by Dan Solomon

Published on 10/03/ 2013

This edition of Daylight Digital produced in partnership with the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), Raleigh, NC, features Doug Rickard and Matthew Jensen two artists featured in the museum’s current exhibition, Surveying the Terrain. We sat down with Doug and Matthew and the curator of the exhibition Dan Solomon to have a conversation with them about the use of Google Street View technology in their work.

Matthew Jensen: The second I saw Google Street View in early 2008, I sensed [it was going to impact] the future of experiencing landscape and that it was going to shift everything. I wanted to make a piece of work with this right away. I wanted to do something conceptual with it, not to use it as a camera, but to talk about it as something that was going to shift the way we look at landscape. That’s what got me interested. I also thought it was beautiful—the strange awful cyan colors of the sky…

Doug Rickard: When I saw it, I had already been experimenting online with ways to access the country. I wanted to explore some large American themes like the decay of our big cities and the income gap [that centers] historically around race. I’d been exploring YouTube and other means, and when I saw Street View I immediately jumped straight into Detroit and I was floored that I could look and just drop in anywhere in these cities and really get a gauge of what things were like. And the aesthetic, I thought it was beautiful in many ways, especially the broken Street View, the first generation, that had these characteristics that were poetic, and it was refreshing, coming on the heels of this push in photography for more and more high-definition and more literal interpretations of the camera, and I favored this broken quality. So I started diving into areas across the country with this voracious appetite to explore and with a desire to extract images full of a profound beauty that also conveyed an American subtext. So I [plunged] into the whole country using Street View, but especially border towns all across Texas. Like Matthew, the first day I realized this thing was there I took my mobile phone and I started taking pictures of the screen with it. My mind was reeling, and I was, like, holy shit, I have no practical way to go out and explore the country anyway—and already everything I was doing was derived from the Internet, everything I was interested in was somehow connected to the Internet as a sort of frontier. When I found Street View I was floored by this unique point of view… I could use this tool go anywhere in the country and tell a tale.

Dan Solomon: When people come to your work, Doug, they focus on some of the political aspects. Matthew, you’ve mentioned that there are also political considerations in your work. Could you talk a little more about that?

MJ: I worked in politics for a number of years before I was squarely in the art world. I was up in DC being sensitized there to politics as an idea, and I really wanted to be careful how I included it. It’s impossible to avoid being political with photographs of American landscapes. As I started to narrow down my choices of imagery I was always walking along railroad tracks in post-industrial towns; that’s where I started looking for pictures. I wanted it to be American and not really bleak, but when people look at the series the first thing they do is think how depressing it is, despite all the sunbursts. What I was trying to do is just find what I thought was a good example of that state’s ethos, something that would help someone in that state recognize the place as their own. So if I was in a state like Connecticut—I grew up there—most people would associate it with wealth, but I associate it with rural and post-industrial landscapes. So that’s where I wanted to go with that. I also wanted to make sure I got the bodies of water—Pacific, Atlantic, the Gulf—and I wanted to get as close to the Mexican border as possible. So Texas is probably the only one with clear politics in it - there’s a border guard parked next to a car, and a siren next to someone’s house.

In general, real politics is in the way we experience land. As more people migrate away from taking road trips and as we experience the world through the Internet more and more, there’ll be fewer people invested in protecting the land, so it’ll be easier for major companies to come in and mess things up. What I imagine I would see in the future is the environmental movement shrinking because fewer people are exploring by car or on foot. So all these iconic things about the American landscape, things that many people become interested in through traditional family travel, it’ll be harder to protect them from future developments or assault.

DS: American landscape photography is by its nature political?

MJ: There’s politics in most photography, whether it’s portraiture or land. When we look at a picture, we all bring to it our own financial background—so if I show a neighborhood that I think is common, someone in a museum or a collector or moneyed people in city centers tend to see that as depressing or bleak. They think maybe I’m showing something poor, but it would be normal for me, and beautiful. As for the politics of the piece as a whole, and the commentary on Google itself, what really started it all is the idea that once upon a time the sun touched everything, and now Google does. Google is becoming this omniscient, all-seeing thing—it’s a power that was once associated with the sun, so we have that historical notion of knowledge coming from light, and now Google is sort of taking that over. So that’s why we have the sun in every picture, and why that was an important element.

DR: There’s such an interesting overlap here, but with differences too. Listening to Matthew reminds me of how my mind was working during this project. I’ll talk about the aesthetic mainly now, but it’s true I knew deeply that no matter what I was going to show, there were political implications, and I was bringing those into the equation too and I can talk about that.

From an aesthetic standpoint, I come from this history and have this voracious appetite for American street and landscape photography—William Klein, Steven Shore, [William] Eggleston, all of these figures that have populated our lineage and trajectory. I couldn’t help but bring those dynamics into the work I was doing. I knew I was going to try to show my perception of all these places. I was exploring them with a real curiosity to see this terrain. I had a Camden, New Jersey, in my mind; I had a Detroit in my mind; a New Mexico and various rural places. I carried images in my head of all these places, from my reading and the media, from watching The Wire, that sort of thing. And I was exploring these places and matching them up, and seeing what was accurate versus what I was thinking. From an aesthetic standpoint, while I was doing this I wanted to embed recognition of place.

I wanted the images that were coming from Detroit and New Mexico to come across as familiar—if you lived in one of those places you’d recognize it. I guess from an aesthetic position, I focused on architecture and topography and the time of day and the feelings that I felt would characterize it. I wanted Detroit to look like Detroit. I think it’s because my feelings were similar to Matthew’s about his piece. I was stitching together a quilt-work of this American landscape, bringing in both the history and the trajectory of cities through these images. But then there’s also this lineage of street photography—the motions, the composition, the tilt of someone’s silhouette, the colors, the way the sun and shadows fall—in my work I really wanted to tie in with that and feel like a continuation of Eggelston and Shore and [Walker] Evans. Sometimes places surprised me, but in a weird way my sense of place that I had built up through media and so forth mostly matched up with the terrain these explorations presented. For instance, places like central Florida—or Miami, Orlando, or south Dallas were much like what I’d imagined.

If you think about the proliferation of imagery today, we’re introduced to a lot of places through television. I watched the First 48 extensively; it’s a show that takes place in Louisville, south Dallas, St. Louis, in all these cities. As I drop into these places and explore them through Street View, I am covering some of the terrain where these shows have taken place. There was this whole housing development in a scene on the First 48 where I was traversing online, and I remember saying to my wife that I’ve already been here. I turned the camera to the actual apartment that I had seen on the First 48—and here I was, traversing around the neighborhood in Street View.

For me [I was using] aesthetics to highlight places that I felt were broken down, at least economically, where segregation was still in place because of economics but also skin color. I wanted to shine a light on these places in a sense. But I was also searching out beauty. The beauty was coming in spite of this desolate landscape and terrain. Most of the images that I have are of this color and light that’s falling in some way that’s to me poetic and beautiful, and almost transcends the decay. But in a strange way too, it also emphasizes the desolation, and I can understand why people commenting on my work say that it too is bleak, ghostly, apocalyptic. I sort of knew that the eye to the camera was going to have a menacing feeling, the way these robotic cameras sucked everything up. And I knew that it would play a pronounced role in how the work would feel. I also knew that the breakdown from a pixelation standpoint would heighten the tension, the atmosphere in the subtext. I think it goes both directions in a way that maybe takes away from the real feelings. The looser, more broken down pictures made something feel more menacing than the reality would probably be. If you go the other way and look at Street View in the current, updated high-def version, you can see how in Detroit, even where homes are burnt up and broken, it looks like Disneyland. It’s so vibrant, and the sun’s always covering everything. The new Street View, they really don’t want to shoot weather that’s compromised. The new stuff diminished something. There’s not really an accurate emotional depiction, but every viewer brings their own biases and experience. There’s no way to get any form of accuracy because of this aesthetic.

DS: Doug you mentioned Eggelston, he’s so well known for his use of color, composition and perspective. Matthew you talked about the magical cyans etc… Can you guys talk a little about three things: how you experience color on Google Street View and alter it in your finished work, the way the pictures come to you guys in a certain perspective and how you might change or re-crop the image, and how you use light?

MJ: My favorite thing to notice was the resolution differences—in the cities it was really sharp, but the res would be low, say, in the middle of Montana. The grainy images were more beautiful and artistic, whereas the high resolution was not as interesting. Google doesn’t want to waste memory storing high-res images of Montana. But for places where they know they’re going to be selling something with the city streets plugged in, it’s a good use of memory. So I stayed away from the city centers because I really liked this low resolution. But then you go over to Europe, and in the middle of nowhere in Europe it’s really high-res. So I thought, well, maybe they captured it in both resolutions, and to save memory space Montana and Wyoming are low-res right now. They actually have the high-res, I thought, and when everybody’s computer catches up, they’ll drop in the high-res and the low-res will be gone. So I was really looking at the future of where this will be going. I believe that the feeling we get when we look at the low-res, this beautiful, poetic feeling, will one day only be in our memories, and no one else will have experienced that.

DR: Also, if they’re outlying areas, people would assume that those who live there aren’t even on the Internet much, thinking that they don’t have the bandwidth or the big pipes, so there’s maybe even a piece that ties right into income level about where they’re putting in the high-def. Once you get into the South there’s almost nowhere that’s in high-def. I made almost 20,000 images during the course of this project. I looked at creating an archive of Street View images that will disappear from Google. I knew that this was a temporary thing, that it would all be wiped out.

MJ: A political thing we both had to deal with before we started was that we were appropriating the biggest appropriator in the world, something people were getting up in arms about. All of a sudden Google has found a way to sell the front of a house. Stealing those images back from Google, it’s a political thing that people pick up on right away. Like, “Does Google own those pictures?” Well, I don’t know, do they own your house? Same kind of thing.

DR: A lot of people tend to home in on that kind of thing. “Those are Google’s images, who is this guy?” People miss the entire context; it’s kind of funny.

MJ: “Oh, he just took them off the Internet!” As if anybody can do it. It somehow diminishes the piece. But if you’re walking through the real world, you have a finite space to move through. With this Google view you have infinite space to move through, which compounds our problems as far as choice. That’s why I was thankful to have the sunburst requirement: because it limited me. If I could have gone anywhere at any time, any place, I would have gone crazy.

DR:  When I look back on it, I had such a specific bar for the images I knew would make up this project. I had periods where I would go ‘exploring’ for two or three weeks, but I might not use anything. I kept pictures that I knew were strong, even if I knew that I wouldn’t use them. It was immensely difficult to end up with a picture that actually stood up on its own. I’d go weeks sometimes without any pictures that I could use. It greatly expands the need for editing and using discipline and homing in on the pictures that are meaningful because there’s such a massive amount of possibility as you’re traversing.

The imperfections are some of the gorgeous factors of the Street View platform. The kinks, the direct sunlight, but then the break where there was stitching from the 360-degree construct. I used it subtly, like John Rathman has played off of those imperfections that create a surreal universe. I love those flaws. It harks back to a need for a new aesthetic that values the past, the imperfections of historic photography or objects. Often I really look for some flawed characteristics that actually heighten the beauty in these scenes. It frequently came in through the sunlight, like the flare.

DR: Everyone thinks of Google Street View as being omniscient. Your title has 49 States speaks to a time when Google wasn’t yet everywhere because when you made the work streetview wasn’t yet in Hawaii. With the exception of South Africa it isn’t in Africa, or most of Asia, etc. Any thoughts on omniscience or the lack of omniscience? We still look at a world where Google Street View does not touch a great majority of the world?

MJ: That’ll change fast. Now there is a backpack you can rent and walk around and look around paths and do it for Google Street View. I knew it would change, so I wanted to time-stamp my piece with that title; I wanted it to instantly be old-fashioned by title, because I knew the work would be outdated as soon as it was published. I also wanted to reference a time when the United States had only forty-nine states.

DR:  You know they’re intent on covering the globe. That map you see that’s a very practical tool for finding places, it’s also an economic map of the world. The amount of Street View coverage likely lessens in a way that is related to income levels.

There’s nothing Street View can do to equal the interaction that journalists have when they come into contact with people out in the physical world. It becomes something else, with the detachment, the anonymity, the lack of interaction, the spectator-type actions of these Google cars baked into it—these very special ingredients that I knew were going to be polarizing, controversial. People were either going to love it or they were going to howl at me: “What kind of disrespect is this?” But in a way, it just creates something that exists that was not there before.

Even if I were going to be in these locations in person like Evans was, I’d absolutely want to interact with people. There’s no way I’d be taking pictures on the scale that I did and not be talking to people about what I’m doing. That also completely changes the dynamic. People are aware of the camera and are engaging with you, and it becomes something else entirely. So the work I was doing had ties to tradition, but it was breaking from tradition too. It was masked in a way that made it look like street photography, but it had characteristics that were dramatically different from traditional street photography, particularly in that there was no communication from me, and often there was no awareness of the camera. There’s a kinship with some pictures Evans did out the window of a moving car. He took pictures with a 35 mm camera in the rural South. The images also have some similarity to traditional road trip photographs, like Frank’s work, but it they are dramatically different in the anonymous detachment that is baked into the technology.

DS: You have both talked about your interest in the tradition of American photography, the tradition of road or travel photography. Walker Evans had the support of the FSA, Robert Frank took two years and had a Guggenheim Fellowship while he was making the work that became The Americans. Can you guys talk about this new type of road trip?

MJ:  It’s interesting how Google Street View appeared at the same time as four-dollar gas. Gas prices went straight up and the American road trip died. Google Street View resurrected the ability to go anywhere at any time. There are politics to this too. A lot of the things you see on Street View are places that stayed open and survived on people’s road trips. People would go on road trips and spend money along the way, but now those places are also obsolete and dying. First it was the rail towns, then the highway towns, now it’s nowhere. Doug’s work references people in the landscape taking pictures, with the rectangular format. What I wanted to reference with the square format is road trip tourist photos. Mom and Dad, with their camera. The old color photos actually seem to match up pretty closely with the street view images.

DR: In my case I felt that I was extending on the Farm Security Administration project in a weird way; I knew there was a parallel there. Professional photography and photojournalism are in the crosshairs right now, and people have less and less of an appetite for traditional photojournalism. Because we have a screen at all times and are into the Internet, most people now are starting to see the world more through their screen than through physical reality. We’re rapidly losing a sense of exploration, and that exploration is starting to jump off in a virtual sense. I think it’s a dynamic that’s shifting. Practical considerations set me on this course, but also I knew I was traversing the same ground as Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Walker Evans. I knew this would be very different, but would also have some parallels.

DS: What are your thoughts or feelings on how this technology affects how we experience space and time? Do you feel we are still experiencing time and space in a traditional sense, or do you see this technology condensing time and space?

MJ:  Well I guess not so much time, but space for sure. Practically, for me, instead of looking at a paper map I can look up my location online and see where I am before I go there. I’ll see familiar spots when I’m walking that I’ve never been in before, sort of like a dream.

DR: In a way I see time as mixing and folding onto itself. As we pile stuff on the Internet, which we’re doing at a massive clip, a lot of that info spans across the past as well as the present, collecting into this giant merged entity that’s accessible in real time, with our creativity its only limit. What we’re seeing are ideas and fetishes and how we link the past with the present. I think this will merge into a confluence. In a way it heightens the role that the past plays in the present. You’ve got students now accessing generations’ worth of photography from books and research and seeing it side by side with the contemporary. Across a whole different set of criteria, the past and the present are basically comingling. In terms of artistic practice, I think people will play on this. This hard drive I’m amassing holds 430,000 images that I’ve accumulated over the past six years. These images are mostly Web source images that span every decade and every era. I’ve got folders labeled with terms like “white men receiving awards.” I’ve got other folders for types of people I’ve researched on Facebook. I see the past and present merging and creating a dance in many regards. I see it as a frontier that’s presenting itself in the form of its own medium. It’s for sure going to shift the definition of photography. But I think it will shift the definition of a lot of things.

DS: Matt, when I asked Doug if he was familiar with 49 States I started telling him about your project where you did a series of 1,017 images of 2,183 trees in Willimantic, Connecticut. I wonder if you guys see a connection between your collecting tendencies—in your appetite, in the type and amount of your information, in the ease of retrieving information, whether through Google Street View or the Internet more generally?

MJ: I think when cameras used only film, photographers still collected, although it was slower. But once I had a digital camera I began doing projects that I never could have done with film. I could collect things that recurred in the landscape many times instead of just once in a town. I wanted to see anything that digital had to offer me. I wanted to embrace that. One thing is volume. Just by not having to deal with film or with a camera at all. But your ability to basically create conceptual projects through a collection and show people themes, something that recurs in a landscape, it’s not until you collect it that people might be aware of its importance.

DS: Can you expand a little more about the sunbursts? I find them moving and beautiful.

MJ: Traditionally it’s hard to shoot into the sun with a camera. It’s something I couldn’t do in the real world without Street View. I’ve always enjoyed the sun as this concept, as a bringer of light, and the way it’s depicted in historical paintings is beautiful. I knew I was dealing with some of the most melancholy, sad landscapes. Not that they’re sad exactly, but all strangely colored and distorted through this machine, which adds a whole layer of melancholy to the landscape that wasn’t there before. I wanted to counter that with a recurring theme of beauty. Even if someone didn’t see the details in the image, they would just see a wall of sunlight and maybe feel better.

DS: Robert Adams talks about the redemptive power of light. He finds devastating themes of forest clear-cuts and other delineated areas. Do you see any of that going on with your use of the sun in your photographs?

MJ: I see it more as this beautiful transcendental thing that connects us all. I think a lot of people pick up on that. I’ve seen that clip of Robert Adams talking about light and I certainly liked it. I guess for me it’s hard to be depressed and sad; often if you are it’s because you aren’t getting enough sunlight, so I like that maybe if you’re indoors all day and you see these pieces you’ll feel better. But the idea that our computer is a porthole directly to the sun is kind of weird.

DR: The redemptive quality of light can form the inverse as well. Light can be wielded like a tool in ways that can be redemptive, but also extremely melancholy, and it can also come off as destructive. I think light is probably the ultimate tool in terms of visual imagery, especially if you’re dealing with photography as a medium, historically. Because you can wield it in such a wide and flexible way to hold the viewer’s strings if you will, and to control for the most part how they feel. If you think of Arbus, the way she used light. Or Adams, he did use it in a redemptive way. Most of the time he’s in Colorado and he’s using this powerful, clear light to illuminate things in a stark and pristine and beautiful way—whether it’s a suburb that looks sort of diminutive, so it looks like a little model, or whether it’s a clear-cut forest. But at the same time it can cast a certain feel over everything that is super emotive: redemptive and also depressive, even. It depends on how the light is being thrown out. It could be partly obscured or full of shadows; it’s pretty flexible.

I want to add one thing about the archive and digital collection. The Internet and digital technology are enabling us to voraciously pull many things together—typologies, categories, subtexts, items—and with these in hand the artist is allowed to speak in ways that can be very precise and pointed and controlled, and I think we’re going to see more of that. This volume, these masses of material can be wielded in a way that is much more specific and precise. People have done this historically—Richard Prince, for example—using media to speak and using collections of items, like models looking the same direction. You can really start to speak in a way that someone can author in their own photos, maybe in a way that is more precise. I think we’re going to see this continual use of volumes of materials to speak in ways that may be profound or meaningless. There are going to be people wading through these voices to find what matters.

MJ: I wanted to say something about light and shadow. The second I saw Street View, it shook my world a little bit. The most recent thing to do that for me in digital technology was the high-definition range, HDR. What’s about to happen in cameras everywhere, including in cellphones, is the elimination of a bad picture. So sun flares and shadows are about to disappear because they’re going to figure out how to make all pictures perfect, which means the pictures will be so perfect they won’t be interesting. Eventually it will probably be incorporated into Google to solve the problem that they have to deal with—to them, the sun is a problem and not a provider, so having to program their cameras to deal with it has been problematic. But now HDR is on its way everywhere, and my students will ask me if they can use it, and I’ll just say no.

DR: Because of this volume of material that is growing from all avenues it’s more and more about selecting, pulling together, and speaking in ways that change the dynamic of what was originally intended. I think whether it’s reusing Street View to speak profoundly in spite of how it was created, or using images that were pulled from the Internet, or whether it’s using HDR images to speak about the disappearance of flawed imagery, what’s happening is it’s shifting and it’s repurposing, and in a simple sense it’s editing. That is the ultimate linchpin of the future, when you’ve got masses of material that everyone is creating and has exposure to, it’s all about what you select and what you say with it. I think the era we’re entering into is somehow that of the sifter—taking on an archive, your camera, the Internet—it’s taking from the archive and sifting and speaking from that mass.

MJ: Selection as a medium. Twenty years from now you can probably get an MFA in selection.

DR: With photography, the definition is shifting rapidly. It is about choice and it’s about what’s between your ears, maybe as much or more than the ability of your eye. It’s what you do with this mass of information that’s going to become the crucial factor. Whether it’s an aesthetic or conceptual consideration, or a hybrid of those two things, it’s imperative that people speak profoundly because everyone can make pictures now that it’s not just about making a beautiful picture. It’s the era of the editors.