Photographer Puts New Spin on ‘Street’ Art Using Google Maps

October 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Photographer Doug Rickard sees artistic possibility in the images of people captured in the photographic drive-bys that make up Google Street View. He has travelled thousands of virtual miles, looking for potential photographs in Google's maps that have more than just utilitarian purpose. KQED's Scott Shafer reports.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: An artist roams the Internet to create his works, his palette, virtual images recorded by Google’s ever-present Street View cameras.

Our report was produced by KQED San Francisco.

Correspondent Scott Shafer narrates the story.

SCOTT SHAFER, KQED: Maybe you have seen it, Google’s Street View car crossing America, its detached mechanical eye recording every avenue, and sometimes capturing us in its glare. You could see it as cool or intrusive.

Photographer Doug Rickard sees it as makings of art.

DOUG RICKARD, photographer: All of these lines looking at the cameras, this especially here, with this sort of tilt forward of the head, it just embeds into it a certain of sort of — I guess almost like music in a way.

SCOTT SHAFER: From his home studio outside Sacramento, Rickard has traveled thousands of virtual miles, combing the streets of America in search of images that resonate.

DOUG RICKARD: I just start driving through, looking for potential pictures.

SCOTT SHAFER: Rickard remembers that first flash of inspiration.

DOUG RICKARD: My wheels started turning. And I was sitting there. And I picked up my iPhone, and I started taking a picture of the screen like this, sort of moving it around and moving the cursor and composing these scenes.

SCOTT SHAFER: Ironically, Rickard says, it was the technology that produced a haunting, intimate feel.

DOUG RICKARD: So, you have got a camera looking down. You have got blurred faces. All of the angles and the lines sort of skew out because of the fixed wide-angle lens and their stitching. The actual dynamics of the camera within Google emphasized the way that I wanted to speak in these images.

SCOTT SHAFER: Images that have made their way to the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

ERIN O’TOOLE, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: I was really blown away by the work when I saw it right away.

SCOTT SHAFER: Erin O’Toole is SFMOMA’s assistant curator of photography.

ERIN O’TOOLE: He is not the only one who has used Google Street View, but I think that he comes at it from this really sophisticated and very educated point of view. It resonates much more deeply than some of the other work that I have seen.

DOUG RICKARD: You have this distinct feeling. It’s a bit more of a claustrophobia or a feeling of decay. And it is really happening.  

SCOTT SHAFER: Rickard’s work is new, O’Toole says, but grounded in the past. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, their iconic images documented the plight of the poor and divisions in race and class.

ERIN O’TOOLE: Doug has a similar, you know, sort of social documentary purpose behind this work. It’s art, but it also has a deep sort of political message to it.

DOUG RICKARD: The sort of drive-by picture-taking is symbolic in a way of the anonymous, you know, nature of how these people live. Even the textures of the images, which is almost broken down in terms of the digital artifacts and the pixelation, it feels — poetic I think is the right word.

SCOTT SHAFER: Rickard manipulates the original Google images to heighten that sense of isolation. Like his predecessors, he wants to shed a spotlight on those often out of view.

DOUG RICKARD: They’re invisible. You know, they’re cordoned off geographically. They’re cordoned off in terms of a voice. They’re cordoned off in terms of economic power.

ERIN O’TOOLE: So, there’s beauty, but there’s also, you know, sort of desolation and loneliness.

SCOTT SHAFER: Rickard says all he has to do is type three letters into a search engine to delve into an America in struggle, M-L-K.

DOUG RICKARD: MLK is just a massive symbol of hope. And I’m using him to locate where there’s little hope. The images need to almost challenge the viewer, almost provoke them like this.

SCOTT SHAFER: Much of Rickard’s work is pushing against his past. He grew up in manicured suburban Los Gatos. His father was an evangelical preacher who idealized America.

But Rickard’s university studies told a different story.

DOUG RICKARD: I studied civil rights and slavery. And I was so affected by an American story that was so different from the way that I had seen our country. I remember just being furious, you know?

SCOTT SHAFER: It’s that fury and indignation that have fueled Rickard’s work. But because he’s not on the scene taking the photographs, it’s also controversial. Online viewer comments can range from compelling and fascinating work to:

DOUG RICKARD: This guy says, “Lazy, turgid, pathetic and entirely uninteresting.”

So it’s all over the board. People have commented that I’m not even a photographer.

ERIN O’TOOLE: Of course it’s photography. Yes, I think that what Doug is doing is looking through the — through Google as sort of his lens. The Internet is helping redefine what it means to be a photographer.

DOUG RICKARD: You see this? And then you come right into here, and there’s the image.

SCOTT SHAFER: In fact, Rickard says, in an ocean of digital imagery, creating something special is becoming more and more difficult, no matter how easy the tools are.

DOUG RICKARD: I think it really boils down to what you bring to it, you know, that’s between your ears, ultimately. Art is about ideas. It’s about how you’re wired and how you’re driven, obsessions, and what you have to say. And I think that we’re in an era of editors in a way.


SCOTT SHAFER: What started as an idea in Rickard’s head in his home studio has spread to an ongoing international conversation. His collection, called “A New American Picture,” has moved beyond the Bay Area to the New York Museum of Modern Art, the GeorgesPompidouCenter in Paris and as far away as Korea and Japan.

DOUG RICKARD: Things are changing rapidly. Photography is being affected.

SCOTT SHAFER: Rickard is happy to advance the conversation, even in a time where those in the art world, especially in photography, are anxious over the impact of a digital age.

DOUG RICKARD: Our tools and our abilities to speak are being opened up and shifted into new territory. It’s a never-ending ocean of potential.

GWEN IFILL: That was artist Doug Rickard in a story produced by our colleagues at KQED San Francisco.