Born in San Jose, California, Doug Rickard is a photographer who sources his imagery from the internet, especially through YouTube videos and Google Street View. He is founder of the websites American Suburb X and These Americans, which archive photographs and aggregate essays on contemporary photography. His shows and monographs include A New American Picture, which was included in MoMA’s 2012 New Photography exhibition, and 2015’s N.A.
A project by Doug Rickard, N.A. is composed entirely of stills and clips from YouTube videos. Capturing various scenes from the grittier parts of the US, it provides direct insight into the life, subculture and violence in these urban areas. The photo book was published in 2014 by Verlag Kettler/D.A.P. and the exhibition opens at LA’s Little Big Man Gallery.
Doug Rickard is an archivist and self-proclaimed “hijacker” fueled by a fascination with American culture and its new brand of self-surveillance—the ever-present camera phone. His recent project, N.A., is a series of videos and stills compiled from the depths of YouTube, capturing true-life American grit, violence, comedy and stupidity. What appears as shorthand for “Non-Applicable” could also stand for “National Anthem” or “North America,” and this is the gray area in which Rickard works. His images show only what others are willing to share with the world, yet altogether work to expose the darkest corners of America as filtered through the internet—its prejudices, politics, economic disparity and pure obsession with documenting itself.
N.A. will open at Little Big Man Gallery from September 19 – October 31, marking Rickard’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles.
Where are you from?
California. I grew up in the Bay Area and am working right now from the foothills outside of Sacramento in a small town called Shingle Springs.
When did you start making art?
I was always making art from probably age three up. One of my grandfathers and also an uncle were artists. I inherited that gene. As with most artists, obsessive drawing came first as a child, but as an adult and for a profession, from about 2010 onward. Two paths needed to cross: photography and the internet. When those two things began to morph, I found my sweet spot. From then on it hasn’t let up.
Who influenced you growing up and who influences you today?
I come from a family of artists and preachers—my father was the pastor of one of the very first “mega churches” in America in the ’80s. His dad was also a preacher, [as were] my brother-in-law, three uncles and countless cousins, relatives, etc. The religion intertwined with America into a sort of seamless vision that encompassed everything. It was something that I was immersed in and then ferociously rejected later, starting when I was about 13-14 years old. My father and that scene probably influenced me most growing up, but then I hit that point of radical departure. In my 20s and as an adult I’ve been influenced by a myriad of (largely American) figures ranging from Marlon Brando to Malcolm X, Sly Stone to Johnny Cash, Ed Ruscha to Andy Warhol, Richard Prince to Raymond Pettibon and on and on.
How would you describe your style?
I am a hijacker and purveyor of appropriated imagery and also obsessed with all things America. The internet and photography are a base medium and American visual culture is sifted and cherry-picked into a sort of fabric or quilt. I look for platforms to hijack and images to make and speak from. I am interested in icons and their sinful deeds, and archetypes and visual representations of social class, themes and construct. I have both love and hate for America and I come from that anger. I enjoy transgression and provocation. I want to say “fuck you” to things that America may have done and does, or perhaps things it holds dear.
“I uncovered a sort of symphony
of voices in YouTube—a mass of visual material to
let speak and from which to speak myself.”
— Doug Rickard
How and when did you decide that this is what you were going to do?
As soon as the internet came on to the scene, I started angling at what I was going to do with it. Photography and the internet overlapped, and then it wasn’t so much a decision as it was a perfect storm of energy and obsession that swallowed me up.
What’s your story of getting started as an artist?
A New American Picture
A photo book by Doug Rickard, A New American Picture is a compilation of images appropriated from Google Street View that harnesses the feel and decay of urban and rural street life, and comments on the new surveillance state of America.
Photographer and documentary filmmaker Robert Frank (b.1924 in Zurich, Switzerland) is best known for his 1958 photo book The Americans, a seminal collection of pictures taken on road trips across the US.
A photographer famous for his images of the mundane taken throughout the United States, Stephen Shore (b. 1947) is notable for his use of color, transforming images of otherwise everyday scenes into captivating subjects. His work has been showcased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he has received an Honorary Fellowship from The Royal Photographic Society.
My Google Street View project, A New American Picture, was the first thing that put me on the map. I was working in tech and looking for a vehicle from which to speak as an artist on the topic of America. I knew that the internet was the key. I wasn’t going to be able to do the ‘American Road Trip’ like Robert Frank or Stephen Shore, but I knew that I had a voice that needed to be heard and visual way of thinking and seeing. I had also studied U.S. History at UCSD in college and was greatly impacted by my studies of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, slavery and our brutal past. That had collided with my religious upbringing in the center of the evangelical movement, leaving me disenchanted and full of fire. All of these things were moving parts that basically crossed paths. Also, my obsessions take form in two massive websites, American Suburb X and These Americans—huge archives. I also have an archive of 500,000+ American images: porn posters, polaroids, pinups, cowboys, guns, transgender, etc… With all of this, these things in my head and desire to make art, the path was in front of me, and I just dove in.
How does it feel to have accomplished this body of work? What was the process like?
I spent a few years immersed in YouTube making N.A. Over that time I amassed huge archives of amateur smartphone videos that had been uploaded by Americans. In a dark studio filled with computer displays and blacked-out windows, I uncovered a sort of symphony of voices in YouTube—a mass of visual material to let speak and from which to speak myself. This took two forms: the video itself that I edited and the stills that came as a result of pausing the frames second by second, looking for my pictures. YouTube and social media can be a vicious place. I think that I saw a way to reflect some of that viciousness. Also, I found an avenue to establish a point of view—one where I could speak loosely and without a need for precision—subtext and mood being as important as the content. Video is a new frontier for me, and I think that screens and smartphones are the zeitgeist of the times. It made sense to do this work.
What are your interests and passions outside of your art?
My wife, three kids and everything that they love. Enabling them to chase those things.
What’s your favorite book, film, and music right now?
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Everyone should understand what is happening. As a globe we’re embarking on a fierce short-circuiting of our attention spans and our ability to focus. The internet is huge, but it is also transforming the way that we function and think. I feel like a lab rat myself, but I am in it headlong and fully committed. Also, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and Just Kids by Patti Smith. For cinema, Starred Up by David Mackenzie (I love prison as a subject matter), Nightcrawler by Dan Gilroy (fucking zeitgeist in subject and approach) and Ex Machina (wow, such a vision). For music, Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d city and Death Grips Exmilitary were on repeat (literally) while making N.A.
How do you feel about the rising creative scene in LA?
Dealers in Death(Killin’ Time)
Dealers in Death (Killin’ Time) is a fictional photo album made by Doug Rickard which appears to follow a real-life soldier during the Vietnam War, but was actually created using an old Vietnam War-era photo album and images appropriated from the web.
It’s like a new renaissance, and I want in. There’s nowhere on the planet like LA. It’s palpable in its ugliness, shallowness and focus on surface beauty and material acquisition. I love it and want to chew it up and spit it back out as art. I will be relocating my family and mother-in-law there as soon as I can. Watch for LA as a subject matter in work ahead.
What’s next for you?
I have ongoing projects ranging from books to web, installation and publication. All connected. These Americans on Instagram is a project. Also, my online magazine ASX and a few books: Dealers in Death (Killin’ Time) by Morel Books and others not yet announced.