American photographer Doug Rickard (1968) is pulling apart the American Dream through the collective images of a technological society. Working with extracts from Google Street View for his project A New American Picture, and with YouTube for his work N.A., Rickard trawls through the vast stores of publically available internet imagery looking at urban areas, in particular those expressing the effects of marginalised groups and societal injustice. On the occasion of his exhibition of N.A. at Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles, Rickard speaks with GUP about the predatory nature of social media platforms, the future of photography and his love/hate relationship with America. This interview is an extended version of the article that appears in GUP#47, The Big Ten issue.
Your latest work using stills and videos pulled from YouTube presents some seriously ominous imagery. What kind of material were you watching?
I came to the understanding pretty quickly that social media and the internet put into place a real predatory dynamic, where basically it motivated people to take video of other people to put up on YouTube to get shares, likes or comments. Like, let’s say, paying crackheads to jump off a roof, or get urinated on, or get punched and knocked out cold for five bucks. I think this coloured a little bit of the way that I perceived the platform, and I started actually looking for that sort of stuff, as opposed to just accidentally finding it. I was interested in what was happening.
I went through methodically, city by city, creating folders of video content. Then I started looking at things like ‘police surveillance Detroit’, ‘hood fights Detroit’, ‘eviction Detroit’, and then I replicated those same search terms for a whole myriad of cities. I kept trying to figure out what would yield lots of results.
How do you see your own role in this predatory process?
I started toying with YouTube all the way back in 2008 or 2009, pulling keyword searches with pretty much the same city names that I was looking at through Street View, just seeing what would come up. I started to get into more amateur video, which is totally what I was interested in, because the way that I saw smartphones – and this is more normal now – is that they were making camera lenses omnipresent. And even beyond that, not just like CCTV in England, it was actually making cameras in people’s hands omnipresent. This was wild to me, like Street View but in a different way. Street View had this fixed wide-view look at every street in America, which was unbelievable, but the YouTube stuff would put me in someone’s hand, maybe turning it on some subjects or turning it back on themselves or putting it out the window of the car. It gave me a point of view, from just a pure camera perspective, of being in the hand of someone. But it also gave a bit of anonymity, because these people didn’t realize that I was with them at the time in a way, because they’re pushing all this content onto the web. It’s like a police ridealong, sort of. I mean, I’m like a participant in the action but, in a sense, not really.
Why then choose to search for hood fights and evictions in any case? I mean, it’s not like you were searching YouTube for ‘Detroit engagement announcement’…
There’s a couple ways I could probably answer that. I think because I studied the Civil Rights Movement, I studied US history, and I was so impacted by some big American themes that, as I started to do keyword searches, I was pulled in to territory related to some of that terrain. For instance, the notion of ‘white flight’ here in the US, where people have fled away from African American communities, or maybe, you could even say, communities of people without money. Stuff like that has left me fascinated by this flip-side of the American Dream: mass incarceration and a very different environment to live in for those on the outside. A lot of it has to do with this this interest I have in showing America as a hypocritical nation in many ways. I have ferocious criticism toward our history and what we’ve done to groups of people, starting with slavery, into Jim Crowe, into segregation, into police surveillance, into profiling, into a radically different experience that African American people would encounter from the police and also from their perception of the government and also from access to jobs, access to capital to start businesses, and on and on and on.
I have this desire to transgress on the way that our nation is perceived and show it in a different light. So, a lot of my interest in the cities had to do with me wanting to basically put a camera on it, not at all to criticize the subjects, but to criticize our nation as an aggregate. I don’t have any interest as an artist in looking at engagement photos, so I have to go where my internal drive pushes me, because I need that to sustain myself during a project. I wouldn’t have the fuel or the drive to extend a project like this unless I’m getting some satisfaction as an artist. Something that pulls me.
The title of the project, N.A., or National Anthem, paired with the dark, apocalyptic tones of the images, certainly points to a harsh criticism of the US.
The title N.A. is National Anthem, but I knew that it also could be interpreted as ‘not applicable’, like ‘N/A’ on a checkbox. That’s an embedded point of view, based on the fact that I feel that a lot of the communities and groups of people shown here in these cities are marginalised. They don’t hold the economic power, they don’t hold the political power – there’s so many areas where they have no power.
At the same time, I’m interested in the darker elements of everything. Part of that could be because I grew up in such a hyper-religious home. My dad was a mega-church preacher in the ‘80s, and I grew up in this hyper-patriotic environment within which America was towering above the rest of the world – the perception, right? – to the point of it being anointed by God. And then my father lost his whole church over an affair when I was a boy, and basically, I think I have anger embedded into me, as well as the desire to say “fuck you” to groups of people that would take on belief systems that are judgmental, or are otherwise blind to some of the sins that have happened or happen. So, I think a lot of it stems from that.
People could interpret it as criticism over the subjects in the images, but that’s not one bit of it. Even with things like hood fights, I’m not looking at someone and criticising them for being in that scenario. It’s still dealing with the economic and political and social and cultural critique.
There’s a natural inclination to have camera phones come out when explosive acts happen
Why do you think there is so much of this violent material available online at all?
Putting the camera in people’s hands is going to yield darker material in these communities. I was looking for amateur video and the stuff that ends up getting put up on the net happens to be the darker material in a community where there’s a lot of challenges faced by the youth, because that’s their reality. So, things like fights are more prevalent and also seem to be things that are perceived to get lots of attention on the net, you know what I mean? A lot of hits and comments. In the videos, you can see that everyone pulls the phone out when something like this is happening. Less so when people are, like, eating dinner. There’s a natural inclination to have camera phones come out when explosive acts happen.
It was naturally going to present me with material that could be darker, but I did take that into account, using only nighttime, shadows, gesture, facial expressions, loaded representations. You know, these sort of things that I know Americans that aren’t in these communities react to: “Ahh! Woah! Scary young black man!” I wanted to put in the face some scenes that people I know read into with either some sort of fear or threat.
The Street View project has the same darkness, but because there’s a distance, everyone takes on a detachment. There’s an aesthetic, almost Ed Hopper-esque look to the images, painterly if you will. Even if you’re looking at the same subject matter, they’re softer and easier for people to go “oh wow”, like a still or a pastoral scene. The N.A. images are right in your face.
Working with found materials, how do you ensure your own artistic signature on the series?
I would look through video footage and look for an aesthetic thread that would let me take all of this separate material and author it. I wanted to basically put images together in a way that looks like it could be from the same person – well, I mean, it is in a sense – and fits together. So, colour-wise, the type of light, all of that, I wanted to pull it into cohesion. I like to think of it as taking the net, and all this aggregate material, and chiselling out of a block of concrete this beautiful thing. It has to do with choices and navigating colour, shadow, light, gesture, subtext, understanding what the look of the eyes conveys, body language, all of that.
How does your process differ between what you’re doing with Street View and YouTube?
It really has to do with the dynamics of the material I’m working with. Street View gave an anonymous point of view that people oftentimes didn’t even know what was happening. There’s no photographer there with the people to be ‘in the action’. If you put a photographer in the scene, he becomes apparent and people play to him, they’re playing to themselves, it’s really weird. But I was fascinated with those dynamics as well. With YouTube, there’s this camera there, that I could hijack in a sense.
I feel that everyone, whether they realize it or not, is doing surveillance. Everyone is a willing performer in a way, taking images and pushing them out, knowing that you want to elicit some action on the other end. You’ve got all these layers of both surveillance and participation or lack of willing participation.
Most working photographers are on edge about the democratisation of photography, seeing it as a threat to their expertise and means of income, but you’re capitalising on the availability of material. How do you personally see this movement towards uncountable photographic imagery?
It’s definitely ominous for photography. I don’t know how things will play out, but things are changing, no doubt. Photojournalism is getting ravaged. I’m a little worried about the stature of photography within the art world, because I think people are rapidly looking for unique objects now, rather than editioned items, because the speciality of being able to make an image is opening up so wide.
I don’t think it’s going to be possible in the future to just sell photographs because of the floodgates having opened. That being said, there’s no shortage of material or avenues to take for creating phenomenal projects. But I think it has to be more like that now: a project. It can’t just be the one image anymore. People working in a traditional way like that, it’s gonna be like survival of the fittest. Maybe just a few of them will survive. But for projects, or for doing things with innovation or doing something unique, something that shifts the paradigm or turns something on its head, there’s room for all of that forever. I think it’s really about the idea as much as the eye now. I don’t think that just the eye is enough anymore.
What about the way people are viewing imagery?
That’s another thing that takes it even to a higher level. People’s attention spans and their ability to even have time to look at work is shrinking. So, even aside from the photograph and its viability as an object, you’ve got galleries and museums and everyone clamouring to get people’s attention and to get them to take the time to care. There’s this dynamic happening because people care just as much about being on Instagram as they do about reading a book or going to the park. So, there’s multiple moving parts here that impact photography but they’re also impacting humans in the way that we need to be entertained.
In photography, there’s room to do amazing stuff, the challenge is just going to be the economics underpinning all of it. It’s not like it’s ever been easy to make it as an artist or anything. But as long as you’re doing something special, then a whole gamut is possible.
What’s interesting about your work is that even though you’re working with new media like Street View and YouTube, you use them to produce rather traditional presentations – photobooks and exhibitions, for example. Why is that? Is that the economics of surviving as an artist, or some kind of hardwiring of the photo world?
It’s probably a hybrid of both of those. No one has figured out how to monetise screens, in a sense of showing an Edward Hopper painting on a screen, rather than the painting itself. Photographs are going to be driving that, but to be honest, I won’t even take time to watch a photojournalist’s slideshow, even if it looked interesting. I’m so hardwired by the internet already.
That makes it tough to deal with the economics, because that sort of stuff to produce costs money and then you have to try to figure out how to earn that back.
You have started working with video in your latest work though, right?
This is my first time doing video installation, and is probably a leap for me away from printed work but I still love putting images on paper and putting them up on the wall. But the screen is getting pretty damn close to the experience of looking at prints on a wall. Here’s the thing, if we look backwards, it’s all prints. And we want it to be. Like, the work of Diane Arbus. There’s something nostalgic and special about something tangible that is aging, something that is a relic.
Going forward, we have all these options; it doesn’t have to be something tangible. That’s getting less important to me. Some people would still say “I love the feel of a print” and stuff like that. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me. I work with a screen 98% of the time. And I do prints, I have a big Epson printer and a studio with the whole room as tackboard and I can put everything up, but I’m finding that for me personally, the internet is what I love.
Some people may really value making the print, but for me it’s just one mode of allowing people to see it beyond myself. Maybe that sounds like sacrilege. But it is one mode. It’s just one mode. At some point in the future it could be all screens, but I don’t know how you can survive if you do all screens – there’s the rub.
I don’t think I’ll be chasing any happy endings with the work I do
Given that you’re dealing with a seemingly limitless supply of source material, what are the major challenges of working in this way? How do you know when you’re done with a body of work?
The challenge is to do something that is special and spectacular. When I was doing the Street View project, or even N.A., I could have stopped after a few months instead of a few years, but I wanted to set a bar for myself in terms of making it not just about the technology. It has to do with the strength of the work.
You can’t do it quickly. I know that it’s done when I have kept culling and culling and looking through material and editing things out, and finding something that’s a better representation, until finally I can tell that I can’t improve on it by continuing to go further. I can’t really elevate it. If I continue to add to it, I’ll only potentially disrupt it.
Considering the current damage to the American Dream, as you’ve portrayed it, where do we go from here, both in terms of a society and in terms of your work?
Society? I mean… man. We’re going to need a lot of time with concerted effort to address some of the infrastructure and social elements here in the States that have been created. For instance, certain groups of people obviously have had their ability to achieve the American Dream radically challenged. It’s doable, but it’s going to take a lot of time because we have these systemic issues that are difficult to move, especially when our society is at war over how to do things. We’re just locked up.
With the work? I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll be chasing any happy endings with the work I do. I really don’t. There are people out there who can definitely do that, but whatever someone does, they have to be driven to do it. I don’t think it can be casual.
I would always argue with my mom about this. My parents are still totally conservative and hyper-religious, and my mom, she thinks art should be edifying. Uplifting. And I always think art dealing with anything other than abstraction isn’t really. Even Hopper has a side that bites a little bit, a melancholic side to it. There’s room for happy art, I guess.
It sounds like you’re saying something more about the way you see art than the way it is…
Yeah, I think so. It’s my perspective. I guess art can be everything, it’s probably more about my lenses that I look out from. That’s where the variance happens. I think I was just so impacted by the fact that I had one version of America given to me growing up, and then that was totally disrupted. When I learned at school about the country from a more past trajectory point going forward, and I just thought ‘holy shit’! I just didn’t really realize the magnitude of some of these various forms of injustice that were baked in on a macro level. So it’s just a collision. I definitely love America at the same time.
So, there you have it. I’m obsessed with America, I love it, and I hate it and I want to say ‘fuck you’, and I also am fascinated by it. There’s all the territory that collides. Love/hate.
Doug Rickard is represented by Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles. The interview shown here is an extended version of the article printed in GUP#47, The Big Ten issue. The images shown here are from his work N.A., but you can also see his project A New American Picture in our online portfolio.