Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A New American Picture by Doug Rickard

The older notions of photographers physically exploring their world may have in some ways come to pass. The Egglestons, Shores, Levitts, Winogrands ventured out with perhaps only the loosest intentions or framework of a "project" and allowed the world to provide. It is common now for artists to conceive of a project first and then impose that view almost filter-like upon what they are looking at. I would never argue that one approach is better than the other as long as - in the case of the latter - the work doesn't become a mere illustration of an idea. For me, I learned photography through an ability to trust in the world and a rather strong distrust of "ideas," so clever frameworks rarely excite unless the work from image to image surprises and transcends. Doug Rickard's work in his book A New American Picture has me excited, perhaps a bit disturbed, and completely captivated.

Rickard's work on this project has a clever framework. He has been exploring the world through Google street views. Google has been mapping the world from the vantage point of the center of its streets. The camera, tethered to a GPS system, is mounted on a car and takes wide angle images every twenty feet or so from a fixed height of about 7 feet. The user of Google's street views can not only pan 360 degrees but pan up and down and zoom in on a part of the image. The final images are run through facial recognition software which attempts to blur the faces of people unintentionally recorded when the camera car passed by.

Surveillance cameras in banks or on city streets have the potential to record an image which is as worthy of high praise as any made by Frank or Evans. So is the case of the billions of snapshots made around the world every day from amateurs. Rickard has been sifting through Google's images to - like any photographer working in the streets - find interesting things to stare at and photograph them off of his computer monitor. In terms of street photography, several factors have been taken away; one is timing as the photographs are triggered by the GPS system when the car passes over a specific coordinate and the second is vantage point, so the usual "finding out where to stand" element is off the table as well.

In A New American Picture, which through its title and chosen locations I sense a nod towards Evans's American Photographs, you will find hints of the historical reference points which have certainly informed Rickard's work. The photographers I mentioned in the first paragraph are brought to mind and Rickard's attraction to a certain color palate is common to the 1970s photographers working in color, especially Eggleston.

A grid of these images are on display at the new Le Bal museum in Paris alongside Anthony Hernandez, Lewis Baltz, Chauncey Hare, Walker Evans and others and I was struck by how the splayed perspective of the camera-car's wide angle lens (which seems to be around a 24mm in 35mm terms) echoed Hare's interiors or the field of view from Hernandez's Los Angeles bus stop images. This wide field of view presents interesting photographic problems that fascinated artists like Garry Winogrand - one of which is asking the question of how small can an element such as body language or gesture be and still carry some of the weight of an image. In most of Rickard's choices people are reduced to basic features which rely on such elements for meaning.

The places he has chosen to "google" were often spots Rickard has physically traveled to at one time or another and then when back at home, looked for that same place on street views. Most often he is drawn to the outskirts of cities where the fabric of society is being tested by poverty and run down infrastructure. A majority of the citizens caught in his frames are black, the homes bring to mind the bleakness of Evans's descriptions of depression era houses - an appropriate concentration on the part of Rickard considering the recent economic blight in America.

If I find flaw in A New American Picture, it is with the edit. I happened to see a talk on this work with David Campany and Sebastian Hau at Le Bal and if my memory serves me, there were several images I found captivating in that slideshow which are missing here in the book. The book does have a page noting Plates 1-69 which seems to hint at further volumes and Campany mentioned editing the Le Bal exhibition from over 300 of Rickard's images. This edit favors more images of a single person alone in the landscape which I find a bit repetitive.

I have heard that there might be a larger publisher planning a different book of this same work but either way, it is books like these which show that the history of the photobook is still moving forward and Parr/Badger should start working on volume III.


bryanF said...

I'm surprised you didn't reference a few other well known Google Street View projects, especially Michael Wolf's Paris Street View.


Or Jon Rafman's work at http://9eyes.tumblr.com/

Wayne said...

Another excellent street view site is -

(I find it a little bit frustrating that these sites don't like to the map location so you can "look around" for yourself)

David Campany said...

It is true that of late number of artists have been working with (images derived from) Google Street View. Doug Rickard's project is unusual in that its emphasis is split between the aesthetics of contemporary surveillance and the history of street photography, particularly American color street photography. Both of course hinge in their different ways on modern anonymity, and this seems to me a vital aspect of A New American Picture.

David Campany, co-curator of 'Anonymes' at Le Bal, Paris (which includes images from this project)

Double E said...

what i find interesting & off setting is the high view point of the camera.

Anonymous said...

96 euro for A New American Picture, a small book by a relatively unknown photographer. A New American Picture at a new american price...

Mr. Whiskets said...

True Anon the book isn't cheap but it is an artist book made in a very small edition of 200. Each copy I understand cost upwards of 25 euros to produce so the mark up is a 4X and not the normal 5X. That actually makes it reasonable.

Perhaps you should wait for the more widely distributed version. That'll be probably around 60-75 dollars.

Blake Andrews said...

I haven't seen this particular book but there seems to be a very wide variety of Google Street View curation currently happening all over the web. Of the ones I've seen I think Jon Rafman's picks (see Bryan's link) are the most interesting.

How long has Google Streetview been around? 3 years at most? Photographers are sorting through and coming to grips with the earliest stages of this new capability. I'd be curious to see how this and similar books (there will be many more) are viewed in 20 years.

adrian tyler said...

was just involved in the publication of a book here in spain 5000 print run, 96 pictures, all in all it worked out reasonably @ 19 euros c/u cost.

i took it to an important US publisher to get involved, they were VERY interested till they saw 19 euros, when i asked how they could get it printed cheaper they said, we do all our printing in the far east.

so really the price of these offset printed books with a run of 200 is not unreasonable, infact pretty good, unless you are used to printing in countries which don't pay so much.

Anonymous said...

Mr Whiskets / Mr Tyler,
Artist editions are lovely things, of course. But at almost 100 euros for a book without an added print and by a relatively unknown artist, the price still seems high. What are we interested in photography for, all of us photo feaks who tune into 5b4 and other photospiel blogs? For the exclusive print runs or for the great images? Sometimes these things coincide, but increasingly the trend is toward exclusivity, where possessing (the book) takes priority over seeing (the images). I not a detractor of the praise given to A New American Picture, because I haven't seen the full images, but I'm just raising a point about market trends.

Mr. Whiskets said...

Ok. But I don't tend to review books for their exclusivity but for their worth in content. I believe they printed only 200 because that is what they could afford to do. As I mentioned before there will be a different edition of this work that might be more accessible to your wallet. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

now we can safely "photograph" the ghetto from the comforts of your own home. lovely.

this is kinda gross and sad.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough Mr Whiskets. Great to have you back on line by the way.

Anonymous said...

96 euro for A New American Picture, a small book by a relatively unknown photographer.

This is by a photographer? What? Did google publish this? I don't know much about Rickard but I wouldn't say this makes him a photographer. A nice 'artist' book none the less. But what is this "internet art?" I'd more just say Rickard has good editing skills.

Sure I do kind of like the looks of this but the selection of images are a bit cliché. Ghetto, ghetto, ghetto, rural arkansas, ghetto, ghetto, ghetto, rural mississippi, etc.

But yes it does have its appeal. I'll let the dealers fight over paying 100 euros for this. Maybe I'll buy the cheaper edition down the road.

Mr. Whiskets said...

I'd argue that of course Rickard is a photographer as much as any one who does venture out into the world. He is carefully choosing frames within a technology where the images are stitched together to give the illusion of a constant.

To me being a "photographer" and an "editor" are essentially the same thing. If you use a camera you are basically using a kind of cookie-cutter to stamp out your bits of the world. That is editing.

Anonymous said...

Editors see pictures of the world, photographer's see the world. An analogy: one is content to beachcomb and draw conclusions on about the source, the other goes to the source. Whose account would you rather trust?

Mr. Whiskets said...

I see your point but I am not sure I ever trust either. Rickard had the option of making many different variations of the same picture by his ability to pan up and down, left and right. Theoretically anyone else would choose a different framing.

There could be a very interesting discussion about whether Eugene Richards venturing into a ghetto and photographing is much different than Rickard's passing through in his own way. I know proposing this will ruffle many feathers so let's keep the discourse civil but what do you think?

Anonymous said...

...and the editor sips his coffee, plays with the mouse and takes his "picture" languidly. The photographer wipes his brow, tunes six senses and makes a picture to reflect his visceral experience. Without experience, feeling is diminished. Without feeling, veracity suffers and photography becomes at best hollow, at worst a kind of subterfuge. Yes, we can resort to arguing that Rickard holds a camera (of sorts) just like a photographer. But the issue is a red herring. The real problem is that he is sensorily insulated from the subject matter, unlike Eugene Richards. Another analogy (sorry!): he is like a cat transfixed by white and black spots, not realising they belong to a dalmatian. In any case, his 'pictures' are at least provocative and some are well framed. And besides, he does run a great blog site.

Mr. Whiskets said...

Sorry but what you describe is nearly impossible to understand from just looking at a photograph. How do you know if the person that made a particular picture cared about anything? How do you know a photographer was full of "feeling" and "experience" when they made a picture?

Those are all things you "read" into a picture. It's in your head.

Just like how you imagine Rickard as a lesser accomplishment "...the editor sips his coffee, plays with the mouse and takes his "picture" languidly."

Or the way you heroically describe a "photographer": "...wipes his brow, tunes six senses and makes a picture to reflect his visceral experience."

Blake Andrews said...

I don't want to get into comparing effort or accomplishment, but I'd call Rickard more of an editor than a photographer in this case. Photographers do indeed edit, but I don't agree that the tasks are equivalent. Selecting photographs out of a pre-existing queue seems fundamentally different to me than making new ones from reality. Maybe I'm old fashioned but that's my take.

Anonymous said...

If we let aside this whole 'photographer vs editor' or 'taking pictures out in the real world vs staying at home cliking your mouse' debate (which should probably have been settled once and for all in 2010) and just call Doug Rickard an 'artist', or a 'photographic artist' if you will, we might want to draw comparisons with the likes of Hans-Peter Feldmann, Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, or more recently Erik Kessels, to quote important figures of the found-footage practice.
So, it might be indeed thought-provoking to state, once again, even after all the post-modernists, that the world now looks like images of the world that we already know, and that we experience it more through representations of it than through direct experience. This particular project might also even strike a particular chord within us lovers of classic American color photography.
But where other found photography classics renew our perception of images and, in turn, of the real world, I'm unsure in this case I can see much more than a smart exploitation of an already very used strategy (Google art, and Google Street view art in particular), just to make the point that... one can find images made by this automatic camera that resemble others, etc. I'm not sure after that my perception of things has changed so much, since this statement has been so widely made since the 1960s. But then maybe in pure photographic circles it's good to insist again...and nail down this heroic 'photographer face to face with reality and his emotional response to it' bullsh*t.

And his blog really has to be praised!

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are right Mr Whiskets, I am eulogising photographers to a romantically absurd degree. But don't you think we should be concerned about staying in touch with reality, about engaging with things as they are, not with how they seem to be through the distant goggles of technology. If Rickard hadn't insinuated that the book represented an America of sorts, thereby lending a documentary style to his project, our positions wouldn't have been quite so entrenched. Whether he is an editor or a photographer seems academic. He can call himself what he wishes. I am more worried about documentarians working from hermetically sealed environments who are quite willing to train their e-gaze on a neighbourhood, make a nice book, yet never visit the sorry place in person. No risks are run, nothing is at stake, the 'photographer' has not left his lounge.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you say "But then maybe in pure photographic circles it's good to insist again...and nail down this heroic 'photographer face to face with reality and his emotional response to it' bullsh*t."

Well Anonymous, I can only assume you have never taken pictures of poverty, or death, or hardship, indeed anything that moves your heart. Otherwise you would know the truth in this contributor's comment. And you would not have added the word "heroic" to corrupt his/her words. Debates are good things - please let's not close them down in the way you do.

Anonymous said...

Mr Doug Rickard, are you there? What are your thoughts? Artist's statement please...

Mr. Whiskets said...

Anon from Dec 6th 4:15pm

At the end of the fist paragraph in my review I said I found the book disturbing. I didn't clarify but it was because of that physical disconnect but I would never say that photography that isn't made the same way I make pictures (with physical venturing) couldn't succeed in telling me something about the world.

I have said it before, my own understanding of how pictures work, their success or power, is not tied to a certain process. Winogrand shot in the streets everyday with his own kind of disconnect, one of strictly making pictures that he wouldn't discuss the meanings of etc. He hated all of the talk of how a picture was made, his intentions or process - disregarding it as "mumbo-jumbo." All he cared about were the final pictures to stand alone in the viewers eye.

When Sherrie Levine rephotographed Walker Evans photographs from the FSA and presented the work I found it mildly offensive but her photos (and they are her photos to a point) raised many questions from "what is documentary photography" to "issues of 'ownership'" etc. (Oddly they are the same pictures but knowing they are Levine's versions you tend to disregard them easily or outright, no? That says something.)

I agree completely with Winogrand's attitude (which has ruffled a few feathers here in the past) that we have no idea of intention, nor how invested a photographer was emotionally in something, nor what they, as the authors, think the picture is about. Many people, like yourself, find ways of reading things like sloth or ease into how it is done and it has become an issue. You probably work very hard to make pictures, Gene Richards too, but that is a red herring for me.

There is no one way of working that cancels out another but I understand the camps that have been created. Rickard's pictures are for me a 21st century extension of what photographers have been doing since the beginning. He is using a technology to mediate the world (two actually). He has succeeded in my eyes not because of "how" he did what he did but how compelling many of the images are.

Anonymous said...

Mr Whiskets, I do agree, his images are compelling. Pixellation and optical blur conspire to create a sense of movement, ofen centripetally. Lo-fi, paradoxically, strengthens Rickard's work, in much the same way Gill's Hackney Wick shone through the distortion of twopenny lens bought at a rag sale. Rickard's images resonate with our media society where images are 'consumed' for content not optical precision. These are flyby views on the way to a better place. These images seem incidental to the trip, whatever the trip was or is. These are the views seen by a fish flipping back to the water. As Lennon said, "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans". Whether Rickard made his selection with a big heart, who knows. I can see your point about pictures standing for themselves. I recall a few postings on this site previously on the issue. My own view if that if you know about an artists intentions, you're appreciation of his/her work is altered dramatically on many levels. For example, if Rickard had been living and working on this project from one of the shanty huts in his image, as well as being a piquant twist to the tale, it might also change radically our perceptions of his selection and his narrative. No longer could the images be interpreted as bourgeoisie voyeurism into modern American ghettos fromt the sybaritic heights of NYC, but might instead become something far more meditative and profound. So you see a little biographical detail IS important (at least for me!). (Literary break-out: When Kafka wrote The Trial, he was dying of TB; if you did not know that fact his novel might seem entirely facile.) The other fascinating aspect of Rickard's work is the parallel to the great roadtrip hipster journals of Shore, Sternfeld, Frank. Although he is driving technology instead of a Ford, he is still adventuring through a visual landscape and following the aesthetic wherever it might take him. Of course perhaps his virtual trip made him crave being in the world, there at the roadside, there with the kid riding through the streets on a chopper. Perhaps he is on the road now, after being compelled to throw the armchair aside. Finally, think about this: here are images of unidentifiable and random people taken by a remotely operated personless camera. For me the wistfulness of that situation catches the 'heart off guard' (to quote Heaney). Whether this Orwellian irony was intended, again we don't know. But here is America captured by its own remote sensor, like an eye finally seeing itself.

DC said...

Anonymous above mentioned Shore, Sternfeld and Frank. If we precede the list with Evans we get:

American Photographs
The Americans
American Surfaces
American Prospects
A New American Picture

...books that are not so much definitions of a nation as interventions.

bryanF said...

@Mr. Whiskets: "I have said it before, my own understanding of how pictures work, their success or power, is not tied to a certain process."

Then why even mention Google Street View or how the photographs were made in the review at all?

When you review Broken Manual by Soth do you discuss what camera he used to make the photographs?

Would you ever note that someone use the 5D Mark II?

You seem to be contradicting yourself here.

So if we remove how the photographs were made, then we're left with lo-fi, blurry, pixelated photographs of what appears to be poorer, urban areas in the United States.

If someone made those exact same photographs except they were using the 5D Mark II, and the photos were clear and crisp, would they be as effective?

So what exactly about lo-fi, pixelation makes photographs interesting aesthetically?

I'm curious. I'm interested in the aesthetic and it's variations.

In this case, I do think it's a bit disingenuous to claim that the way the photographs were made doesn't impact who we view the work. Like I said, if it didn't why even mention Google Street View in the first place?

Mr. Whiskets said...

Bryan F,

You are 100% correct in pointing out inconsistencies with what I write and how I say I view photographs. I can assure you it is not me being disingenuous but simply that WRITING about photography and simply viewing it are totally different things.

Out of a desire to let my readers know what a book is etc, I often do tread into territory of discussion I wouldn't normally entertain if it was just me taking in images on their own. But I am trying to write about them to fill 300-1000 words and what else is there to write about?

It makes me uncomfortable when I editorialize about what the work "means" to me or discuss in depth about the "back story" of some project as it will most likely poison the well of my reader's thinking when they see the images in the books.

As far as Rickard's work, the Google Street Views aspect seemed to make people think lesser of the work than if a person just shot them with a 5D. My argument is simply look first without your prejudices about how "easy" or gimmicky it might be.

You ask if I would like those same images if they were shot with a 5D? I have no idea because those pictures don't exist. You are asking me to speculate and compare a visual image with a thought and I can't possibly do that.

I appreciate the comment and hope you'll leave more. Just understand that writing about something introduces a new set of complications. An interesting image whether a photogram or made with an 8X10 depends on the image first. There are millions of shitty images made with both but the good ones have a way of transcending their tools. That is what I believe Rickard has accomplished.

bryanF said...

@Mr. Whiskets said: "Out of a desire to let my readers know what a book is etc, I often do tread into territory of discussion I wouldn't normally entertain if it was just me taking in images on their own."

Ok, good point.

I just often find this weird paradox where photographers will consistently say that the tools or camera don't matter, then when something like Google View or the iPhone come around, it seems to be a big deal that they're using these tools.

As for Rickard's book. It's tough for me to really comment on it specifically because I haven't seen it.

But conceptually it just doesn't grab me or strike me as that innovative.

I suppose that's why we need to look at the actually photographs before forming an opinion...

mark_b said...

I'm a little late in the discussion but having seen these images at the MOMA and reading how they were created I found myself torn. I enjoyed the the images but was terribly troubled by the artist's assertion that these images were his creation.

It is not a question of aesthetics but rather a clear case of copyright infringement. The law is very clear. Cropping an existing image does not transfer ownership of that image nor is that cropped image considered an original work but rather a derivative work in the eyes of the law. This is a direct quote from US Copyright Law: " A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.". According to section106 of US Copyright Law it is the exclusive right of the copyright owner(google) to produce derivative works. And photographing a copyrighted image does not sidestep the issue of infringement.

Furthermore the removal of the original creators watermark is a violation of section 106A the Rights of attribution and integrity. And is considered criminal infringement.

Final thought: if we condone this type of behavior here and now then we cripple artists rights from this day forward.