[ VOL 001, ISS 004 ] Doug Rickard’s New American Picture and Our Notion of Progressive America

I had a Southern Baptist upbringing. Although I no longer subscribe to that particular sort of religion, I in some ways admire the conviction with which some of those Southern Baptist preachers spoke despite the arrogance with which many of them spoke. It does take confidence to stand in front of a congregation and speak with regards to life and death, where we spend eternity, and how one gets to spend eternity with God.  The line between arrogance and confidence can be a thin one.  And so, when anyone speaks with great confidence or authority on a particular subject it can certainly rub some of us the wrong way.

A few weekends ago I heard Doug Rickard speak at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.  Recently the museum has had a very worthwhile lineup of photographers either being exhibited and/or lecturing including Martin Parr, Enrico Natali, and most recently Rickard.  Rickard’s A New American Picture is currently being exhibited alongside Enrico Natali’s Subway, New York City 1960 in Publicly Private: Enrico Natali and Doug Rickard.  The exhibit is up until April 22, 2012.

Doug Rickard, as he shared at his lecture also had an evangelical upbringing. His was even closer to the pulpit than mine though. His father was a preacher as was his grandfather. A long line of assumably confident men. Rickard, in his confidence, is no different.  And just like those Southern Baptist preachers I grew up listening to every Sunday, Rickard spoke with that same confidence regarding race in America as addressed in his body of work A New American Picture.  In case you haven’t noticed, Rickard’s work concerns race.  As he shared, he grew up in an environment where no one donned a white hooded robe but certainly regarded black Americans a people lesser than the white American.  Growing up in Mississippi I can certainly relate.  My grandmother often made jokes at the expense of the black community.  There seemed to be this justification in doing so because as the community I grew up a part of understood it, there were good black people and bad black people just like there were good white people and bad white people.  The problem is that the idea of a good black person simply meant a black person that acted like a white person.  This understanding ultimately still set the black community as sub-human to the white community.

Pride and confidence is an odd commodity in American culture.  It permeates our religious and racial understanding of the world.  Rickard’s evangelical upbringing has informed A New American Picture and I wonder if an evangelical upbringing fosters the confidence that allows white, American Christians to claim authority regarding life, death, and eternity allows for the confidence it takes an artist such as Doug Rickard to claim that A New American picture is so acutely aware of the shortcomings of our so called progressive racial relationships in America.

Interestingly enough however, the audience response to Rickard’s lecture had little to do with race and religion and more to do with fear and paranoia.  Rickard has utilized Google Street View to capture these images, a technology that has had much criticism for it’s invasive ability to capture unassuming citizens to be later published on the web.  The idea that we have a semblance of privacy is laughable.  Our privacy was forfeited long before Google Street View ever existed.  Such technology has just made  our publicly private lives more transparent.

Nonetheless our fear and paranoia has been apparently fueled by the likes of Rickard and his use of this technology which in essence is not a new technology at all but rather a modification of a long standing technology… photography.  And photography, especially street photography, has long been an invasive medium.  If one does not agree then simply study the history which Rickard seems to have now made himself a part.  For proof, simply google Robert Frank’s favorite photograph from The Americans or read the backstory regarding Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  Photography is invasive and has long been a part of it’s history.  Along with that invasive quality is the confidence exuded by many of the medium’s most notable figures.  Read almost anything written by Walker Evans.

Some of the people listening to Rickard’s lecture that day were rubbed the wrong way.  For what reason I cannot say.  Perhaps it was because Rickard was addressing issues that we pretend we have progressively moved past.  Perhaps it was because of our fear that our private lives might be more exposed given the progress of technology, thus bringing to light those same inherit faults that we think we have overcome.  Or perhaps it was simply because of his confidence that might have been misunderstood to be arrogance.  Whenever Rickard was asked for ethical justification for this body of work and was asked does he think his pursuits were justified he boldly turned the question back on the audience, stating that he is not the one to answer that question and only society can answer those hard to answer questions as if to say, I didn’t write this stuff… it’s all right here in the Good Book.

Doug Rickard is doing nothing new.  What he is doing is called photography.  And like Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and many others before him he is doing it well because he is not answering questions, he is asking them. Tough questions are hard to answer.

[ VOL 001, ISS 001 ] The Responsibility of the Photographer – Photography, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner and The Great Community

“Port William had little written history. Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a moving beam of light. It had a beginning that it had forgotten, and would have an end that it did not yet know. It seemed to have been there forever.”

from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry


While reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “Wallace Stegner and The Great Community” I found the following quote by a Stegner from his essay, “The Book and the Great Community” worth further contemplation.

“Thought is neither instant nor noisy…It thrives best in solitude, in quite, and in the company of the past, the great community of recorded human experience. That recorded experience is essential whether one hopes to re-assert some aspect of it, or attack it.”

The first half of the quote, “thought is neither instant or noisy,” I consider an expectation. Those words ask that I wake up earlier than absolutely necessary in the mornings and dedicate time to contemplation, to reading and writing, and to working on my photography. It asks that I put that first, before I punch the clock at my job because like the majority of us I assume, my job is not my first passion and so why not in a very practical fashion put my job second. This is not to suggest that those jobs are bad or a necessary evil. They are simply necessary and provide us income by which we can sustain ourselves.

Although the context of Stegner’s quote is perhaps more about writer and the written word it is applicable to other disciplines that rely upon history. The camera is a recording device just as is pen and paper or keyboard and word processor and so “the great community of recorded human experience” should resonate with the photographer and the poet because there is not just an expectation, but an obligation. The obligation is that we respond to that which we are a part of, the greater community. It ask that we respond to the history set before us and in doing so, create a future history. Our future is relational to the past and hence the recording of that history becomes communal, and hopefully a somewhat responsible, thoughtful and considerate exchange of beliefs, values, and ideas.

A portion of this recording is a very large stack of photographs, each depicting a particular place and time not just of historical significance but also of the mundane. Assassinated politicians, warfare, meetings of diplomatic dignitaries, signings of peace treaties, birthday parties, grandmothers and their grandchildren, men arm in arm beer in hand, and sons key in hand to their first car. This is how we’ve recorded that human experience or as Berry puts it, “The community here is that of ’recorded human experience’ not the Pantheon of Great Writers. It is immense and diverse, more like the Library of Congress than the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. But it does include the great writers. It is bewildering both in its amplitude and in the eminence of some of its members.” Both Garry Winogrand photographs and grandmother’s iPhone photographs are there. (One day iPhone photographs will be the tool of grandparents and it will be to some just as archaic a means of photography as drugstore film processing is today. All the same though, there will be photographs made, regardless of the medium through which they were produced.)

As members of this community we are asked to respond. Either to attack, not with the taking up arms, but with contemplation or we respond in celebration that our efforts are worthwhile and that there is good within us. And when we have given thought to our place within this history, knowing that our past is in communion with our future we are asked to write that future, contributing to who we will become or in the case of the photographer, we are to photograph and record who we are and who we are to become.

(Photo titled, Grandma Winnie by James Dewhirst)