Doug Rickard: A New American Picture (Stephen Wirtz Gallery)

Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture series at Stephen Wirtz Gallery is a “snapshot” of both technology and society at a particular moment in time. More and more of our landscape is being captured in online images and connected to the rest of the world. At the same time, more of our communities are falling behind economically and socially and seem distant from the technology that makes them more visible than ever.

[39.259736, Baltimore, MD. 2008. Image courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]

Most readers are undoubtedly familiar with Google Street View. It’s the feature on on Google Maps where you drop the little stick figure guy onto the map and get an immersive street-level view of the location. Some readers may have also seen the Google vehicles with their roof-mounted vehicles on the street taking new pictures for this ongoing project (I have seen them on several occasions). Both the product and process can seem a bit voyeuristic at times as one sees people going about their daily lives in these images. As such, it brings to mind the recent EXPOSED exhibition at SFMOMA (which closed in April), which focused surveillance, voyeurism, and the presence of both unintended subjects and witnesses in photography.

[#39.937119, Camden, NJ. 2009.  Image courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]

For this project, Rickard, who is perhaps best known for his website American Suburb X, has poured over thousands of locations from Google Street View from around the United States, focusing primarily on the decaying edges of cities and rural communities. The cities featured are among those hit hardest by natural disasters, foreclosures, unemployment and other challenges.  Large cities, such as Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans are represented, as are smaller towns such as West-Helena, Arkansas.  This was clearly a massive undertaking – even if one focuses on specific neighborhoods of specific towns and cities, that is a lot of data and imagery to cover.  It can be in a way compared to covering the real life distances and capturing particular frames and angles and daily life continued unabated. There are echoes of Walker Evans and other noted photographers who documented cross-sections of American life, but the technological mediation, particularly with its implications of distance and anonymity, is very contemporary. Rickard acts as a real photographer in a virtual world, re-photographing the images from the computer screen.

[#29.942566, New Orleans, LA. 2008. Image courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]

In the gallery setting, the images which are most often seen in miniature on computers and smartphones are displayed in large format (some as large as 44 inches wide). The low resolution artifacts from the stitching algorithms used to piece together the source photos make the technology apparent. It looks like Google probably rolled out higher-resolution source images during the course of this project, as some seem to be of significantly higher quality. But the grainy and imperfect quality remains and provides an interesting contrast between imaging and data technology and the aging streets and buildings of these communities. There are interesting visual elements, such as brightly colored buildings against muted textures, which may be exaggerated by the cameras and image-processing techniques, but may also reflect the real scenes.

[#83.016417, Detroit, MI. 2009.  Image courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]

Not surprisingly given my own photographic work, I was drawn to many of these images with their decaying urban landscape – for example, the straight lines and gritty texture in #39.259736, Baltimore, MD. 2008, or the patches of color, texture and text in #83.016417, Detroit, MI. 2009. However, the composition and intention here is very different. These images are not meant to be pretty. And the inclusion of people to the scenes does make them a bit jarring. Google does automatically blur the faces of all the people, but one still cannot dismiss their presence.  And thus we have to consider what it is like to live along these streets, not just visit them. There is also the interesting question of people becoming unwitting elements of one of the largest image databases and 3D virtual environments, and then through Rickard’s process of deliberate selection find themselves on the walls of a gallery.

[#42.418064, Detroit, MI. 2009. Image courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]

The exhibition will continue at Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco through June 11.