It occurred to me that I should say a few actual words about A New American Picture, the book that appeared in the footer ad on Friday.Short take: a custom-made version of this book was published in 2010, to great acclaim, in a severely limited edition by White Press. It sold out in about 1/125th of a second (estimate only). And that was that. Until it wasn't: now, a more commercial edition of the book—but with a more generous selection of pictures—has just been published by Aperture (it hasn't quite made its way to Amazon yet, but soon, no doubt). I'm not in the habit of reviewing books before I've seen them, but this is one you might want to join me in line for.
Doug Rickard had an idea. Just like spiderbots crawl the Internet, Google's camera's are crawling the streets, taking wide-angle pictures every twenty feet. Your ability to pan up and down and from side to side makes for an effective infinity of static views. Pretty much like actually being in the world, with some restrictions imposed. And with other restrictions lifted, it's important to add—you could never get to all the places Google's cameras have unless you want to do nothing else for the rest of your life.
If Google Street View was going everywhere, Rickard must have realized, it was going into places no one ever paid attention to. The Daily Beast called him a "tour guide to a shadowed nation." You might have heard it said that America is in a recession, but I think it's a depression—but it only affects half the country, and nobody cares because it's only the bottom half. ("The Half Depression" is actually a pretty good moniker for the current economy, come to think.)
Well, get on board the Rickard/(Google) virtual tour bus and take a gander. What Rickard has done is to treat Google Street View as a shoot, and edit out a few great shots from the endless half-forgotten, run-down stretches of street you've never visited. Finding tiny flakes of gold amidst endless tons of dross.
It worked. Rickard also knew what every picture editor does, which is that if you have enough material to work from you can mine something from it. 5B4's Jeff Ladd says, "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." That's the cool part, and the reason this deserves our attention—some of the pictures look like Hopper paintings.
As for the notion that somehow this project is artistically suspect or less than legitimate because Rickard didn't take the pictures, well, I reject that. The pictures were gathered automatically, without the slightest particle of artistic intention or individual input. I'm the first guy to get my back up when somebody steals or appropriates or otherwise exploits actual ideas or work by others, but I don't object to this in the slightest...ethically and artistically, anyway. (IANAL.) I might be prejudiced, because I think in the age of the digital tsunami, one thing Rickard's project does is demonstrate vividly what all photographs, and photographers, and photography need now more than ever: creative, and severe, editing. Saying that Rickard didn't "take the pictures" (well, he didn't) is like saying the baker didn't bake the bread because he didn't mill the flour. In my opinion. I'm happy to look at the work of a picture editor, even if that's all it is, if it results in genuine creative insight.
At the very least, you've got to admit that this gives new meaning to the rubric "random excellence." :-)
A funny thing for me personally is that I had this idea thirty years ago—even wrote it up as a grant request. My idea was simply to outfit a vehicle so I could sit comfortably on top of it in the open air—I envisioned something akin to an open-topped double-decker tour bus, only based on a step van—and hire somebody to drive it around while I took pictures. The Internet wasn't a bump on the world's belly at the time, and yet, lo these many years later, here we are—Doug Rickard, with Google Street View's considerable help, has done up that old slumbering idea better than I or any one photographer ever could have.
The Guardian* quotes the dyspeptic and slightly clammy poet Philip Larkin: "All streets in time are visited."
*Note the author of that article. That's Geoff Dyer as in Geoff Dyer.
By Kenneth Tanaka
Last weekend at Art Expo, here in Chicago, I visited a gallery representing Doug Rickard's "work." Big prints of small Google street images at big prices.
I agree with Mike that there is some good stuff in that group of images. It's also true that these images are taken from places that are largely abandoned relics of the 20th century, places you might not want to go without a tail-gunner.
But someone did go there, someone driving one of those nutty-looking Google camera cars. The "system" took the pictures. Rickard did not visit any of these places, did not make either of the most seminal decisions of photography: where to place the camera and when to push the button.
Even the title of Rickards's book is fraudulent: A New American Picture Photographs by Doug Rickard. "Photographs by"? Rickard didn't take a single one of the photos.
Of course he's just copying an earlier idea of cashing-in on collecting Google images. It's been done at least once before. This whole fame-and-fortune-thru-appropriation thing is popular in the contemporary art world now, with Richard Prince perhaps the standard bearer for the movement.
I've concluded that a great deal of my own judgement on such cases is based on the style and context of presentation. Rickard, for example, is clearly aiming for fame and fortune rather than simple curated exposition. He's parading this work through major galleries (there's an upcoming showing at Yossi Milo in NY) and the book and prints are heavily worked-over (by yet another anonymous helper) to make them look rather filmish and painterly. This is so obviously a cash chase. But Rickard himself is neither a photographer nor an artist. He's...what...an editor? A sociologist? An entrepreneur?
Now consider a different context of representation of appropriated work. Last year the Art Institute of Chicago presented a collection of anonymous images as a carefully curated body of work titled The Three Graces. The exhibit, and its tiny catalog, were inspired by the revelation that snapshots featuring three women have been extraordinarily common throughout photo history. The images, rather than the curator or the donor of the collection were the stars.
I have to dissent about Doug Rickard. I've browsed the book and seen the prints. Interesting, but the authorship claim feels like a sticky doorknob. Personally I'll not be buying into it.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Ed Hawco: "To borrow the phrase from Ctein, that's what I'd call stochastic street photography. (I would also call it brilliant.)"
Richard Sintchak: "Eh, I'm not so sure. I like a few of the photos I see as examples but I've bought way too many photo books loving the front cover image only to find the rest of the photos very boring or blah. Like the comedy movie in which all the best jokes were in the preview clip. Maybe I'll be wrong. I'm reminded of the adage: 'Even a stopped watch is correct twice a day.'"
Stan B.: "Last depression, people agreed we all needed to act and work together, so we got programs like the FSA and its photography division. Today we have a lone voyeur at home on a computer, who is arguably less detached from reality than many of our leaders."
David: "I've got similar plans for my van...it's going to be built. Also, shame on you, Mike, for the 1/125 insert...It's gonna take me a while to recover from that one. This guy's editing work intrigues me and causes me a tiny bit of conflict but I do enjoy the images he culls...."
Dean Forbes: "Shame on Rickard, Aperture and TOP for foisting the book off as original or compelling work. It's copying pure and simple, and a gross example of appropriation of someone else's images for personal gain."
Joe: "If the images are intriguing, if they stop you in your tracks, if they make you laugh or make you pause to study, or to say Wow, or to show others, if they make you think about the world in which they were taken...in short, I say if Rickard has edited a set of photographs into a series that makes me feel as if I'm seeing the world through a unique set of eyes, then I forgive the method and the source and the artist's statement and I call the collection a success."
JL: "Whatever else you might think of this project (I quite like it, but then, I really don't care where an image comes from), I think Mr. Tanaka is parsing the title of Rickard's book in the wrong way. It's not that the photographs are 'by' him; it's that the book is. This is standard practice, and isn't even remotely misleading: Rickard, like Prince, makes it abundantly clear that he didn't push the shutter release button. You can like the work or dislike it, but it's misleading to speak of it as 'fraudulent.'"
Carlos L. Esguerra: "I, too, have an idea. I can save a lot of travel money by not going to those iconic places Ansel Adams visited. Instead I will buy his photo books, photograph the images and publish my own version of the pictures after some cursory Photoshop edits."
JohnMFlores: "Many photographers are caught in a gilded cage, where the fundamentals of the craft (the decisive moment/don't 'spray and pray,' the rule of thirds, the superiority of 'full frame' and the optical viewfinder, etc.) almost guarantees that the resulting photographs will have a whiff of 'I've seen that somewhere before.' Interesting and new things happen when we discard these sacred cows and fully embrace our digital and networked age. Congrats to Rickard for trying something different—that is how photography moves forward."
Partial comment from expiring_frog: "Like you I too feel this work has artistic merit, if only because it raises serious questions about the nature and role of the witness, especially when viewed in the historical context of photography and the modern role of topography/surveillance. There is also a certain romance and dystopic irony in the idea of the little car trundling down lonely streets, meticulously and indiscriminately recording backyard after dreary backyard, and occasionally (as revealed by Rickard/Wolf/Rafman's curation) capturing an aesthetically pleasing picture purely by accident." (Read the rest of expiring_frog's comment in the Comments section. —Ed.)
Ade: "That'll be the Geoff Dyer who wrote an (excellent, IMHO) book on photography despite not being a photographer, or even a professed expert, himself. Which also seemed to annoy a lot of people. Ironic."
Mike adds: A. D. Coleman isn't a photographer either. I don't think Max Kozloff is, but I'm not sure.