Doug Rickard’s ‘Pictures’?

America according to doug Rickard 

By Emily Jane Scott (13th December 2019)
‘(Photography) promises a view of the world, but it gives us a flattened object in which wrecked reminders of the world are logged’ (Elkins, 2011, p.17)
Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture

Doug Rickard produced his series A New American Picture, by utilising the vast visual archive of Google Street View. He iimportantly reminds us to challenge preconceptions about what photography, or ‘photographies’ can be, especially when it comes to digital imagery. Rickard spent an extensive amount of time (2009-2011) exploring stereotypically ‘subordinate’ urban neighbourhoods and rural areas across the USA, from the comfort of his own computer desk. He would then photograph the composition on his computer screen with a digital SLR. Whilst many photographers aim for the most transparent process possible, Rickard includes blurred faces, pixelated distortion and warped perspective which reveal the digital origin of his photographs.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
Perhaps Rickard’s process reflects the beginning of an age where human beings are reduced to data, constantly being observed, being monitored?

Yet, paradoxically, Rickard returns humanity to this data by picking out individual stories and adding them to the overarching and ongoing narrative of the American working class. The sense of distance provided by Rickard’s multi-layered technique adds weight to the images- reminding us of how distant we might be from these people and places; both on a geographical, cultural and socio-economic level. And so, Rickard is no more of a visual appropriator than any more ‘traditional’ photographer: he is simply photographing from within a digitally reconstructed environment, as opposed to the world outside. The images included in A New American Picture only became photographs (dare we say ‘art’?) once they were selected, framed, curated, contextualised and published by Rickard.

‘Doug Rickard… is interested in the American content and its haunting, visceral power. “I was interested in photographing America in the same context, with the same poetry and power, that has been done in the past” (in Appleyard, 2011)
Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
Rickard’s work blurs the lines between technology and reality, the image and the world around us. His practice challenges our view of what photography is, and could be in this new, digital age.

Although Rickard is drawing from a collection of images which have already been ‘taken’, His practice, to me, cannot be considered to be a ‘pure’ form of artistic appropriation (despite appropriation being a completely valid way of producing powerful work, which can eloquently distil a cultural mood). The original mages within Google Street View are not, in my opinion, photographs. They were objectively, methodically collected by a vehicle-mounted camera driven down every street; they have no nature of subjective selection.

Rickard is no more a visual hunter-gatherer than any photographer. he is simply photographing from within a digitally reconstructed environment, as opposed to the world outside which is, itself, layered with constructed imagery.

Szarkowski’s (1966) discussion of photography focuses on the idea of selection. A photographer chooses what to include within a frame, and what to leave out. It is impossible for the ‘photographer’ to be truly objective, as a truly objective image is not a photograph, it is only visual data. so where does that leave Rickard, or indeed, his source material? A New American Picture only became subjective photographs once they were selected, framed, curated, contextualised. One might even liken his work to that of a ‘readymade’ sculptor; he turns something completely banal and utilitarian into a different practice merely through recontextualization. But yet paradoxically, despite its source material, we should still frame this practice in the tradition of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Paul Graham – or even Edward Hopper, as an equally visual / critical and subjective commentary on the state of thier own America.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
‘Any doubts as to the artistic – rather than ethical or conceptual – merits of this new way of working were definitively settled by Rickard’s pictures. It was William Eggleston who coined the phrase “photographing democratically” but Rickard has used Google’s indiscriminate omniscience to radically extend this enterprise – technologically, politically and aesthetically’ (Dyer, 2012)

The idea of photography as an accurate representation of the real world is mythological. Whether it be an artist’s concept, a news story, a memory, an advertisement, an illustration or investigation, all photographs feed into a false narrative of some kind. Yet, Rickards photographs are aesthetically pleasing, insightful, emotive and harrowing. The sense of distance provided by his multi-layered technique adds weight to the images, reminding one of how distant we really might be from these people and places, on geographical, cultural and socio-economic levels.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
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What is a Photograph?

John Szarkowski & the Characteristics of the Photograph

‘This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way’ (Szarkowski, 1966, p.6).
John Szarkowski (1966) The Photographers Eye, New York: Museum of Modern Art

John Szarkowski was the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York from 1962 – 1991. In 1966 he produced a book called The Photographers Eye in which he attempted to identify and specifically define the characteristics by which the photograph transforms the world in front of the lens. It was based on the 1964 MOMA exhibition of the same name, and placed great emphasis on the photographer’s process of selection from the real world. The Introduction to The Photographers Eye (1966) can be accessed here


related POSTS:

The 5 characteristics of photography for John Szarkowski (1966) were:

  • The Thing Itself
  • The Detail
  • The Frame
  • Time
  • Vantage Point
The Thing Itself: ‘The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it; unless he did, photography would defeat him’ (Szarkowski, 1966, p.8)
The Thing Itself: Unknown (c.1850) Couple with Daguerrotype in Szarkowski (1966) The Photographer’s Eye
The Detail: ‘The photographer was tied to the facts of things, and it was his problem to force the facts to tell the truth’ (Szarkowski, 1966, p.8)
The Detail: Peter Fraser (2005) Untitled
The Frame: ‘Since the photographer’s picture was not conceived but selected, his subject was never truly discrete, never wholly self-contained. The edges of his film demarcated what he thought most important, but the subject he shot was something else, it had extended in 4 directions’ (Szarkowski, 1966, p.9)
The Frame: Guy Bourdin (1978) for Charles Jourdan
Time: ‘There is in fact no such thing as an instantaneous photograph. All photographs are time exposures of shorter or longer duration, and each describes a discrete parcel of time. This time is always the present’ (Szarkowski, 1966, p.10)
Time: Elliott Erwiit (1989) Paris, France from Dogs
Vantage Point: ‘Much has been said about the clarity of photography, but little has been said about its obscurity. And yet it is photography that has taught us to see from the unexpected vantage point’ (Szarkowski, 1966, p.10)
Vantage Point: Alexander Rodchenko (1925) Fire Escape
Aims & Outcomes:
  • For participants to discuss and visually explore Szarkowski’s 5 characteristics of the photograph
  • For participants to produce at least 3 10×8 analogue (edited) images which explore these 5 characteristics
  • Participant Take Away Outcome: At least 3 10×8 exhibition quality black and white photographs
You will need:
  • 35mm Cameras for all participants
  • lford HP5 35 film (24 exposure) for all participants
  • Ilford Multigrade Paper 10×8 size (Lustre)
  • An introductory presentation for participants to outline the ideas and provide examples
  • A booked room to critique participants work
  • Blue tack to pin the work
  • Costings and Risk Assessments
Preparation Work:
  • Ask participants to read The Introduction to The Photographers Eye (1966) which can be accessed here
  • Make sure you have booked the cameras and darkrooms from the Photography Stores
  • Make sure there are enough team members to support participants (never assume thier prior knowledge)
  • Set up the darkroom, enlargers and easels in advance.
Suggested Session Outline:
  • Ask participants what they think the characteristics of photography are. (e.g. light, time, fixed, reproduction) Are these specific to certain ‘types’ of photograph? Is the word ‘photographies’ more appropriate?
  • Deliver presentation / brief and encourage discussion and debate
  • 35mm camera Induction
  • In small groups investigate the local area and encourage visual exploration of each of Szarkowski’s 5 characteristics
  • Break (whilst the negatives are put through the film processor)
  • Darkroom Induction
  • Identify negatives to print
  • Black and White Printing session
  • Critique and give feedback with the group