On the Road

Posted on March 18, 2008 – 7:18 PM | by OldManFoster
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Type “Doug Biggert” into YouTube and you will come up with an excerpt from TV5 Monde, a French network news show.  Sandwiched in with terrorist alerts and sports coverage is a report on visiting American photographer Doug Biggert and his show Hitch-Hikers.  Biggert gets more time than the terrorists.

That’s Paris.Doug Biggert

In Sacramento, Biggert’s longtime home, things are a bit more low key.  Around here Biggert is better known as the former magazine buyer for the Tower chain and for the evolving graffiti mural on the back of his Midtown home. Very few know that Biggert has recently had several shows of his photography in Europe.  Even fewer know about the book.

The book is Hitch-Hikers, a collection of portraits of some of the hitchhikers that Biggert has picked up over the past 35 years.  The 70-odd photos in the book, taken over decades and in more than a dozen states, are only a small fraction of Biggert’s hitchhiker photos.  Since the early seventies he has taken a picture of nearly every hitcher that he’s given a ride to– and he has a story to go with nearly every photo.  Biggert isn’t exactly sure, but he thinks he’s at about 450 portraits so far.

The uncertainty about the precise number of photos might give a clue to Biggert’s level of organization.  A visit to his Midtown home confirms it.  Photos, art, magazines, books and records fill the two-story structure in no discernible order.  While Biggert seems able to access anything he looks for at a moment’s notice, no one else could.    Indeed, the book project began when the publisher stumbled across a jumbled pile of photos in a ragged cardboard box in Biggert’s living room and asked, “What’s this?”

The publisher is Xavier Carcelle, a Parisian who worked in Sacramento for a few years.  Biggert met Xavier at a magazine shop across from the capitol when he and his companion Chloe Colpe stopped in looking for French magazines.  Biggert asked if he could take a picture of Carcelle’s shoes.  “He had some really weird shoes,” Biggert says.  The three hit it off, and over dinner, Biggert made an impression on the couple. As they say in their introduction to the book: “We met Doug Biggert in the summer of 2003 and immediately knew that we had come across a unique individual. Someone who stood out from the rest.  A man smitten with absolute freedom.”   The couple and Biggert remained close, even after the two returned to France, and it was on a subsequent visit to Sacramento that Carcelle unearthed the box into which Biggert had been casually dropping his hitchhiker photos for decades.

It’s no wonder that the photographs in Hitch-Hikers captivated Xavier Carcelle.  They capture an America that is usually unseen by the rest of the world, and that goes unnoticed by most Americans.  Biggert’s subjects pose by the roadside, in the car (usually Biggert’s tattered 1966 beetle), or quite often at gas stations with what now seem absurdly low per-gallon prices hovering in the background.  The people in Biggert’s portraits are often rough and dirty and rangy, but always somewhat off-center.  They’re hitchhikers. They are risk-takers by nature, or simply because they have no other choice.   Some seem blithely unaware of their surroundings; others are crazy-eyed wary; many seem bemused that their roadside benefactor has asked to take their picture.  For some this may be the only portrait that exists outside of a mugshot.

Carcelle took the original photos back to France and immediately began cleaning them and creating high quality scans of the images, most of the negatives being long-since lost.   With Biggert’s approval he mounted a show of the hitchhiker photos at a Paris gallery called l’Entresol in November of 2006.  The enthusiastic response to the show encouraged him to publish Hitch-Hikers, which came out late in 2007.  Exhibitions of the photos timed to coincide with the book’s release were held in both Paris and Namur, Belgium. Biggert, flown over as the guest of honor, was feted as the exhibitions and book garnered rave reviews.

Doug BiggertBiggert has always taken photos.   Though he never followed the path of professional photographer, he speaks knowledgeably about Eugene Atget and the Magnum photographers, and cares enough to have a favorite Cartier-Bresson photo.  He first received attention for his pictures when a display of his photos in a local store earned him a solo show at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1970 …Or ’71– he doesn’t remember.  He does remember that there was an Edward Hopper show at the museum at the same time.  “New York Movie was hanging 6 inches away from my pictures, on the other side of the wall.  That was cool.”  Yet, the successful solo show still didn’t prompt him to pursue photography as a career. The dedication to “absolute freedom” noted by Carcelle and Colpe dictated that photography would remain only one of many passions.

At home little has changed for Doug Biggert.   Though the first edition of Hitch-Hikers is nearly sold out, disparity in exchange rates has made finding a US distributor for the book difficult.  While Biggert is charmed by the reviews and attention, he gives much of the credit to Xavier Carcelle, calling Hitch-Hikers “his book.”    Whether the book sells thousands or goes out of print, Biggert seems unconcerned—he simply focuses, as he always has, on living a life rich with experience.

Doug Biggert will speak about his book Hitch-Hikers at Time Tested Books on Wednesday, March 12 at 7:30 PM.   Copies of Hitch-Hikers will be available for purchase.  Time Tested Books is at 1114 21st Street. Call 916 447 5696 for information.

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