by Spring Warren
An interview with artist Doug Rickard
Doug Rickard is a photographer from Sacramento, California, whose ambitious project “A New American Picture” incorporates images of contemporary American Life from across the United States. Rickard, however, spent thousands of travel hours logged for this project sitting in a darkened studio and virtually driving the byways of Google Street View (GSW). He has moved through and captured images from desolate areas reeling from the effects of racial inequality, the grim effects of poverty, and the failures in social history. The images both indict the barbarity of power and evoke the strange beauty of a shattered environment.
Spring Warren: An introduction to your work reads that you “present a startling photographic portrait of the socially disenfranchised, providing deeply affecting evidence of the American dream inverted.” Was this your aim when you began?
Doug Rickard: I am the son of an evangelical preacher that had a church in largely white, affluent Los Gatos in the eighties that had grown over twenty-five years from 100 or so members to over 6,000. My father was very conservative, and his view was our Christian nation had been specifically blessed by God to lead the world. When I went to school at UC San Diego and studied slavery, the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow-era laws and customs, I saw the nation in a light quite different than I had seen it growing up. This collision of world views informed where I would take “A New American Picture.”
The project started with a focus on African American communities to see what they looked like on the heels of our history. I wanted to see what slavery and Jim Crow did to development in the here and now. I used “Martin Luther King Jr.” as a search criteria to find areas of the city from which to start, [that is] the streets named MLK Blvd. or Road or Ave. These areas were typically the most devastated. This didn’t surprise me, given our history, but still, it was incredibly sad that a beacon of hope for our nation now served as a symbol for blight.
Following that, I became interested in the broken areas as a whole. From the beginning, I used the description of the American Dream inverted. My working title was actually “Empire,” and I saw a segment of our nation as sort of the pawns on the chessboard of this empire. For those without economic or educational power, the American Dream is often a myth.
Warren: The places in the images are much emptier than one would expect to see. Further, though the locations span the country, each place strongly resembles the other. Concrete, asphalt, grass, and weeds growing through cracks in the sidewalk and not growing much elsewhere, old cars, graffiti, peeling paint, boarded windows, rust, and disrepair seem to happen in the same way no matter where. In light of this, what were the ways you saw different areas of the country distinguish themselves?
Rickard: To be fair, I wanted to load the work with a feeling of alienation, and I sought pictures out that reflected this. But at the same time, these places—Detroit, Fresno, Camden, Buffalo, Gary, South Dallas, Baltimore, Memphis, etc.—are in fact this way. And in the smaller cities—Wasco, California; Helena, Arkansas; Port Arthur, Texas—there are endless blocks of shuttered businesses and homes. Burned carcasses of architecture and people wandering around trying to survive and exist. And the color lines are still severe and based on economic conditions.
I agree there are very common physical [visual] elements at play here that are linked perhaps to poverty. I would see the same things in the areas of our nation that are devastated . . . what you just listed and also broken-down cars with people peering under the hood, liquor stores and churches, emptiness whether in the streets, the land, or the business buildings and homes. But beyond these common themes I was looking for representation of our nation’s diversity as well. I wanted to use both color and geographical markers, weather and architecture to build out a feeling of “America”—so you see urban areas that are entirely cement but also the rural and entirely overgrown, the brownstones and tall buildings, and the palm trees and ranch-style homes too, all guided by my own perceptions of the places. Even though I have never been in those places, I have a “feeling” of Detroit and of Dallas and Miami which comes from the media and the stories we hear.
Warren: There is a certain 1970s-esque palette to this work and so many old cars and buildings in the landscapes that, but for knowing that the street view project was begun in 2007, it would be difficult to pinpoint the time in which these pictures were taken. It is interesting that technology that shouts NEW creates a visual confusion as to time. Was this something you tried to heighten?
Rickard: Absolutely. I was drawn to the less clear imagery, the “lower res” if you will. What this means in literal terms is that I only took pictures where the images were taken by Google’s early cameras. Luckily, this was most of the country at the time, and certainly the economically broken areas. I suppose that this is interesting in itself as the project is dealing with technology and yet I limited the views that I would show to the most broken-down and “painterly” of visual images. Much of this is really due to how I associate beauty. I favored the broken images as I felt that they were beautiful and contained a certain poetry. Finally, these broken-down images helped me load the work with the type of emotional feeling that I wanted to impart. I was looking for pictures to reinforce notions of the entropy that you mention, along with isolation, abandonment, neglect, alienation. So in a sense, this work is very much controlled by me and loaded by me. It contains some elements of a document but also really functions as art.
Warren: Speaking of art, there’s been a lot of uproar about the fact that you didn’t physically take the images with your own camera, though found object art has been accepted since Duchamp took it on. The problem seems these are photographs not of your making—but screen captures. How do you answer when people accuse you of not being author of your art?
Rickard: Yes, as you mention, the history of art from Duchamp to Richard Prince and others is filled with the reuse and recontextualization of material, be it physical objects or images. In this case, the ability to affect the work itself for me was particularly pronounced. In essence, GSV is a frozen work that you navigate within, that you move within, and travel through. You have a massive amount of influence over what you ultimately choose to do within this world. This includes the composing of the pictures—you have 360-degree movement, also up and down, also the geometry skews with your movement, which you can control to affect “feeling”—the editing of what you look for and choose to show, and finally how the whole of these pictures functions itself. In my case, I was able to use these elements to embed many layers of meaning. These elements were so pronounced as to connect me strongly to photography as a history and a whole. I wanted to do something here that paralleled Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and others who have turned their eye on the American experience. The movement and scale of reach within this platform allowed for this to occur. You have outlined some of the results in your own questions, and there are more that exist for each individual viewer and what they bring to the equation when viewing.
Warren: How much does the idea of your work add to the perception of it? I guess I’m asking if you feel a single image could stand without the tapestry of the entire project, and more importantly, without any explanation of the concept that “A New American Picture” is embedded in?
Rickard: The concept here was, of course, very important, but I felt that the actual pictures had to stand as individuals. I think that concept alone is typically thin—though there are times in art’s history, of course, where concept is strong enough to stand alone; and I want idea to be married to strength of the images—that was much of the point.
Warren: I love the term “screen capture.” It conveys the sense of the hunt, of tracking down these images on the Web. But doing so seems more of a treasure hunt, of searching out inert objects, than it is akin to tracking live images that one shoots with a camera. Talk to me about the different feel of the two processes and where some of the same skills intersect in these two ways of taking images.
Rickard: This is an interesting area of intersection. With GSV, both elements form a crossroads of sorts, as GSV has a great deal of movement that one can impart on to a frozen world. What I mean is, with Google taking nine images every ten meters and stitching them together, one is left with the ability to compose a scene. Not freely as one does with a camera out in the world, or with the naked eye, but somewhere in between. I needed this movement to create this body of work. It allowed me to get the same feeling that I would get out in the world doing photography on the street. And yet, something else was contained that was fascinating to me . . . the ability to encounter subjects that were unaware or semi-aware of the camera itself. That left certain feelings embedded into the work that would not be there if done by traditional means.
I am certainly also very interested in the use of entirely static images. The Internet is expanding so quickly. I have heard that 30 billion pictures will be taken next year alone with a good portion of those ending up on the Internet. This dynamic, the ability to take unlimited pictures from millions and millions of devices, is changing the way that we see the world. Photography and art will undoubtedly be affected and in my view, it is extraordinary and fascinating. This is an area that we could talk about for hours, this topic alone.
Warren: Yes, the Digital Age seems to be in a position of remolding not only our ideas of art, but privacy, time, and even reality. We are caught in the process not only in GVS but by surveillance cameras, and we no longer own or control our own image. Do you feel a little itchy recognizing how much we are at the mercy of other people’s electronic and possibly voyeuristic gaze? Are you concerned with the way your art may conflict with personal privacy?
Rickard: In the era of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, we trade the power that is contained in these tools for our own control of our privacy. I don’t think that you can have both. We are in an era where privacy will continue to erode and all of us will live a partially “public” life whether we want to or not. The technologists would say, “If you don’t like it, simply unplug and don’t use those products.” But we mostly will continue to use these products. I think that there will be pros and cons to this in the future. We just don’t yet know the severity of it.
Art tends to stem perhaps from all of the implications in any given era and the Internet is a decidedly strong implication. Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” plays a part in what I did. It doesn’t translate necessarily into a certain thing happening in that moment—a man falling down, a house burning—in fact, I avoided anything that was “dramatic” in terms of the scene. Instead, the decisive moment translates into how things are visually and aesthetically reading in that moment. Where the sunlight is coming from, where the subject’s gaze is directed, where the subject is in the frame versus the building outline, etc. What that really translates into then is a certain beauty or perhaps a transcendent moment.
As to voyeurism, I think that photography itself and those who are drawn to it have a particular curiosity about how things look, how things play out and operate around them. I am always in the moment visually, looking and absorbing and remembering. The way I take in faces and things and databank them I also do with images from the Web, hoarding and archiving and retaining their elements in my mind. I probably have 100,000 images plus from the Web, organized by topic and category.
Warren: You do have a couple of amazing photography sites. “These Americans” launched in March 2012 has home-shot Polaroids of Richard Pryor, crime scenes photos, road trips, and sex images, to name only a few categories. The other, “American Suburb X,” you call a “fiercely edited look at photography’s massively relevant past, dramatically shifting present and rapidly unfolding future.” Tell me about “fiercely edited” and about the different muscles it takes to be a collector, an artist, and an editor, and how these things work together.
Rickard: Editing is crucial. Within photography this is certainly the case, but it goes beyond that and into design, into details, into content itself, into how things play against each other. Editing is ultimately about making decisions, and those decisions directly determine the strength of anything that you do as an artist or otherwise.
These things should work together and in fact, in this era, they may end up as one and the same. Ultimately [the Internet] may change the way that museums and art silos function. The lines are being blurred. At the forefront of this blurring is an ability to edit. I think that it may end up as the crucial cog in an artist’s wheel.
“These Americans” is really an extension of my head. I collect and archive images both physical and digital on a scale that is scary in size. My conflicting views of our nation, its past, its present, its horrors, and its heroics, all play out in my mind, and visually, you can see evidence of my experience as an evangelist’s son, the realization of our nation’s darkest deeds which has given me direction. I don’t see myself doing any body of work that does not include some element of America as its foundation.
Warren: Californians seem to spend a great deal of time in their vehicles. Have you done a great deal of actual traveling as well as your impressive amount of virtual traveling?
Rickard: It’s true, our state seems entirely designed for automobiles and in most cases one can hardly even get a candy bar without driving to it. But I haven’t traveled much. I do plan to. I had only been to the East Coast once as a child and to the Northwest a few times. Now my wife and I have fourteen- and nine-year-old boys and a new baby girl, age seven months. They are always around when I’m working, lots of coffee and music; it’s really perfect, but not for travel. So part of this body of work was driven by necessity. I had no ability to go out and spend months on the road, but I was determined to do something on a broader America. That led me to GSV. Great things can come out of restraints. The limitations force you to innovate or find a new way of doing something.
This work kept me in a dark room behind a computer for a thousand hours or more, over three years making 10,000-plus pictures for this body of work—of which ultimately around eighty stood; California pictures number at twelve. This speaks loudly to the power this project held over me. I acclimated myself to this method of “driving.” I could go from the inner city of Camden, New Jersey, to the borderlands of southern New Mexico in the same evening. This constant ability to explore new areas was for me a thrill and pull. Of course, the real world is something on another level, but there were entirely powerful elements at work here.
Warren: Where will GVS take us from here? What other uses might be made of it?
Rickard: I am not sure. We’ll have to wait and see. I don’t see myself continuing to work with it for bodies of work beyond “A New American Picture.”
Warren: With fuel costs rising and reserves dwindling, the future does not bode well for the future average citizen who would like to travel. Artists have long brought far-off places within sight of those who couldn’t get there. What do you think it means when GSV, an automated image-maker, plays such a part in this?
Rickard: It is interesting, the point you make. I think that you would look beyond GSV to frame this. Technology itself is replacing travel in many cases. We are moving to a world that allows communication without travel on an unprecedented scale. This is only going to increase. So, while economic components may play a substantial role in the volume of travel, it is really the technological elements that are rapidly shifting our world. Certainly, only a certain percentage of the world touch technology, but almost all seem to be impacted. I suppose we can just call this impact by the heavily used word “globalization.”
Warren: Does it create a more true vision of the world, or less so?
Rickard: This is hard to answer. I think perhaps it does both things simultaneously, makes clearer and also diffuses or obscures. People now have access to information on a mind-boggling scale and literally at their fingertips at any moment. This is in the form of data, audio, and also visual information—pictures and video, if you will. At the same time, people may be experiencing “real life” less and relying on the representation of life on the screen at home and in their hands as a substitute for real life. Perhaps then we are on a road to “know” more but experience less. What that does for our vision of the world is perhaps yet to be determined.