Published as the introduction to American Surveillance: Someone to Watch Over Me by Richard Gordon, Berkeley, California, Chimaera Press, 2009.
Richard Gordon is a straight photographer in a refined, difficult sense of the term. Sleuthful toward appearances, he is drawn to the collateral meanings of things as they are, in this case the unnoticed ubiquity of visual surveillance within contemporary urban spaces. In the pictures that follow, Gordon is locked in a game of wits with the public as it conceals within itself an infrastructure of unsolicited private observation, what amounts to an omnipresent regime of legitimated social distrust.
Like his subject, Gordon is full of dissimulations. Each of his pictures stands for other pictures, indeed countless numbers of other pictures in streaming time, none of them as necessary as Gordon’s, and none as decidedly reticent. Gordon’s subject extends, it seems, limitlessly in all directions. Hidden cameras accessorize every building, dwelling with crisp indifference in the midst of the unsuspecting world. The system’s reach is precisely not demonstrative, and this is Gordon’s key insight. Cameras are to be found abundantly in these pictures—but not in all of them, or more strictly, perhaps not in all of them. The point is that we don’t really know what is and is not a camera, where cameras are and where they are not, how we can move to avoid being registered as a lapping electronic smudge of some undisclosed importance. It isn’t necessary for Gordon to find (i.e. place) cameras in every photograph in order to bring to recognition the strangeness of the video-ossuary that American cities produce daily and hourly, year upon year.
Richard Gordon, the straight photographer, is a trickster. As a self-styled “little guy” conducting frank, if perhaps futile counter-espionage in slow-working, hard-won and exquisitely descriptive images, he gives the lie to the presumption that electronic scrutiny is observation. Gordon himself is among the last true observers in the worlds he shows, and his truth consists in his understanding that sprocket-turned witness can register but not quite put a finger in the glass eye all around us. Or to put the point differently, Gordon’s pictures muse about Big Brother rather than accuse. The hyper gathering of information that Gordon trains himself upon is unaccountable, vast and scheming—and as such, menacing—but at the same time is precisely overwhelming, unmanageable, more in the category of declamation than use. In Gordon’s pictures, we the public are certainly not masters of the camera-imbued environments that we live and work in, but we are also not clearly victims, inasmuch as no person staring at the spillage of images on a bank of monitors is the master either. The apparatus itself is both dumb and capable, endowed with purpose and seemingly its own justification, an instrument and an end in itself—a kind of golem. Richard Gordon, the straight photographer, is its shaman, a soothsayer of the baleful and torpid “security” we have unleashed over ourselves.
Moving us from cold appraisal to citizen’s arrest and back again, Gordon positions himself—and by implication, us—as the unseen system’s superego, as if to shame quasi-anonymous, conscienceless scopic agency into some sort of moral compliance. The upshot is a not-funny irony: the more you look at (and for) the ways that surfaces shelter secrets, and appearances prepare us to accept lies about our own protection, the less you grasp. Richard Gordon, the “straight photographer”, is a riddling seer. By turns droll and mirthless, nonchalant and acutely wary, he bequeaths the discomfiting suggestion that a citizen's conscience, much like a photograph's acuity, is ultimately an alien aliveness within the impishly prying normality of surveillance in this America.
Addendum / Remembering Richard Gordon (1945-2012)
Richard Gordon, my friend for many years, was a treasure of a man. Iconoclastic, irreverent, deeply caring, sharply inquisitive, conscientious, open-minded and open-eyed––Richard was, to me, all of these things, and much more: a high humanist and a keen realist, an exceptional wit, a sophisticated anti-elitist, a man whose generosity of spirit meant separating people's foibles from their foolishness, forgiving the former and not suffering the latter. His exceptional pictures are another story, and were the source of many of his own wonderful stories. I write knowing that few or none of my words can call together the person he was. A garland of words can only adorn memory. His death finally came this week, and for the relief of his suffering, I am grateful. Even as he took pains to prepare his friends for his passing, I am not ready for it. He also made sure––up to our last long conversation in August 2012 (above)––that the world we shared, the things still to talk through and still to photograph, was alive and unfinished.