#78.840713, Durham, NC, 2009. Image © Doug Rickard.
A New American Picture paints a pretty bleak view. Portraying broken down streets and neglected buildings in the poorest cities of the world's richest economy, the images show small human figures seemingly overwhelmed by their surroundings, often peering suspiciously at the camera, as if it were an invader in a hostile land.
Taken in places such as Detroit, Cleveland and Camden in New Jersey, which has the unwelcome distinction of being the poorest city in the US, they show the dark underbelly of the American Dream, and the people for whom the land of opportunity has failed to provide. "These people are invisible [in the mainstream consciousness]," says Rickard. "Even in the US, other people don't realise how bad their conditions are."
The images have a distorted, otherworldly quality, owing partly to the unfamiliar places they depict, but also to their rough, pixellated quality. Their muddy colours, the lack of definition, strangely warped perspective and consistently high viewpoint give them a claustrophobic feel, even when they depict the long road ahead. And like any project set on the road in America, they inevitably recall the work of photographers such as Stephen Shore or Lee Friedlander – though Robert Frank might be more apt – and that's quite remarkable, because they were all taken from Google Street View. The US-based photographer, editor and founder of the influential website, American Suburb X, spent 10 months on a virtual road trip, touring through Google's images of his home country to put together a new take on street photography.
#33.665001, Atlanta, GA, 2009. Image © Doug Rickard.
"The project isn't about Google directly, or surveillance, but of course, that's part of it," says Rickard. "The images have a tense, disconcerting quality, and I think that's partly because of the way they were taken [using specially adapted cars with a tripod mast on the roof]. It is a kind of invasion of these people; there's a built-in lack of respect. The faces are supposed to be blurred by Google, but the logarithm isn't perfect, and I'd say you could see them 40 percent of the time. They could contact Google and request [that their image is blurred], but then you have to know that you're on Street View, and I'd expect that many of the people depicted here don't have access to a computer.
"But I also felt that these pictures couldn't have been taken any other way. Some of the scenes that are depicted, I couldn't have replicated in person. I wouldn't have the luxury of safety. I was able to do a virtual road trip from the comfort of my home."
Rickard rephotographed all the images he collected rather than downloading tiny files from the internet, setting up a DSLR camera in front of his computer and shooting the screen in a darkened room. He deliberately opted not to show anything of the Street View site or telltale signs such as a cursor arrow or the computer desktop, drawing attention to the images themselves rather than where they came from. The caption of each image - #42.811339, Detroit, MI, 2009, for example - makes reference to the date, the location and its Street View URL, and the year in which each image was taken became important to Rickard, who noticed that Google was reshooting locations over the course of his project. "They're updating some of the earlier shots with higher-resolution images, and I'm not sure that they're keeping a record of the shots they've replaced," he says. "I've got an archive of how Street View depicted these places in 2009."
#51.310296, Amite City, CA, 2009. Image © Doug Rickard.
He was more interested in the pixellated quality of the early shots than the "improved" versions made later, which he often zoomed into to break up. Each location is photographed as a 12-shot panoramic however, so he was able to move around it and "compose" a picture, and comments that it was like the world had stopped dead. Each time he found a scene he liked, he could choose whether to be in front, behind or to the side of each subject. He also considered using sequences of images but he found so many interesting subjects that he had to let them go, because he was only able to put just 69 images into the special edition book of the project, printed by Markus Schaden in Cologne in partnership with Le Bal in Paris, where the work was on show in December 2010. Rickard is now working on a slightly longer edit for a trade edition, which will be available next year. The Le Bal show was a group exhibition titled Anonymes, l'Amérique sans nom: photographie et cinéma, curated by former Magnum Photos director Diane Dufour and British photography academic David Campany, which put Rickard's images alongside names such as Walker Evans, Lewis Baltz, Jeff Wall, and Bruce Gilden.
To Rickard, the project sits well among these masters, even if he didn't pull the trigger on location. "In each case, I had many different options and I chose what I thought was most significant, so it felt very akin to picture making," he says. "With digital imaging's mass proliferation of pictures, so much is about the editing - there are millions and millions of photographs in the world now, and increasingly what matters most is an ability to find a way through them."
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