With the changing times and the constant shifting of photographic techniques, it’s getting more and more difficult to define who is a photographer and who isn’t. It used to be that photographers used cameras. Most photographers still do, but Smart Phones are getting to be a big influence in image-making both on the popular level (like “snapshots” used to be) and on a more involved level (like Gary Winnogrand “snapshots” used to be). But then there are those who don’t even use a camera, or a phone, or a shoe-box with a microscopic hole. There are those who take “screen-shots” on their computer. Can we consider them photographers if the images they “shoot” resemble photographic images? I suspect most of you would or might say no, definitely not a photographer. An image-maker, certainly, but not a photographer.
Well, the New York Museum of Modern Art’s Dan Leers, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, doesn’t agree. And I must admit, after seeing some of the work in lat year’s exhibit New Photography 2011, I don’t either. The images which changed my mind are made by Doug Rickard. There’s a wonderful interview with him here.
What he’s done is take photographs of his computer screen while on Google Street Views and used them to “document” or, at least, to discuss what living in contemporary America means to millions of people. His project is called New American Picture and the images are a contemporary version of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic campaign of the 30’s. At that time, Roy Stryker called in some young photographers who were to become classic references for all who came after. Photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein took their cameras into rural America in order to document and narrate what the Great Depression was doing to the nation. Doug Rickard has done basically the same. Except he never left his desk.
Google Street View is an amazing way to visit anywhere. The perspectives are totally false since all the images are “stitched” together and they capture random situations as local photographers went from street to street to gather single photographs which would later be stitched into a kind of Quick Time Virtual Reality map. the colors are totally unreal because not only are they digital representations of the real world, but they are also copies of copies retransmitted onto Rickard’s computer screen. Now, you can do this kind of stuff on your iPhone with Apps like AutoStich or Microsoft’s Photosynth. But, as usual, the big question isn’t the technique, it’s the culture behind it. What Rickard has done is photographic. He’s working out of a totally photographic tradition and the final images, although he really never took them, are a purely photographic representation of reality. It’s his cultural background which allows him to make certain choices in composition and, certainly, his culture allowed him to make certain choices in defining himself. That’s why he’s in an exhibit called, New Photography 2011.