For a few more days in San Francisco you can see an astonishing trio of photography exhibits all at the same 49 Geary St. address. Each is outstanding on its own merits; collectively they play off one another in interesting ways, revealing much about the creative potential still present in the photographic medium. The highlight and the soonest to end is Doug Rickard at Stephen Wirtz Gallery–jump straight to the bottom of this article for details.
The most conventional of the three shows is The American Landscape at the Tipping Point, at Robert Koch Gallery. There is nothing new about the aerial photographs of Alex MacLean, which have been exhibited for many years. But even if we have seen this and other derivative work before, MacLean’s images retain considerable power by making visible everything that is invisible to us as individuals on earth. MacLean captures our human sprawl, our vast agricultural and energy systems, our acres of directionless roads and abandoned things.
The photographs on display here range widely in age, from 1984 to 2009, but in a strange way they all seem situated in a past era. The aerial perspective seems almost old fashioned, the subject matter almost too familiar. In the wake of the Gulf oil spill and Fukushima, it’s not clear whether images like these still have something new to teach us about the out-of-balance relationship between our societal values and our physical environment. They may reveal more about how that ecological lesson has already been absorbed, internalized, and backgrounded in our everyday consciousness–all while the landscape continues to change in alarming ways.
Alex MacLean images courtesy of the artist and Robert Koch Gallery
The second show is a stunner. Richard Learoyd’sPresences, at Fraenkel Gallery, was noted previously in on this site, but I hadn’t seen the work in person until recently. Learoyd uses a room-sized camera obscura to create unique single images of his models, by direct transfer of light onto photographic paper. Viewed from across the room, the photographs are luminous and commanding, the figures larger than life. (Viewing the images online gives you no sense at all of how big they are, and their magic has much to do with their size.) As you approach, their clarity increases. Studying the fine detail of a fingernail one might lose the distinction between image and reality altogether.
It’s not that everything in these images is sharp and clear–the focus varies, but not in the same way as a conventional photograph. The show is well-titled, for what we see in Learoyd’s subjects is not their beauty, or any other aesthetic quality, but their being-ness. Rarely are photographs so revealing.
Richard Learoyd images courtesy of the artist and Fraenkel Gallery
From MacLean in his propeller plane to Learoyd in his box, we move to the perspective of Doug Rickard’s documentary immersion in Google Street View. A New American Picture at Stephen Wirtz Gallery has a boast of a title, and if you don’t see the show you won’t know how far the work goes to back it up.
Rickard isn’t the first artist to explore Street View as a source of material. Michael Wolf has done so most notably, earning a controversial honorable mention in the World Press Photo contest earlier this year for his “series of unfortunate events” images discovered and re-photographed on Street View. That award perhaps helps clarify the difference between Wolf’s work and Rickard’s. I saw some of Wolf’s Paris street photos when they were being shown at Robert Koch Gallery earlier this year, along with his Tokyo subway shots which I liked much more. The Google works seemed like engaging photojournalistic novelties–a couple kissing, a fire, a driver giving the Google camera the finger–rendered as highly pixelated enlargements that served to call attention to their source.
Rickard is not a novelty act. Like Wolf, he selects and composes images on Street View and then photographs the monitor screen with a camera. But the effect is very different–rather than grainy over-enlargement, Rickard’s photographs have a dreamlike, almost painterly blur. If you encountered these images with no knowledge of their origin, you might spend some time trying to figure out how they were created.
Rather than the unexpected, Rickard captures the overlooked and abandoned, perhaps giving his work a closer affinity to MacLean’s aerial documentaries than to Michael Wolf’s Google imagery. But the real and openly declared affinity is with American masters such as Walker Evans and Robert Frank. The images and the show as a whole convey a strong narrative, of economic stagnation and urban dislocation. The Google source material is of course recent, but many of the street scenes look like they could have been shot 50 years ago. Rickard has obviously done much editing to bring out the light and color of these images. The compositions are striking. People walking the streets in broad daylight look like they might be drowning.
The question facing a project like this is, given its secondary use of Google source material, is how good or interesting or important can the photography really be? There’s a natural tendency to suspect a kind of goofiness to the whole endeavor, which may make it conceptually interesting but works against a serious viewing of the photographs as photographs. But this is where Rickard nails it. His highly distinctive and resonant images speak with the clarity of great photography. At the same time, they inevitably lead us to reconsider the nature of the Google archive, and to see it as something considerably more interesting than we might have first believed.
Google Street View? It entered our awareness as yet another extension of Google Maps, kind of gimmicky and kind of fun: look, there’s my house! Cool yes, but we’re used to such amazements. Rickard’s work teaches us what we knew but didn’t know: that in its entirety street view is one enormous, navigable photograph of the cities and landscapes in which we live. So if one wishes to create and tell stories with images, why not wander there–gazing in different directions, selecting, composing and capturing as photographers always have?
Doug Rickard images courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery
The American Landscape at the Tipping Point
May 5 – July 2, 2001
Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco
May 25 – June 25, 2011
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
A New American Picture
April 27 – June 11, 2011
Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco