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Doug Rickard @ Stephen Wirtz

#42.318327, Detroit, MI. 2009, 2010


The American photographic road trip — perhaps the ultimate documentary project — has a rich, revelatory and problematic legacy. Typically, it marries a social justice agenda with romantic notions of adventure and exploration, and what could be more idealistic? But the pilgrimage raises complexities. The only successful documentary projects are those that contend with the drives of self-interest as well as the ethical concerns of photographing communities from the outside-in. Take, for example, the journeys embarked upon by the Swiss photographer Robert Frank who, in the mid-50s, traveled the country, snapping 28,000 photos, 83 of which were published as The Americans, with a forward by another celebrated road warrior, Jack Kerouac. Frank’s warts-and-all portrayal of America stood in sharp contrast to the well-scrubbed view presented by America’s major news magazines. Photo editors denounced him. The art world embraced him. Photography was forever changed.  

#33.665001, Atlanta, GA. 2009, 2010
So how does documentary photography function now, more than half a century after The Americans and On the Road and were first published? How do surveillance and mapping technologies affect the meaning and value of criss-crossing the country with one’s camera? And what happens when you alter the agency of the photographer altogether?
In his debut at Stephen Wirtz gallery, Doug Rickard has masterfully laid claim to the loaded inheritance left behind by the likes of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Jack Kerouac. His show, A New American Picture (perhaps a response to Evans’ hugely influential 1930 book, American Photographs), uses Google “street view” map technology to create appropriated photographs. Rickard has taken the ultimate American road trip without leaving his own California home. The show – which spans two large rooms displaying 22 photographs – is vast, covering the streets of Detroit, New Orleans, Durham, Houston, Camden, NJ Atlanta and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. To create this virtual snapshot of America, Rickard, whose work will be showcased in September at MoMa’s (NYC) New Photography 2011 show, spent more than ten months at his computer. 
#39.259736, Baltimore, MD. 2008, 2011
This single premise carries the show, and had it been executed poorly, the work could all too quickly slide into gimmickry. The images, however, are too strong, too beautiful and bleak. Rickard virtually scouted locations across the United States that are poor, desolate, decaying, and otherwise invisible. Though the titles are labeled impersonally by Google map URL code followed by location and date, the majority of them feature human subjects — almost all of whom are African-American — alone or in small groups, with no other trace of humanity in the landscape. His vision verges on the post-apocalyptic: young men aimlessly wander run-down streets in New Orleans, a teenage girl walks a pit bull past an abandoned lot in Jersey City; a boy rides a bike in front of boarded up homes in Altanta; and an older man waters dead grass in front of a windowless church in Watts. These images are as static as the people in them, waiting for something that never seems to arrive.
Like Walker Evans and Frank, Rickard has a keen eye for the absurd.  You can see it the ironic signage that populate his pictures.  In #41.779976, Chicago, IL (2007), a young man walks past a giant painted sign reading “SUPER FAIR.” In #42.318327, Detroit, MI (2009), the red text of an auto body shop, which also traffics in repaired wrecks, readsAMERICAN COLLISION.” In poor, largely black American cities, Rickard’s photos tell us that the writing is, quite literally, on the wall.
#118.265775, Watts, Los Angeles, CA. 2007, 2010
For the purpose of Google mapping, these human beings are mistakes, causalities caught by a lens intending to map geography. In seeking out and uncovering these accidental American portraits, Rickard has highlighted the distinct invisibility of poverty, as well as the inherent political implications of mapping itself. By selecting images from a giant surveillance database, Rickard likewise complicates the agency and control of the photographer, whether he intends to or not. While the photographs are not his own, by carefully culling 22 of them from millions of options, Rickard exercised a distinct control of representation. Further, like Walker and Frank, he cannot escape the conundrum of race by picturing communities that he does not, and can never, belong to. Outsider-ness is what has always animated documentary photography, and it continues to do so in the virtual realm traveled by Rickard.
His method is deliberate: rather than grab images online directly, he digitally photographs his illuminated computer screen in a darkened room. As a result of that process, he is able to print the pictures quite large (up to 40” x 60”), and, while muddy, the images don’t appear hyper-pixilated. The affect is a little disarming. While the images clearly read as photographic, there is a painterly quality to their surface and composition, recalling the haunting loneliness of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Though the comparison is perhaps strained, both artists picture subjects held hostage by their own landscape, which is a reflection of their larger environment and emotional life.
In concluding his foreword to The Americans, Kerouac wrote, “To Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.” In A New American Picture Rickard extends that message by giving us 22 new reasons to look.
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Doug Rickard: A New American Picture @ Stephen Wirtz Gallery through June 11, 2011.
Rickard’s work is also on view at the Here show @ Pier 24, SF
"Cover" image: "2340.607983", Jersey City, NJ, 200, archival pigement print
About the author
Carmen Winant is a San Francisco-based photographer, instructor and critic. Her writing has appeared on the blogs of NPR and KQED and on the DailyServing, SF360 and in the Philadelphia Weekly.



One Response to “Doug Rickard @ Stephen Wirtz”

  1. deb belt says:

    This says more about our current time than anything I’ve read lately. Fantastic article.


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