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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Book Review: Doug Rickard - A New American Picture

Doug Rickard - A New American Picture

October 18 – November 24, 2012, Yossi Milo Gallery

The idea behind Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture is simple and succinct: to take pictures of America anew. It is new, because Rickard is not interested in showing us images that cater to the ideal of the American dream. It is new. because he chose to focus on streets neglected by the mainstream media. And it is new, because Rickard never needed to leave his home to take pictures across America.  The result of A New American Picture is novel and fresh, in terms of the meaning of photography and the way it can enable us to look at America.

In 2007, Google launched its global database for mapping and documenting every single street in America by sending vehicles, with nine directional cameras on their roofs to capture panoramic street views. These 8.2-feet tall cameras, not only capture 360° views of the street, but most of the time, they also capture people who are photographed unawares. This lack of awareness explains the blank gaze that is occasionally bestowed on the Google Street Viewers. The blank gaze reveals that the camera’s lens, though all-inclusive, is undiscerning as to content. Indeed sometimes it does succeed in catching unexpected moments, so that the viewer may feel like Jimmy Stewart watching the world unfurl through his rear window. But it is never because a human is executing Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. Likewise, as Google Street View expands its global database, it also allows every anonymous user to explore the world, to examine people in the different parts of the world, and to appropriate these unknown photos at will.

When he was a new parent in 2009, Rickard discovered Google Street View, and found that the interactive medium fulfilled his longing for road travel, and allowed him to explore his cognitive map. He was quick to discover that the cameras used by Google vary in definition based on geographic regions; Google refined the street views for big cities like New York, by later adopting high-resolution cameras. Rickard, who studied history and sociology, was more intrigued by the low-definition pictures of less affluent places taken by the first generation cameras. It is in these blurry images that he saw poetry and a magical watercolor-like texture. Rickard carefully appropriates images from streets less traveled, from abandoned neighborhoods, and from the economically ravaged areas of the cities and creates his stylized pictorial poetry, even though the content—scenes of devastation, poverty, or desolation, is anti-illusionary and has a dystopian connotation.

While most street photographers try to strike a balance between connecting with their subjects and minimizing their intrusion, Rickard simply sets up his tripod-mounted camera to re-photograph the Google Street View images, adding physicality, by printing them. Though his appropriation of technology, specifically the borrowing of pictures from machines, lacks a human element, Rickard demonstrates his humanity, by precisely recapturing scenes of forgotten wastelands where stray figures have no place to hide, drifting, wandering, and loping along the streets. It is no coincidence that most of his subjects are black. Rickard can enhance the mythic anonymity by blurring the human faces or strengthening the slanting light, but he can’t change the fact of segregation and the uneven social structure revealed by these pictures. Rickard uses this new technology to re-interpret the modern America as a disillusioned one. If this is the New American picture, it is a discouraging one. The inverse of the American dream is no fable. It is right there in Rickard’s photographs, and it is right there on Google Street View.

- Yu-Yun Hsieh

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