From inside a closed room, facing a computer screen, Doug Rickard snapped a shot of three black men striding across a wide street in Detroit. This picture originated not in the photographer’s mind’s eye, but in the targeted vision of the Google Street View camera. One can imagine a car-mounted GPS system and laser scanners zeroing in on the men as it passes, at once seemingly predatory and coldly dispassionate.
Rickard selected the original photo from a huge pool of Google Street View images, re-photographed it using a digital camera, removed its Google logo, and elongated it into a panorama. It became part of Rickard’s photo series, A New American Picture, which has elicited praise from galleries and museum curators (a show of his works recently closed at the Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea; last year he was part of a MoMa exhibition of new photography), as well as skepticism from critics and photographers alike.
One criticism leveled at Rickard and other young photographers working with appropriated images from Google Street View (like Jon Rafman, who produces a running Tumblr blog of his photos, 9-eyes.com, and Michael Wolfe, who won a World Press Photo Award in 2011 for his pictures of Paris) is that their work constitutes a kind of armchair reportage. Why don’t they leave their computers and take pictures of their subjects themselves? Rickard’s response can be found in his explanation of his project to Afterall:
“In the way that these pictures had been made by machines, I perceived a certain sort of menace, a natural disrespect – the height of the camera, the blurred out faces, the imperfections, all of these things heightened the atmosphere. I was looking for a broken America, the inverse of the American dream.”
A Google camera takes the original, menacing image, and Rickard then imbues it with his human perspective by re-framing and re-photographing. This process transforms the picture from an example of the cold surveillance of the country’s poor, forgotten quarters, to a comment on our limited perspective of these often benighted areas. The role of the artist, then, “in reasserting the significance of the human gaze within Street View, recognizes the pain and disempowerment in being declared insignificant,” wrote Rafman in Art Fag City.
Seeing Rickard's photos in their full glory at the Yossi Milo gallery made it easier to glimpse the dialectic at work between the cold gaze of the machine and the artist’s human one. The first photo that stood out shows what looks to be a suburban street corner in the afternoon (somewhere in Detroit, the caption tells us). There’s a pleasing play with messiness and neatness: the convergence of sidewalks makes a cleanly-formed chevron shape — but the sidewalks themselves are cracked and patched, and space in the middle of the chevron is filled with overgrown shrubs, untrimmed grass, and rocks. In what feels almost like an afterthought, a black man stands at the crossroads, mostly in profile, his head turned slightly towards the camera, his face blurred. Though in the foreground, he looks small. Rickard’s keen eye for form is clear in one picture of a Super Fair grocery store in Chicago, the frame of which is almost entirely occupied by the horizontal stripes of paint on the building’s façade. We also see it in a shot of an empty, slightly curved parking lot between a red car wash, and a blue and white mini-mart.