Were it not for a chance encounter with a couple of French tourists, Doug Biggert’s 40-year legacy of “serial photography” might have remained a secret. Biggert unwittingly blew his cover when he snapped a picture of Xavier Carcelle’s colorful sneakers while working at a Sacramento newstand. Intrigued, Carcelle and his companion, Chloe Colpe, started asking questions, and before long the trio were at Biggert’s apartment pouring over his vast collection of hitchhiker photos, all of which had spent their lives in shoeboxes. The couple soon realized they were onto something, and in 2006 they helped publish and show Biggert’s pictures in France and Belgium to wide acclaim; they subsequently made a documentary film, “Beautiful America”, about Biggert. The photos — and the film — are now on view at Verge Gallery through August 23, along with images from “Sandal Shop Wall”, a prior series that landed Biggert a solo show at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1972 alongside 17 of Edward Hopper’s oil paintings.
Biggert, for his part, scoffs at the notion that he is artist. He generally discards negatives after Costco makes his prints. “My main art is holding myself to three ales a night,” he told gallery co-director Liv Moe before an audience, adding that he makes photographs for only one reason: "to remember." And to distinguish his efforts from those of big-league street shooters like Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who he considers “real” artists, he calls himself a serial photographer. As for the art world and its pretentions, Biggert tries hard to avoid them. (In that same conversation, Biggert gently chided Moe for her use of terms like “body of work” and “images” but soon found himself mouthing the same words. “You won,” he conceded.) Like it or not, the art world is taking Biggert’s art very seriously.
Enter the gallery’s foyer and you confront more than 2,000 of the sandal shop images arrayed across three walls. It’s a visual gauntlet that, once penetrated, becomes an engrossing time capsule of the American counterculture. It details life at Socrates Sandals in Balboa, Calif., Biggert’s place of employment from 1968 to 1972. The store was a hangout for those who didn’t fit the conservative mold of that Orange County town, and Biggert, with his Kodak Instamatic, recorded them all. Hippies, surfers, dogs, students, shopkeepers, workers, cops, passing cars — and passersby of every socio-economic class – are conjoined in an almost floor-to-ceiling display (replete with shag carpet) that replicates the one Biggert maintained at the shop– and the one that the Newport museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) re-created.
The small color prints, yellowed with age, range in quality from grab shots that barely qualify as exposures to adroitly framed compositions that stand as first-rate street photography. Period signifiers abound. Shaggy hair, bronzed bodies, vintage automobiles, denim clothes and anti-establishment signage do everything but call forth the scent of patchouli oil and pot. But nostalgia is only the first layer of the experience. This unexpurgated display of good and bad transmits the raw quality of Biggert’s world exactly as he recorded it; he shot everything that moved, plus a few things that didn’t, including an unstitched panorama of all the shops on the block. He photographed the cops who busted him for allowing his dog to sleep on the sidewalk; he shot buffed, shirtless men (and a few curvaceous surfer girls, too); and in Walker Evans mode, he made a lot of punning, mixed-metaphor images that play with signs: a man holding a sign with the anti-Nixon taunt (“Don’t change dicks in the middle of a screw”); a couple proudly displaying a picture of Allen Ginsberg with a sign (“Pot is Fun”); and a pregnant woman with a melon-shaped belly standing before a window sign that reads “fruit salad”. Biggert is particularly effective with low-angle portraits.
His dog’s eye view of a bikini-clad blonde ("Wow") reflects, as well as any picture I’ve seen, the world’s swaying-palms image of Southern California, as does his shot of a girl in cutoffs straddling a vintage Schwinn ten-speed. Contrary to the outsider image conveyed by the wildly uneven quality of the photos, there are other images that belie Biggert’s sophistication in matters of art: There are shots of his one-time friend, the performance artist Chris Burden, taken at the peak of his infamy, and another of Phyllis Lutjeans, the Newport curator that Burden held at knife point during a TV appearance. Moe also reveals that Biggert worked with Christo and Jean Claude on the “Rifle Valley Curtain” in Colorado, a project that preceded the “Running Fence” in Sonoma and Napa Counties.
The Sandal Shop pictures, however engrossing, are but a warm-up exercise for the main event: the display of 356 hitch hiker photos that Biggert took during numerous cross-country treks in his battered ’66 VW bug from 1973 to the present. He picked up practically any person who needed a ride, and he photographed every one of them except for a few Native Americans who begged off, but allowed him to photograph their dogs. In the main, what we get is a cross section of American society – or at least that segment of society that had taken to the road, which at that time was considerable. Most of his subjects were men in their teens and twenties enjoying their Kerouac moments; but there are also nondescript drifters, working-class men down on their luck, a few seniors, illegal aliens, acid burnout cases, hippy freaks in full regalia, a few men who look deranged and dangerous, and a lot of other young travelers – students, perhaps — who look tired, dirty and happy to have gotten a lift.