One of the pillars of photography, as with painting, is landscape. Contained in its usually horizontal frame is a psychology of place, a typology of terrain, and an expression of human presence (benign or otherwise) in the earthly realm. Doug Rickard’s obsessive explorations of internet imagery over many years (via Google Street View and YouTube) have resulted in a new kind of urban landscape: appropriated, degraded, and virtual. Seeking to draw a fiercely honest portrait of contemporary America, yet without the time and resources to engage in the epic road journeys of, say, Robert Frank, Rickard draws on his vast, painstakingly amassed archive of images culled from hours of monitoring web uploads from countless anonymous hands. Searching cities and small towns that together form a noirish spectrum of American life, Rickard uses hot-button key words to target particularly loaded postings. His sweeping electronic canvas teems with on-the-fly moments grabbed by millions of smartphone cameras, selected according to his sense of each frame’s optimal lighting, revelatory gesture, and deep subtext.
For several photographers — Mishka Henner, Arne Svenson, and Trevor Paglen come to mind — the internet is seen as a fertile frontier for harvesting and manipulating images in ways that refresh the practice of mediating the world through a lens — in this case, through the myriad “dumb” lenses that continually scan and reorganize the visual world. Their work and his own, says Rickard, invites an open-ended dialogue about how surveillance has transformed society by the simple evolutionary fact of our having wholly embraced it in our lives. He is keenly interested in how this has created a youth culture of restless online exhibitionism, both raw and designed. He marvels at the mechanisms of microcosmic “celebrity” that social media has built into itself. As he surveys the endless subcategories he collects (half a million images by his estimate, ranging from “bondage” and “transgender” to “Cold War weapons” and “white businessmen shaking hands”), he sees big themes emerge — not just the failures of US policies to sustain US ideals, but the warping of individual and group behaviors, and perceptions, by new technologies, evaporating civility, and elastic social norms. Passing before him, Rickard feels, is the specter of a global consciousness, for better or worse. It’s his job to mine for the stills and video that point to where we might be going as we render ourselves numb from this unprecedented surfeit of stimuli.
Rickard’s found images are a far cry from the pristine, high-resolution prints one normally sees hung in galleries and museums. He relishes the transient quality of blurring, unintentional cropping, denatured hues, and other “blemishes” of unprofessional exposure found in the web’s thick soup — for him, a more authentic rendering of populist reality untouched by commercial motive. What he’s after is a vehicle for pondering the layered, inscrutable drama of current life — so many of his works are not easily read. Identities are masked, actions are often ambiguous, and there is a pervasive sense of unnamed anxiety, even rage. The conclusion is that the mass voyeurism in which Rickard operates is a rather dark subject, but one that opens up untold possibilities for citizen subversion, and for art that can take several forms: books (Tom is about a peeping tom in Hollywood in the late 1960s), immersive large-scale video installations, and wall-hung photographic series derived from both video and still sources. Each presents a different, but equally provocative, inquiry into notions of originality, online vs. “real” identity, and the legitimate scope and language of photography.
A historic shift is taking place because of the internet, and we all know it. While most photographers prefer to keep their cameras pointed at what’s directly in front of them, Rickard omnivorously devours as much of that shift-stream as he can. In that sense, his art is as much conceptual performance as it is photography. His practice involves screens within screens within screens, cameras pointed at monitors showing people holding cameras that are often aiming at yet other screens, in an endless loop of the private made public. The very act of looking is fixed in a house-of-mirrors metaverse that drags us as a race further from “the natural world” than ever before. Even as wars are still fought over land borders, and geography remains mired in centuries-old conflicts, the tiny screens in the hands of teenagers around the globe bully us into a smiley-face rictus of narcissism. Be glad that Doug Rickard and his fellow observers keep trying to make sense of it.
Doug Rickard’s solo exhibition at Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles ended last week. His work is part of the group show 9800 at 9800 S. Sepulveda, Los Angeles, through November 14, and is included in the Hanna S. Barsam Photography Invitational: Urban California at the Fresno Art Museum through January 16, 2016. Dealers in Death (Killin’ Time)(Morel Books) will be coming out in spring 2016. Images in the segment are from Rickard’s series N.A. and A New American Picture.
More from the Photographer Spotlight Series: