Street View re-purposed
At a time when we wonder whether printed books will have a future, and art galleries labor to relevant to a digital age, it’s refreshing that one of the sharpest photography books around combines the future with a deep understanding of the past.
A New American Picture by Doug Rickard was first published as a limited-edition monograph in 2010. The same year it was named as one of the best books by Photo-eye magazine. In 2013 (ever the early adopter) I got my copy of the Aperture version. Briefly: using Google Street View, Rickard has explored the most deprived neighbourhoods of the United States, selected his images, photographed them and published the images as a traditional photo book.
Google Street View with its images obtained by using cars mounted with banks of digital cameras, has an emotional distance that surpasses Ed Rusha or the Bechers. The faces of people in the images are blurred but their figures and stances remain. (The monumental nature of the Street View project reminds me of putting the first railroads through virgin countryside – but that’s another story).
Richard didn’t go to art school, but educated himself in the history of photography and publishes the results of his investigations on the excellent and much visited site American Suburb X. In the interview in A New American Picture, Rickard says of his selections from Google Street View: “The type of pictures I was interested in were loaded with political and social subtext, and that to me seemed reminiscent in style to photographs made by people like Arbus, Eggleston or Evans.”
This fierce sense of social purpose centering on race and class, and reference to major aesthetics of the past, is married to watercolor-like images. Even in a street that’s clearly in a deprived and probably dangerous neighborhood, a delicate haze of color creates beauty. Most of the people in the images are alone or in small groups, as if isolation were the human condition. Asked about the inclusion of many African-American subjects, when he himself is white, Rickard says: ” …I think that instead of trying of flee from something that was provocative and tough, I sought it out. In some cases I looked specifically for scenes that played off people’s racial stereotypes. I knew that the pictures were beautiful and there would be this conflict between the tough subject matter and the beauty of photography and the world.”
The work, therefore, points up the difference between the ideal of America and the reality for many of its citizens. In a time with the art world can seem paralyzed with moral and ethical dilemma about representation, this seems refreshing.
The other observation that caught my eye, was in the essay from David Campany where he points out we have almost no record of the history of the Internet, and that many of the images printed in the book, are only available in the book.
The book as preserver and illuminator of the digital – fancy that!