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Book Reviews: A New American Picture

A New American Picture. Photographs by Doug Rickard.
Published by Aperture, 2012.
A New American Picture
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

A New American Picture
Photographs by Doug Rickard.
Apterture, 2012. Hardbound. 144 pp., 90 color illustrations, 12-1/2x9-3/4".

Doug Rickard has learned much of what he knows of the history of photography online. With his website American Suburb X, he created his own niche archive – a sort of scholarly Pinterest where the past meets present practice in a seamless platform. Such a twenty-first century approach to image sourcing also informs his debut print publication, A New American Picture, first released by White Press/Schaden in 2010 and now reissued by Aperture. For two years, Rickard delved into the vast database of Google Maps Street View, and in a parallel journey, chose from among its imagery his own; photographing sparsely populated scenes positioned on his monitor. Considering only the rote mechanics of such a process belies their uncanny expressiveness. The diffuse edges and muted palate of pavements bordered by sun-dappled yards and billowing clouds have been likened to a watercolor aesthetic. Yet for the tech-savvy viewer, their soft focus and artfully "flawed" look may instead conjure the luminosity of the computer screen and the increasingly ubiquitous creative filters Instagram and Hipstamatic.

A New American Picture, by Doug Rickard. Published by Apterture, 2012.
A New American Picture, by Doug Rickard. Published by Apterture, 2012.

This hint at Romanticism is a dissonant overlay to the bleak landscape of those impoverished communities depicted in Rickard's photographs. He is interested in the dynamics of class and race that emerge relative to the photographer's "otherness" and the power position afforded by his point of view. Like the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers he has studied at length, this series brings a fraught idealism to the American scene as observed by the passer-through. Rickard utilizes Street View to enact his virtual travels and embody a perspective that links these images to the American road trips of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and beyond, and especially to those photographers at work behind the wheel of a moving car. This vantage point is at once more protected and less expected than that of the man on the street. In this lies an echo of Garry Winogrand's road pictures from 1964, when window and windshield were sometimes frame for that photographer's lyrical look at an unpredictable American landscape, outside of his habitual reach.

A New American Picture, by Doug Rickard. Published by Apterture, 2012.
A New American Picture, by Doug Rickard. Published by Apterture, 2012.

Rickard's distilled scenes of in-between locales and smudged out faces also play with the idea of legibility, by manipulating the ostensible purpose of Street View and defying the scope of its 360-degree imagery. Retaining the site's own mechanized blurring of collateral captures, Rickard's photographs sometimes feel like redacted texts, with an opaqueness that flies in the face of so much data. As such they are an ambiguous commentary on the new American picture. Meaning is prescribed not only via Rickard’s manipulations, but in the provocative shift in context from screen shot to the printed pages of a traditional photography book. In his unselfconscious blending of the conventions of collection and display, historic precedent and contemporary custom, Rickard broadens the photographer’s lexicon through an ambitious conceptual journey.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.