JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the East and West gallery spaces. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2009 and 2011. The prints come in three sizes: 26×42 (in editions of 5+3AP), 40×64 (in editions of 5+3AP), and 21×34 (in editions of 7+3AP, but not on view in this show). A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Aperture (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture is one of the most polarizing bodies of contemporary photography to surface in the past few years. While it is deeply and thoughtfully rooted the history of the medium, it aggressively pushes previously established boundaries and fundamental definitions. This has led to a wide spectrum of opinions on its merits, from ringing praise to scathing dismissal. In my view, heated arguments are a very good sign of something worth paying attention to – it’s a sign that the establishment feels just a little bit threatened.
Part of what has caught the wider public’s attention about this work is its unconventional process. All of the images are appropriated from Google Street View (the car mounted effort to mechanically photograph every street in America), then digitally tuned, reframed and edited by Rickard, and finally rephotographed from his computer screen. Supporters see these methods as an innovative extension of old school image appropriation, smartly matched to a 21st century flood of available digital files. They understand the pixelation and optical blur in the final works to be deliberate remnants of (and references to) their original quasi-surveillance function, and consider his archive mining as the natural next step in the onward progression of digital art. Detractors openly scoff at his tools, mocking him as an editor rather than a photographer and ridiculing the low fidelity image quality. They remind us of other artists doing similar things, characterize his interventions as less than original, and generally walk away underwhelmed.
The other part of the conversation that surrounds these pictures is their bleak, sometimes boring, often poverty laced content. For the most part, Rickard has selected uneventful scenes on the outskirts of our cities, where vacant lots grow weedy, street corners are closed or boarded up, and young men (virtually all black) wander in packs. Look closely and it will become apparent that Rickard has a well trained eye for overlooked detail: the billowing clouds over a cemetery, the shadow of a telephone pole, a blindingly white dog, the intense pop of a red wall flanked by a person in lime green pants, an overturned toy truck in a muddy yard at sunrise. And if you’ve ever read Rickard’s excellent blog, American Suburb X, you will know that Rickard is undeniably informed by a sense of history. His body of work is not an accidental grouping of snapshots thrown together; he knows exactly which images he is referencing, from the FSA photography of Evans to the road trip images of Frank, and from the American color of Eggleston, Shore, and Sternfeld to the street photography of Winogrand. So I think it’s an oversimplification to just see these as a newfangled extension of iconic street photography, dumbed down for a digital age. Given his raw material, he has carefully selected images that have echoes of the old but depict a very different, more modern existence and aesthetic.
Having heard both sides of the Rickard debate and looked closely at the pictures, I have to say that I come down on the side of being excited by what he’s doing. Not every photograph on view here is wildly memorable or entirely pleasing, but I came away won over by the thoughtfulness with which he is breaking rules and extending limits. I hope that Rickard will not end up hopelessly branded as a “Google Street View” photographer, as his broader approach is applicable to more than just this one method. This body of work asks us to reconsider the definitional edges of image capture and artistic creation, and to think differently about how the avalanche of digital imagery we now create can be repurposed and recontextualized. This work is a sign post pointing toward the new. So even if we have the innate urge to pick it apart as something unlike what we’re used to, we would be foolish not to watch closely.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The 26×42 prints are $6000 each, the 40×64 prints are $8000 each, and the smaller 21×34 prints (not on view) are $4500 each. Rickard’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail is likely the best option for those collectors interested in following up.