The Americn road trip photo essay has been a mainstay in photography that goes back to Walker Evans in the 1930s, with Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and more recently, Alec Soth updating the genre. Soul searching through closely observed, but not lived scenes of banality and hardship, combined with an "I drive ergo I exist" ethos, is probably the most American form of existentialism, with the ubiquitous crummy-motel-room-with-tv view outpacing the crossroads-with-gas-station in image hits per project.
A visit to North South East West, an exhibition of road trip images by Richard Benson, at Pace MacGill Gallery, left me wanting to know exactly how he makes “multiple impression inkjet prints,” but little more. These formal compositions, often with an element such as a tree or a telephone pole in the middle of the scene, and more often shot under shimmering blue skies, made the few images with threatening gray skies seem more interesting than they are. But the color and the print quality is extraordinary, making this show a must for anyone who makes, appreciates, prints, or collects photographs.
Left: Detroit, MI, 2009. Right: Dallas, TX, 2008. Copyright and courtesy Doug Rickard.
Back at my computer, I immediately started looking at Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture, from 2010, which in book form is currently unavailable. The work, which was recently on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco, has developed something of a cult following for several reasons. Rickard has subverted the road trip photo essay genre in particular, and photography in general, by collecting and re-photographing Google Street View images from down-at-the-heels locales across the country.
Because there are people in many of the views, the work brings up some serious questions about the benign intention of the program as claimed by Google. The picture quality, not so good to start out with, is further degraded by being re-photographed, using a large-format camera, off a large-scale monitor. There should be nothing notable about these pictures as photographs, but they are mesmerizing and troubling. Selections from A New American Picture by Doug Rickard can be seen in the upcoming New Photography 2011 show, opening September 28h at MoMA.
North South East West | Richard Bensoncontinues through October 22nd at Pace MacGill Gallery. 32 East 57th Street, NY, NY.
New Photography 2011, September 28-January 13, 2012,at the Museum of Modern Art. 11 West 53rd Street, NY, NY.