memorized. I spent weekends poring over the maps in back issues of National Geographic at the public library. Living in a wasteland populated mostly by coyotes and tumbleweeds, I embraced maps as my portals to the world beyond.
Because maps served as some of my most important educations, it’s no wonder that I am drawn to the photographer Doug Rickard’s recent body of work, A New American Picture (2009-2011). The project stems from the artist’s fascination with the world as accessed through Google Street View, a map much more visually rich than the forms that I grew up with. Rickard spent countless hours culling screenshots from his “Google road trips” (the kind of trips that many of us have taken at the computer). He then photographed these images, giving them an eerie and muted veneer. The images in A New American Picture are blurry and low-resolution photographs of photographs that were such to begin with.
Rickard meticulously chose the locations for his road trips, emphasizing images from some of the nation’s poorest communities. He found these communities by researching crime statistics or travel tips on neighborhoods to avoid in certain cities. As he cruised these streets on Google Maps, Rickard looked for the perfect pictures, searching for what he has called an “apocalyptic-like brokenness.”1 The more than seventy resulting photographs include such images as the young girl walking her pit bull past an empty and decrepit lot, three young men jaywalking in an Abbey Road–fashion across a patched-up street, and an amputee wearing a cowboy hat and sitting idly in a wheelchair at the side of the road.
Rickard grew up the son of a mega-church pastor. His father was a friend of the late fundamentalist, Jerry Falwell, and Rickard describes his upbringing as intellectually sheltered. Following a five-year break after high school, Rickard felt that he was “ready to learn” and attended the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where he studied history and sociology.2 At UCSD, Rickard was confronted with a view of the world that challenged the American exceptionalism he learned as a child. In particular, he developed a deeper understanding of America's troubled history with slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights. A New American Picture can be seen as Rickard’s personal journey—his own version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835)—as he learned about the lasting impacts of America’s tragic past.
The title of the series suggests multiple new ways of approaching the visual landscape of the United States. A first reading of the title implies that Rickard’s technique and the ubiquity of Street View offer a new kind of photograph. On Google’s part, the new image is visual data from a disembodied source. There’s a bit more human agency present in Google Street View images than in a closed-circuit television feed but not by much. Rickard’s contribution to the new American picture is data fetishism and a second-nature use of appropriation. The confluence of these factors may very well be a harbinger of representation in an algorithm-infused, post-Napster world where everything is up for grabs.
But it is not just the medium of photography that’s at play in this series; new technologies and the widespread access to them may be opening up a new vision of America. From Dorothea Lange to Janet Delaney, innumerable photographers have documented America’s rough edges and forgotten corners. But never before has so much visual data been available about places where a viewer does not live or has never visited. America's endemic and epidemic poverty is now less hidden from those who are sheltered from it. Now when one imagines twenty-first century America, the slums and ghettos of Watts, Camden, and Waco are a lot harder to Photoshop-out of one’s mind.
A New American Picture sprang from two of Rickard’s earlier projects, the websites These Americans and American Suburb X (ASX). Begun in 2008, ASX is a massive compendium of American photography that catalogs the work of hundreds of photographers. The website classifies each work by its depicted location, its exhibitions, and other keywords. The photographs are accompanied by interviews, reviews, and essays. In the logic of the blog generation, ASX provides an extensive overview of American photography. The website claims to receive more than 180,000 visitors per month. These Americans is a similar site with a more personal point of view, based on Rickard’s collections of found photography from a potpourri of subjects, including civil-rights mugshots, American housewives, the young Shaquille O’Neal, and polygamy. Browsing the archive is simultaneously looking at Americana and peeking into Rickard’s mind and interests. These are Rickard’s Americans.
Rickard’s work is captivating to me because it touches so closely on my boyhood obsession with discovering what is beyond any given bend in a road—an obsession that I have never overcome and hopefully never will. Rickard must have shared a similar obsession as he was growing up, but his exploration was stunted until he was able to break free from his family’s limited worldview. These obsessions aren’t superficial. One can unleash a deeper understanding of the world by traveling through its hidden quarters.
1. John Foster, "A New American Picture: Doug Rickard and Street Photography in the Age of Google," Design Observer, http://observatory.designobserver.com/feature/a-new-american-picture-doug-rickard-and-street-photography-in-the-age-of-google/32028/.