Photographer Doug Rickard is probably most famous for his series A New American Picture, in which he recreated images from Google Street View, resulting in a startlingly portrayal of the overlooked, often bleak, backroads of our American landscape.
His latest project, N.A., follows a similar theme—Rickard spent hours trawling amateur videos in the depths of YouTube and recreated the most striking moments he found. The fruits of his labor will be showcased at LA’s Little Big Man Gallery from September 19 to October 31, with an opening reception this Saturday from 7 to 9 PM. I spoke to the artist recently about how the project came together.
VICE: What moments are you looking for specifically when going through all that YouTube footage?
Doug Rickard: I had initially started N.A. back in 2009, at about the same time that I started A New American Picture but I decided to focus on the Street View project first (from 2009 to 2011) and then N.A. behind it (from 2011 to 2014). In both projects, I started with American city names and then went increasingly more granular [with my searches]. As a history major in school, I had studied the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow, segregation, slavery and other terrain related to our American past. This terrain impacted me greatly and has really fueled the territory that I explore as an artist—cities that are impacted by socio-economic devastation, violence, mass incarceration, police brutality, racial divides, injustice and other challenges. So these “moments” in both projects came largely from these city searches: [I picked] Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, Miami, Houston, Watts, New Orleans as starting points and then went outward via keyword searches (YouTube) or map navigation (Street View). I am looking for moments that speak aesthetically and to larger subjects—images that are layered and loaded with subtext, and are also provocative, transgressive, “pushing buttons” perhaps.
It seems like a natural progression from A New American Picture, but the difference is many of these subjects are promoting images of themselves through YouTube. What changes when people know they are being filmed?
Because of this dynamic, I used darkness, shadow, naturally lo-res footage, etc. to largely obscure [the subjects’] identity. Google had done this in Street View with algorithms, the blurring of identity. Also, the work deals with larger issues, and the subjects become archetypes, not personal or specific. That is important as this is not a personal tale but one of larger implications.
The project introduces an element of audio layered over actual clips you used for the photo book. What was it like listening to thousand of amateur YouTubers? The press release describes it as “cultural music” and I’m curious how you arrived at the term.
The term is really coming from what I perceived as a “symphony” or chorus of American cultural “music”—music dealing with the American experience (albeit one that I choose to show) and larger culture’s larger moving parts. N.A. is short for “national anthem,” and [the abbreviation also references] “Not Applicable” on forms. The audio in my video piece that will be installed in exhibition form is the national anthem, a version that the US Army recorded, slowed down to a point of almost non-recognition. In the book, the voices in the videos from YouTube become a sort of poem.
What made you jump from relying on city tags to darker subjects to searches like “Passed Out White Girl” and “Police Brutality”?
With N.A., I started finding that certain “silos” of content would emerge on YouTube related to the city searches and I looked for a visual aesthetic to emerge. In my work, a visual aesthetic is core, a thread to unify disparate pieces—light, shadow, color, mood. I soon started seeing that keyword searches were yielding larger groups of results (these results being limited to only amateur video). For example, “Memphis crackhead,” “Dallas police harassment,” “Oakland sideshow,” “Miami hood tours,” or “Cleveland hood fights” would yield thousands and thousands of videos. This dynamic shaped N.A., as it seemed that a darker element of social media itself emerged. The uploaded videos were often predatory and meant to elicit “likes,” “subscribes,” and “comments.” People might be paying people on the street to dance for a buck or allow them to knock them out cold with their fist—or people were filming drunk girls being drawn on with sharpies, or illegal street races, or police beat-downs, or if a fight occurred, everyone would have their phone pulled out and filming. I looked for images then to emerge from these thousands of clip—images and and snippets of video that could tell tales—tales that deal with culture, politics, race, class, economics, gender, lack of power—and also technology, surveillance, and even photography itself as a medium, playing a part in the conversation.
fxyCE, 2012 #402
What role does race play in this project and A New American Picture?
I think that in both projects, the notion of race in America, is there and playing a significant role—along with class and socioeconomics. We’re a nation of extremes—economically we are radically divided in terms of wealth dispersion; racially we are shockingly separated—especially when looking at white and African-American communities; politically we’re at a stand still and locked into a sort of quagmire of opposition, socially we are stratified, based on economic, racial and other criteria. Both N.A. and A New American Picture are dealing with this brutal machinery, and the implications that are baked into the fabric of the nation. The projects are art, not a document (if such a thing exists in a photograph) so the takeaways (if takeaways exist in art), are imprecise and at time opaque but the subject matter is there. Race is inseparable from this conversation.
Scroll down for more photos from N.A.
Doug Rickard (American, born 1968) is a photographer, curator, and founder of American Suburb X.