An Old American Problem

Printed Matters

An Old American Problem

By Amelia Rina September 15, 2015

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.


A New American Picture by Doug Rickard (Aperture, 2012)
A New American Dream by Coll.eo (Concrete Press, 2014)

We have—through a hundred years of photography and two decades of film—been enormously enriched in this respect. We may say that we see the world with entirely different eyes. Nevertheless, the total result to date amounts to little more than a visual encyclopaedic achievement. This is not enough. We wish to produce systematically, since it is important for life that we create new relationships.

László Moholy-Nagy, 1925

Today, with the ever-expanding visibility of public space facilitated by online image databases such as Google Street View and Google Images, it is now possible to “be” almost anywhere, all from the comfort of your home, favorite café, or anywhere with a decent internet connection. As a readily accessible research tool, the images recorded by Google’s cameras and archived in their search engines allow users to become world travelers for nothing more than the cost of a Wi-Fi password. This new privilege inspires wanderlust-inducing listicles such as, “16 Amazing Places to Visit Via Google Street View,” which links readers to everywhere from the Adélie Penguin Rookery in Antarctica to Times Square in New York City. However, with our unprecedented connectivity comes a simple, all-too-common oversight of the plugged-in public: Not everyone enjoys the same access, and not every place has the same visibility. What are the implications of people, places, and things we can view online, and what meaning can we find in the gaps?

When Doug Rickard went on a virtual photographic road trip using Google Street View, his aim was to expose what he considered to be the forgotten or ignored parts of the United States—places that highlight the inequality and poverty he was shocked to discover while studying U.S. history in college. Through his project A New American Picture (2008–2012), Rickard endeavored to “shine a spotlight on specific parts of our country that need to be seen.”1 Starting in Detroit, which for him epitomizes the collapsed American dream, Rickard traveled across the country with the click of his mouse, visiting impoverished areas and photographing the scenes on his computer screen. “I was surprised at the level to which what I was seeing was so different from how America likes to see itself,” he explains in an interview.2 The resulting images demonstrate Rickard’s masterful eye for composition and image making, as well as his naïve exploitation and sensationalizing of poverty and its effects.

Rickard’s technical process has several steps. First, he uses Google Street View to wander streets in poor, rural, or desolate parts of the United States. Then, when he finds a compelling moment captured by the Street View cameras, he composes the image on his computer screen, and rephotographs it using a digital camera. Lastly, he digitally manipulates the images to adjust the lighting, contrast, and saturation. The images strongly reference 20th-century street and documentary photography in the U.S. and Europe. Rickard, who is a self-taught photo history expert, cites photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, and Stephen Shore as his inspirations.  While Rickard’s images exhibit the unmistakable aesthetic influence of these photographic masters, unlike his predecessors, Rickard never stepped foot in any of the places he photographed. How does this digital disconnect affect documentary—or documentary-style—photography? On the one hand, the capabilities of virtual travel and image collecting, which are often linked to surveillance apparatuses such as security cameras or publicly shared images and videos, have uncovered exciting possibilities in the optical arts. On the other hand, they pose a serious problem for the verisimilitude of documentary photography and photojournalism. Rickard intentionally pushes the images past any truthful or unadulterated representation of the scenes captured by the unbiased Google Street View cameras. His superficial intention is to expose these often-overlooked places, but by inserting himself as the artist/photographer/author, as opposed to a neutral observer, he dilutes his credibility as a critic. Without the careful editing and exaggerated stereotypes in A New American Picture (ANAP)—Rickard says he preferred the older generation of cameras for their lower quality, which amplified his preconceived notions of the towns—the images would simply act as an encyclopedic record of certain geographic areas. Then, taking László Máhóly-Nagy’s words as an imperative, what new relationships do Rickard’s images produce? The notion that something can be both psychologically challenging and aesthetic? This is hardly anything new, and in this case it seems Rickard is merely teaching an old photographic endeavor new technological tricks.

In addition to producing beautiful but derivative images, ANAP cannot easily escape its unresolved issues of racial and social privilege. Documentary photography has a long history of controversy fueled by questions of whether the photographers exploited their subjects, especially when focusing on working-class or marginalized people. The criteria I typically use to determine the merit of photojournalistic, documentary, and documentary-style photography are: 1: Did the photographer convince me that she attempted to understand her subjects? 2: Did she use her newfound understanding to expose new relationships and/or challenge conventions? In the case of ANAP, Rickard’s actions reveal poverty, but through their aesthetic detachment, demonstrate no effort to truly understand. As poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, ''Most modern reproducers of life, even including the camera, really repudiate it. We gulp down evil, choke at good.''3

We so often overlook the how of things—the actions, affects, and effects of images and words. ANAP represents the subjective visualization of certain parts of the United States, as produced by one white man sitting in his computer chair. It is this problematic point of view that incited the book project A New American Dream (ANAD) by the artist collaboration Coll.eo. The book is a direct assault on Rickard’s project, with an identical cover and interior layout design. For ANAD, the collective also made screenshots of Google Street View, but focused solely on San Francisco’s streets and pervasive homeless population. In the book summary on the inside jacket, Coll.eo satirizes ANAP’s book jacket, at first quoting it verbatim, then expanding to their particular criticism, changing “reassuringly familiar and well within the traditional bounds of the genre” (Rickard), to “disturbingly familiar and well within the traditional bounds of an admittedly stale genre” (Coll.eo), for example. ANAD continues to parallel ANAP through its introductory essay and interview following the images. In ANAD, however, the fictional interview is between Coll.eo and an otherwise unnamed “famous curator,” instead of Rickard and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s assistant curator of photography, Erin O’Toole.

Coll.eo makes no attempt to mask their intent, and they present several valid points in their debasement of ANAP. For instance, that Rickard emphasizes his white male privilege by “photographing” the hardship of primarily poor black people, without ever leaving his home in the suburbs. Coll.eo’s critique extends beyond Rickard’s project and expands to encompass the inescapable examples of extreme social inequality in San Francisco. Google, whose headquarters are in Mountain View, a short drive from downtown San Francisco, is a major player in the area’s tech boom and subsequent aftershocks; many people, some of whom who have lived in San Francisco for generations, are having their homes and businesses overthrown by the voracious demand for a particularly curated culture favored by the new imperialist tech workers. Despite its illumination of San Francisco’s undeniable cultural crisis, ANAD both supports and negates its argument about Rickard’s lack of authenticity. Yes, Rickard’s project is made possible by his supposedly ignorant profiteering from his position of power. We must also consider that ANAD, through their prioritization of an affectless “real” versus an undesirable affected (coded, emotional, aesthetic) fabrication, they are perpetuating the problematic idea that sensory pleasure (beauty) contaminates or distracts from the pain of others (the truth). In his essay, “On the Aestheticization-of-Suffering Critique Today,” David Levi Strauss writes that seeing images, including those that elicit visual pleasure, is a crucial step in social engagement and empathy for others. Coll.eo’s images inundate viewers with banal, unedited views of poverty’s inescapable presence in a city bursting at the seams with innovation and monetary growth. Rickard sugarcoats his belated realization of the fraudulent American Dream. Both projects work to expose injustices in the U.S., and both fall into representational traps. Rickard romanticizes social injustice, and Coll.eo romanticizes their critique of the romanticization of social injustice. In the conclusion of the aforementioned essay by David Levi Strauss, he writes that

“the challenges of public memory and public agency are rapidly increasing as the technologies of communication change at an accelerating rate, and our ability to respond, to keep up, will depend on our willingness to find new ways of analyzing and understanding image flows. The paradox is that some of these ways are ancient, as well as nascent.”4

A New American Picture and A New American Dream combine old ways of analyzing images with new ways of capturing images, but neither pushes their investigation far enough. Both remain trapped in the thick haze of technological progress, unable to see clearly a new method of understanding.

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Notes

  1. "Doug Rickard: A New American Picture Presented in the Pier 24 Photography Exhibition HERE." Vimeo. Pier 24 Photography, 2012, https://vimeo.com/30357393.
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Wallace Stevens. Opus Posthumus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957).
  4. David Levi Strauss. Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (New York: Aperture, 2014).

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