Eye for a thumb

Doug Biggert’s hitchhiker photos barely escaped the local photographer’s Midtown apartment

Doug Biggert, at Verge Gallery with his photos.

Doug Biggert, at Verge Gallery with his photos.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Verge Gallery

625 S St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 448-2985

Doug Biggert doesn’t remember the first hitchhiker photo he snapped. It was sometime in the early ’70s, when he realized it might be nice to have a visual memento of the travelers he routinely picked while driving his powder-blue ’66 Beetle up and down California’s highways.

“A hitcher is just somebody you meet, and you may spend a few hours with them or even a few days, and then they’re gone,” Biggert says. “But if you take a picture of them, then you’ll always remember them—so I started taking pictures.”

A new Verge Gallery exhibit captures three decades’ worth of Biggert’s images. Hitchhikers and Other Work, which opens today, features 356 of Biggert’s hitchhiker photos; that these images ever made it out of Biggert’s Midtown apartment and into a gallery is something of a marvel.

It’s a recent Friday morning, and the photographer is sitting in his tiny living room, which is piled floor to ceiling with jazz albums, books and stacks upon stacks of papers and photos that seem to be in constant flux, spilling out onto tabletops and floors.

“Here, let me show you this one photo,” he says, getting up to dig through a precarious heap only to be distracted by something else, a book of dog photos by French photographer Elliott Erwitt.

“He was a master,” Biggert says, intently flipping through Erwitt’s whimsical canine images.

Some would argue that Biggert is also a master, but the 68-year-old photographer sees himself as just another serial photographer, shooting endless rolls of film to capture his favorite subjects, as varied as hitchhikers, signs and graffiti and the customers who once frequented the newsstand where he worked.

In Sacramento, he’s relatively anonymous, more famous abroad for exhibits of his works staged in Paris and Belgium, a documentary and a photography book.

Born in Chicago, Biggert was 5 when his father died. Shortly thereafter, he moved with his mother and younger sister to California; they stayed only a few years before relocating to St. Louis. He started hitchhiking during college and, after dropping out of grad school in Indiana, traversed the country from Los Angeles to Memphis, New York to St. Louis and Texas before finally settling in California, first in Newport Beach, San Francisco and then later Sacramento.

“Himself” by Doug Biggert, circa 1971.

Sometime in the late ’60s, after he bought the Beetle, Biggert began picking up his own rides; by the early ’70s he was carrying a camera in his pocket, asking passengers if they minded posing for a photo.

At one point, Biggert says, he realized he’d accumulated a veritable collection.

“I had a folder filled with 40 or 50 pictures, and I’d show them to people to try to explain why I wanted to take their picture,” he says. “I kept that under my car seat, and then I filled another folder.”

And he kept filling them, amassing hundreds of photos with little rhyme and reason to the selection of passengers.

“I just pick up whoever’s there; it’s mostly guys,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t pick someone up if they seem too weird, but that doesn’t happen much.”

Actually, when it comes to taking photos of his passengers, there are only two basic requirements: The film should be color and Biggert prefers that his subjects are thin.

“I like skinny people. I have a phobia about fat people,” he says unapologetically.

By the late ’70s, Biggert was living in Sacramento and working at Tower Records as a magazine buyer. Sometimes his job required travel to Portland and Seattle, and Biggert often picked up hitchers on his drives up north.

One of his favorite photos was taken during one of those treks: a young man photographed standing on the road with the tree-shaded highway stretching out behind him toward a sun-drenched horizon. The colors are richly saturated and the composition classically perfect, but it’s the man’s bemused yet compliant expression that best captures the Bohemian essence of Biggert’s work.

Biggert remembers most of his subjects—impressive, considering he’s taken hundreds of these images over the past three decades and that most of the photos remained stuffed in shoe boxes until Biggert met Xavier Carcelle in 2003.

“Balboa Pedestrian With Dog (Missing)” by Doug Biggert.

Biggert was working at Newsbeat then when Carcelle walked in. Biggert, struck by the French native’s colorful racing sneakers, asked to snap a photo. An instant friendship was born. Later, Carcelle, hanging out at Biggert’s apartment, came across a stack of the hitchhiker photographs.

“I asked him, ‘What are these?’ and he told me, ‘Oh just a bunch of pictures I took. I have more here,’” Carcelle remembers, on the phone from Paris. “They were so unique.”

Carcelle says he liked the pictures for how they captured an inimitable American spirit.

“In France, we like Jack Kerouac and the beatnik movement and the freedom it represents,” he says. “If you only take one photo from [Biggert’s] collection, it is maybe a very good photo. But if you take the whole collection, what you see is a snapshot of the United States.”

Carcelle not only examined the whole collection, he also took time off from work to photocopy every last image for Biggert’s personal collection.

Carcelle showed Biggert his efforts and as the photographer rifled through the copies, he recounted memories of the people he’d snapped.

“I asked him, ‘Are you telling me you remember every person?’” Carcelle says. “I gave him a pen and some wine, and when I came back, he’d written down his recollections for all of them.”

It was at this point, Carcelle says, that he realized the images needed a wider audience and, returning to Paris, he approached a friend at the L’Entresol gallery. The resulting 2006 exhibition, which featured 360 of Biggert’s photos, was a hit with Parisians and led to a Belgian exhibit which, in turn, led to a book offer from a Belgium publisher.

The pocket-sized Hitch-Hikers, which chronicles 70 of Biggert’s images, isn’t available in the States—a fact that only emphasizes the photographer’s relative lack of renown, not just in America but also in Sacramento.

“Sometimes you get famous away from home,” says Carcelle, who, with his friend, Chloé Colpé, shot a short documentary Beautiful America about Biggert and his work.

“Wow” by Doug Biggert.

“It doesn’t ring a bell for local people right away, but I think now it’s his turn.”

Biggert himself dismisses any notions of celebrity (“I ain’t famous anywhere”), and this, says Verge Gallery curator Liv Moe, at least partly explains his low profile. After all, this is an artist who usually fails to mention he once worked with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the famed artists known for their sweeping, grand-scale pieces of environmental art.

(“It’s true, I worked on the Rifle Valley Curtain [installation] in 1972,” Biggert confirms. “I met them at some fundraising things.”)

“It kind of blows my mind that nobody here knows what he’s doing, but I think a big part of that is because it’s Doug,” Moe says. “If it was just Doug, these photos would still just be sitting in a box in his living room.”

An upcoming Vice magazine article will chronicle Biggert’s work with a multipage photo spread and, in January, his photos will be displayed at White Columns, an art gallery in Lower Manhattan.

But first there’s the Verge exhibit, which also features a collection of Biggert’s life-sized portrait composites as well as “A Sandalshop Wall,” a reproduction of his last U.S. art exhibition, a 1972 installation at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The display includes hundreds of photos Biggert took of friends and customers while working in Southern California.

Biggert’s talent, Moe says, is tangible for the way his work reveals an eye for detail, but also soul.

“It’s not just the fact that he takes these photographs that’s interesting,” she says.

“When you look at his body of work, there’s a wide class of people—from the elderly neighbor who visited him at work to the local drifter kid. … These are really touching and compelling images.”

And so some things will never—perhaps should never—change.

Doug Biggert still uses an Olympus XA camera to shoot his film, still develops photos at Costco, still loses most of the negatives and, yes, still picks up the occasional hitchhiker, though the ’66 Beetle is long gone, replaced by a 1990 Honda Accord.

The appeal of taking endless photos of seemingly random people, places and things, he says, is simple and enduring.

“I just like serial photography. It’s a subliminal walk on the wild side for me. I’m attracted to [these images] because they’re beautiful,” he says.