Roofs face the elements without shingles and collapsing, store fronts stand shuttered and windows boarded over, and gingerbread crumbles off formerly elegant facades.
In Doug Rickard’s “A New American Picture” on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, the sense of desertion pervading the images remains strangely untempered by the spotty presence of people.
They amble past decrepit houses and drive on cracked, untended roads. It’s hard to imagine the buses they wait for will arrive. They seem more like trespassers on long-abandoned property than residents of Detroit, Memphis, Fresno and Houston.
Neither do they seem aware they are being photographed. These are Google Street View images, collected by Rickard and begging for a discussion of the line, if there is one, between exploitation and art, or even simply between exploitation and photojournalism.
Rickard did not gather images from affluent or even moderately unbenighted areas of the cities to include in the collection for variety, nor did he present himself to the subjects as an artist or journalist intending to document them and the decaying cityscapes they call home.
The fact that he appropriated the images, exclusively chose impoverished areas and avoided or bypassed the moral challenge of revealing his purpose to his subjects – subjecting himself to the possibility of their refusal – makes for uneasy, almost guilty, viewing.
That reality might be the most powerful aspect of the exhibition.
Typically one walks into a downtown gallery, wishing she had asked for Champagne instead of white wine and staring for awhile at a photograph of a person who knew he was being photographed – and that someone ultimately would stare at his picture, glass in hand.
In this show, the visitor, with the same regrettable wine, stares at someone who had no idea he and the world he lives in would be used as an indictment of the very system that consigns some to live in wreckage and allows others the luxury to wish they had asked for the more expensive stuff at gallery openings.
While Google Street View most often reveals nothing more than would help to identify a street by name, Rickard has manipulated it to reveal a disturbing truth about our country – about the vacuity of an American dream that leaves communities disenfranchised, and our capacity to ignore them until presented with the curated evidence of our neglect.
IF YOU GO
Where: Stephen Wirtz Gallery, 49 Geary St., third floor, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturdays; closes June 18
Contact: (415) 433-6879, www.wirtzgallery.com