VILLAGE VOICE: “The Google Riis” (2012)

Doug Rickard: ‘A New American Picture’, November 2012

The primary photographer behind the portraits of urban desolation in this oddly affecting show is a robot—the indifferent, computer-controlled spherical camera mounted on Google’s Street View cars. Although designed to document buildings and landmarks for navigational purposes, the eyeball-like machines are also taking snapshots of life at each location. Google blurs faces and license plates but doesn’t typically erase anything (unless by request), and so the amassed collection of images—now covering 3,000 cities worldwide—has become a fascinating database that describes, by happenstance, the human condition.

Spend enough time traveling through the virtual spaces and you’ll find—as many bloggers and artists have—dozens of startling moments. In separate efforts, Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman have assembled extensive online galleries of fires, mishaps, comical oddities, apparent violence, and at least one death. For his part in this treasure hunt, Doug Rickard has taken a more considered approach, extracting a series of scenes that reveal the forsaken edges of U.S. cities. Reshot without the Google stamps and then enlarged, the images hang on the wall as traditional photographs. Their grainy textures and muted palettes, recalling Kodachrome prints from the 1970s (in particular, the streetwise work of Helen Levitt), further distance the original context.

In fact, it’s a testament to Rickard’s eye for detail and talent for cropping that the compositions all appear intentional, with neatly arranged colors, dramatic angles, and poignant juxtapositions. In New Orleans, four young men stride down an abandoned block under a sky of shattered gray clouds, an ominous expanse that matches the landscape of decaying concrete. In Atlanta, a boy bikes past an oppressive brown background of autumn trees and boarded-up homes, as if in flight from such hints of death. For these and other works, Rickard emphasizes vanishing points to deepen your sense of bleakness.

But beneath all this, there runs a strong undercurrent of irony. An unfeeling contraption designed by a multibillion-dollar company takes drive-by pictures of poverty as part of a project advertised to help us “plan a summer vacation”—pictures that are then turned into high art. A moment captured in Baltimore exemplifies that divide: At a deserted intersection, in an hour of long shadows, two anonymous children gape outward, seeing what must have appeared to them like a visitor from another planet. The elevated viewpoint of Google’s eight-foot-tall camera, evident in every shot but particularly noticeable in this one, is imperious.

Yossi Milo Gallery, 245 Tenth Avenue, 212-414-0370, Through November 24.

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