The people who have taken an interest in Robbert Flick’s photography range from colleagues at the University of Southern California with whom he has collaborated—one a cartographer, the other a geographer—to Los Angeles Times literary critic David L. Ulin, who wrote the lead essay for the catalogue published with Flick’s 2004 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Times art critic Christopher Knight said, in his review, that Flick “occupies a significant position among a host of important artists.”
Although his subject matter has changed, the way Flick works has remained consistent from the early 1970s, when he cruised rural Illinois roads photographing the grid in which cornfields were planted, until today, when he cruises the L.A. freeways and photographs the gridlock and swoosh of the traffic. In 1979, he began to present the photographs themselves in grids of up to 100 prints.
What affects how these grids look more than new subjects is the new technologies Flick has adopted. Around 1990, while photographing in L.A. neighborhoods, he sped up how he worked by getting back in a car instead of walking and by trading in his view camera for a Hi8 video cam. The videos were shot automatically from the back seat while Flick drove. The appeal of video was that he didn’t have to spend hours in a darkroom before editing the work. He could cut out frames digitally to get the still-camera effect he wanted.
Editing is always a delicate negotiation in which Flick preserves the objectivity of his process, making the pictures useful to cartographers or geographers, while also intervening aesthetically to create a visual poem that appeals to book critics and art critics. He never changes the order of the images. Even when shooting blind with video, he could cut and paste his sequences afterward to give them the formal structure on which pictorial art relies. This balancing act is especially powerful in his most recent work, which entails yet another advance in his technology.
Around 2004, Flick decided to get a designated driver, and this liberated him to go back to the still camera a few years later. He now uses a hand-size Lumix digital model so precise that even the blur of a moving truck is sharp. This level of detail makes each image articulate enough to give Flick greater control over his sequences—over how a passing fancy in any one relates to the next one, or to an image a row below it, etc. Thus, in one grid at Rose Gallery, the trajectory of a car follows the curve of an on-ramp, except that the car is under the ramp, not on it. (A few frames later we see that the car is on top of a transporter truck.) In other pieces, a sign hovering above the roadside seems to swing toward us, as if we were sitting still and it were in motion. Elsewhere, three successive red cars seem to accelerate diagonally, their blurred traces moving down from one row to another, as if pulled by gravity.
Flick’s work has become more agile, precise and rich since he picked up the Lumix, when he was 40 years into his career. Only the great poets, like Yeats, get better as they get older.