Is a photographer not a photographer? - The Visual Experience
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With the changing times and the constant shifting of photographic techniques, it’s getting more and more difficult to define who is a photographer and who isn’t. It used to be that photographers used cameras. Most photographers still do, but Smart Phones are getting to be a big influence in image-making both on the popular level (like “snapshots” used to be) and on a more involved level (like Gary Winnogrand “snapshots” used to be). But then there are those who don’t even use a camera, or a phone, or a shoe-box with a microscopic hole. There are those who take “screen-shots” on their computer. Can we consider them photographers if the images they “shoot” resemble photographic images? I suspect most of you would or might say no, definitely not a photographer. An image-maker, certainly, but not a photographer.

Well, the New York Museum of Modern Art’s Dan Leers, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, doesn’t agree. And I must admit, after seeing some of the work in lat year’s exhibit New Photography 2011, I don’t either.  The images which changed my mind are made by Doug Rickard. There’s a wonderful interview with him here.

What he’s done is take photographs of his computer screen while on Google Street Views and used them to “document” or, at least, to discuss what living in contemporary America means to millions of people. His project is called New American Picture and the images are a contemporary version of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic campaign of the 30’s. At that time, Roy Stryker called in some young photographers who were to become classic references for all who came after. Photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks  and Arthur Rothstein took their cameras into rural America in order to document and narrate what the Great Depression was doing to the nation. Doug Rickard has done basically the same. Except he never left his desk.

Google Street View is an amazing way to visit anywhere. The perspectives are totally false since all the images are “stitched” together and they capture random situations as local photographers went from street to street to gather single photographs which would later be stitched into a kind of Quick Time Virtual Reality map. the colors are totally unreal because not only are they digital representations of the real world, but they are also copies of copies retransmitted onto Rickard’s computer screen. Now, you can do this kind of stuff on your iPhone with Apps like AutoStich or Microsoft’s Photosynth. But, as usual, the big question isn’t the technique, it’s the culture behind it. What Rickard has done is photographic. He’s working out of a totally photographic tradition and the final images, although he really never took them, are a purely photographic representation of reality. It’s his cultural background which allows him to make certain choices in composition and, certainly, his culture allowed him to make certain choices in defining himself. That’s why he’s in an exhibit called, New Photography 2011. 


Photo by Doug Rikard


Photo by Doug Rikard


Photo by Doug Rikard

Edward Rozzo

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Keith Towers May 12, 2012 at 08:22

Isn't taking images from Google Earth via screen shot tantamount to copyright theft, or am I missing the point. A lazy way of taking street photography using someone elses artistic images.


Edward Rozzo May 13, 2012 at 14:35

Well Keith, that's obviously a valid point and it's a good question. But it's also a complicated question. First, we have to determine if the person who took the original photograph is necessarily the person who has the rights to the same image. In this case, the photographers who executed the actual picture-taking were not taking images with the conscious desire to create individual works of their personal expression. They were local photographers hired to execute the desire of Google to accumulate images from every street angle of every interesting street. The original photographer did not purposely take images at a certain time but, most probably, simply wanted to get the days work done since I'm sure they weren't paid very much to do the job. Next we have the rights of who commissioned the work, which in this case is Google. But, when Google stitched together the various images, did they care if someone was walking in or out of the frame? I doubt it. I doubt they even noticed what was happening on the streets. They were building a map of the world's streets. Now here comes along Doug Rickard with the trained eye of an artist and the desire to use these images to say something about America today. So his use of the images has actually transformed their meaning along with their value. In other words, he HAS added value to what Google transmits. In this sense, he probably has all the right in the world to declare HIS copyright of the works on exhibit. Did Andy Warhol have to pay rights to Cambell's Soup to use their soup can? No. Is his faithful reproduction of that soup can considered a work of art with added value. Yes, and the copyright is his and not Cambell's Soup. So that's where I think the question lies.


@cristaldiphoto May 13, 2012 at 15:15

To a more philosophic extent, since google simply records automatically the images, it's like TAKING picture out of a reality "already acquired". An artistic picture of a picture. This is how those cars work:…. So what they take is an already recorded flux of information and it's up to the artist to recognize the good image. The theme is for sure very engaging…


Fabiano Busdraghi May 23, 2012 at 17:57

This is a really interesting discussion, and there are many things that can be said, at different levels.

First of all, the question about the photographic nature is in my opinion a false question. I wrote extensively in the past on this subject, but basically photography is itself an heterogeneous media almost impossible to enclose in a strict definition. In any case, I don't really care about all the discussion of what is “real photography”. A guy prints gum bichromate, another is an old school reporter, another one capture screen-shots of his screen. I visit an exposition, I admire a wonderful pigment print, a b&w reportage and a Google map snapshot. I know what each image is and how it was produced. Fine, why should I ask my self what is “photography”?

What bother me about all the Google map screen-shot stuff, is not the metaphysical origin of the images, but the operation itself. And I agree with Keith about laziness. It's much easier to sit in front of your computer than go out in the wild. A reason why admire documentary photographer is the difficulty and danger of their work, the craziness of their lives.

Moreover, what I really dislike about Google map screen-shot is that everyone seems to do it. Not only Michael Wolf but tons of “normal” people, who cant expose their screen-shots at New York Museum of Modern Art only because their name is not Doug Rickard. Sure, you can argue that everyone today take pictures, but this does not mean all these people are great photographer. But there is a great difference: master photographer work is stunning, because “plain photography” is not just “frame an image”, it requires a lot of ingredients (technique, experience, contacts, relationships, etc), while Google maps screen shots looks always the same, no matter who pressed the print screen botton.


Edward Rozzo June 2, 2012 at 06:56

I don't really agree with you, Fabiano, on your insistence of the "purity" or "validity" of real street photography as opposed to screen-shots. You answer, I believe, your own question by stating that you (and I) are indifferent to the discussion as to "what" really is photography. I agree completely with your statement, "why should I ask myself what is photography?" The interesting questions lie beneath.

The ingredients you attribute to master photography (technique, experience, contacts, relationships, etc.) could easily be applied to Rickard's screen-shots. Beating the pavement, as we say, is not a medal of honor. If someone hikes through the woods to take photographs of the forest, he is no better a photographer in principal than André Kertesz sitting at his dining room table in his Fifth Avenue apartment in New York City and taking pictures out of his window because he doesn't want to go out. In fact, Kertesz's images are in museums throughout the world which is not the case of many back-packing 4×5 inch photographers no matter how proud they are of their achievement.

Therefore, I feel that just as you've matured an attitude towards the uselessness of wondering about what photography "is", I think you should join me in accepting that a photographer who takes screen shots which capture questions and thoughts about contemporary America, should be accepted as the Master photographer that he is. Not all screen-shots are alike! At any rate, thank you very much for your thought and comment. All comments serve to help us understand better what we are thinking and feeling.


john August 3, 2013 at 16:38

In my opinion these photographs are an insult to the legacy of photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein. The images they created were made while every sense in their body and mind were feeling the pain and joys of America. I don't think this can be achieved by making a screen shot of a computer image while sitting in your office. If true art can be achieved by doing this then welcome to the world of great art to a good portion of the youth of America.


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