driving 500 miles along interstate 10 from austin to marfa, tx
flora fades from herbaceous to succulent
and we sear through gas and truck-stop coffee
cicadas engulf the night as i brush away organic highway detritus
debit cards as citizenship
and the american homestead as a frontier
people change and forget to tell each other
looking up, desert lights exchange, freight trains drone
eating mexican food in a border town, we clean our teeth from the truck cab
and nod ill timed farewells to a gps coordinate of significant interest
its not often that i feel this pedestrian
you came and we stood through it all
and with a bottle of gas station aquafina
we muddy the waters
Death, freedom, excess, and poetry. The ‘American Allure’ and its paradoxical, influential, evolving grasp on society, culture and the Anglo-American bond.
This essay will examine and dissect the influential imbuing of America’s ideals on western culture, the ‘American Allure’ and its social and cultural connotations. I will delve into the role of the viewer as the ‘writer’ in photography and this effect on our societies’ sense of perpetual wanderlust, explore our insatiable human desire to travel and document, particularly in search of Americana, and it’s subsequent effect on our perception of the photographic image. We will delve into a fascination of America in the eyes of the European, and it’s profound effect on the work of photographers in the last two decades, fueled by an intrinsic desire to escape into the mythical world of travel. What fascinates me about America is its foreboding stature, enabling the nation to project itself across the world as a truly compelling myth, a theatrical utopia.
The American frontier is the true American archetype, synonymous of the ‘wild west’ a most paradoxical location, a poetic and elusive portal, intoxicatingly representative of the most cherished of American ideals, the intangible concept of ‘freedom’. The frontier is a perfect metaphor of old and new, culture and nature, a contrast, border between civilization and the primitive, what America is, and what America is not. Ubiquitous and intrinsic to American ideals, the frontier is an ideological and metaphorical structure that mirrors America’s set of promises, it’s very essence. After all, what is America without the power of dreams?
So famous its become an archaic photographic cultural cliché, the work of Ansel Adams was one of the first in photography to shine a light on the potential to capture an America synonymous with is right wing political underpinnings. Not only does Adam’s work Fig 1 depict a frontier, it depicts a winding river, a trail of opportunity that bellows forth into the unseen distance towards a dramatic, bold and promising new futurexly does the success of this image boil down to it being an objective study of an ideology rich America, but a large contributing factor is the suggestive level of expertise and craftsmanship, not only visible within the image but within the famed legacy of Adams himself. What could be more representative of the American ethic? Adams manages to maintain a mythic vision of hope, squeezed out of America’s open wilderness and brutal landscapes. On the frontier, ‘Critical Regionalism’ essayist Neil Campbell writes “What exists in America has been a complex national mythology of individualism, the ‘frontier ethos’ and a manifest destiny to succeed, based upon dreams of unrestricted progress, mobility and freedom” (Campbell, 2011).
The idea of this metaphorical ‘frontier’ is something that I certainly experienced while spending a month living with a friend in New York City this summer. New York, like much of America projects a unique sense of promise, excitement and ultimate stimulation. Tourists arrive to the city with great expectations and with the advancement of modern technology, have already experienced the city before they’re even physically present.
On this allure of the American image, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously travelled the vast open lands in an attempt to digest the multicultural signs and codes in the land of excess. Baudrillard was amongst a number of French thinkers who analysed their fascination of America through the beady eye of Existentialism. Baudrillard writes “I was here in my imagination long before I actually came here” (Baudrillard, 1986). “The only comparable distress is that of a man eating alone in the heart of the city. You can see people doing that in New York, the human flotsam of conviviality, no longer even concealing themselves to eat leftovers in public” (Baudrillard, 1986). It’s this unsettling and unnerving sense of depersonalization that seems to play a key role in the stereotype of ‘American dysphoria’. Baudrillard makes a bold suggestion that the American citizen is a regressive creature of primitivism, limitless, he walks in excess and in vain of his own so granted freedom.
In the philosophical text ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, Baudrillard observes American suburbia “All around, the neighborhood is nothing but a protective zone - remodeling, disinfection, a snobbish and hygienic design - but above all in a figurative sense: it is a machine for making emptiness” (Baudrillard, 1985). It’s this sense of the façade that seems to ignite a real sense of suspicion within the outsider. Baudrillard seems to focus a large body of his theory on the evolving of Europe, its Roman and indigenous influences and a possible necessity for a slow, unfolding history in order to construct a well-rounded society. I feel he seems to suggest a suspicious sense of ‘invalidity’ towards America and in part, its this notion of the ‘whitewashed’. He certainly depicts and interprets America as a theatrical concept and a piece of prestigious stagecraft and I’m interested in the way that he suggests this as a response of a visiting European and what that could suggest about our fishtailing societies. “For the European, even today, America represents something akin to exile, a phantasy of emigration and, therefore, a form of interiorization of his or her own culture” (Baudrillard, 1986).
Baudrillard’s philosophical interpretative stance was from a time where existentialism had become fashionable, a post war emergence of rebellion and the Beat Generation, a real questioning of ones own existence.
On interpretation, theorist Roland Barthes wrote his essay ‘The Death of the Author’ in 1967. Barthes takes a stance towards the vital and integral importance of the reader within a text. He argues that a text is not only ‘authored’, but it is simultaneously ‘written’ by the reader. “The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (Barthes, 1967). Barthes goes on to describe a direct distinction between the ‘author’ and the writer, how a text is constantly and individually ‘re-written’ by each and every reader but however, never re-authored. It would simply become a new text. Interestingly, Barthes considers an image to be a purity, a true essence that is inevitably and inescapably laden with cultural ‘texts’, subsequently ‘coding’ the pure image with decipherable associations. These texts are constituted of a number of ‘signs’ – “gestures, attitudes, expressions, colours or effects, endowed with certain meanings by virtue of the practice of a certain society” Barthes then goes on to explain “The reading closely depends on my culture, on my knowledge of the world” (Barthes, 1967). Inevitably this brings us to the constructivist view on intertextuality, the idea that the production (and deciphering) of a text is the result of a vast multitude of past experiences of the individual, layered and intertwined as a filter of one’s own identity. This could suggest that no ‘text’ could be viewed (Barthes – written) exactly as the author intended, or envisioned through his/her own ‘filter of personal identity’.
British Photographer Michael Ormerod b.1947 was fascinated with the American image, particularly the poetic and intoxicatingly melancholic aspect of Americana. A political and social construct, a set of ideals. importantly, in relation to Barthes, were a series of signs that fueled and inspired the authoring of his photographic works. Could this suggest that the genuine enjoyment or even the simple reason one would not simply disregard his work, is based on our own set of ideologies, our own intrinsic codes that cause us to become the ‘writer’ of a text? Barthes believes that some ‘texts’ are revolved around either ‘writerly pleasures’ – texts that force us to take control, require the reader to piece together a narrative amongst our own context, and that some texts evoke ‘readerly pleasures’ where the reader is merely subjected to a set series of signs and codes that have less room for misinterpretation.
Jan Morris writes on Ormerod, “This book presents another foreigner’s America. If I went to the United States at one of it’s moments of grand confidence, victorious in war, unrivalled in peace, Michael Ormerod found an America fearfully disillusioned” (Morris, 1993). Fig 2 depicts a large open space, void of all human existence apart from the flickering, ethereal remnants of a human face. A post-apocalyptic trace of humanity in an empty drive-in. I wonder if this lonely and distinctly desolate image is a disheartened view of the tourist, a post apocalyptic American dream? Even if so, the work of a native, American artist Edward Hopper notoriously depicts an America alone, an America disheartened, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Not only does Ormerod’s photograph of the girl blowing bubblegum Fig 3 on an empty highway seen both iconic and subversive, it also defines a social time and place for America, a nomadic and wasted-youth aesthetic. It also represents a lack of work ethic, a lack of direction, and a distinct loneliness. Perhaps what makes Ormerod more poignant is his outside view on American society; the view of a Briton, an outsider looking in - a ‘tourist’s gaze’.
Possibly Ormerod’s most famous image, Fig 4 is of a child on a bike wearing a Hockey mask in a rural town of America. The road behind stretches out into the distance with little sign of civilization apart from the repeated string of telephone cables. It was seen by many to signify and expose an anxiety within the American middle class. The child’s mask is synonymous of horror movies and high school massacres that acted as world-famous exposé’s of the cracks in the American dream, events that sent shockwaves through a nation and exposed the comforts in the middle classes, forever infiltrating a sense of paranoia and crisis to modern American suburbia. However, school shootings are nothing new for America. In fact they’re intrinsic to its very history, centuries old in ritual and a morbid memoir of the potential flaws in American society. There’s something unnerving about the child’s stance and the resulting shadow that leaps across the soft rubble. The expression of posture carries a sense of intrigue, as if the child is an alien, confident and fearless within new territory. I think Ormerod was entirely aware of the social implications of such an image, as well as its subtle sinister underpinnings.
Morris wrote a similar reflection on Ormerod’s work in an honorary curiously obituary-like article for The Independent newspaper in 1993. “I don't know if this is how Michael Ormerod saw the America of his creation, or whether he thought this a definitive image more than just the scenery, but the play itself” (Morris, 1993). Ormerod seems to encapsulate a sense of ambiguity and it seems the very nature of his work, and generally the ideological values behind the work of the practitioners within this essay evoke such ambiguity in a way that alerts the viewer with a heightened awareness of the uncanny. Could it be that the ‘uncanny’ is a more fitting perspective of a world so skewed by media and a resulting plethora of controlled stimuli? Could the uncanny be more objective?
“We are left in a kind of all-American limbo, where all the icons are rusted and the vigor has ebbed away. We do not see the magic letters HOLLYWOOD standing proud above the great city: only an oil company name, silhouetted against a wasteland” (Morris, 1993). I feel it important to point that not only is the Texaco sign rusted and lacking in any sense of awe, its reflected, mirrored and off the beaten track, like a fossilized obituary of a prosperous time long gone. Its interesting that the frontier is visible in the distance offering the viewer a sense of new beginning, and a potential shedding of capitalism. The sign of a multinational corporation becomes synonymous with the earth, dust and rubbish that surrounds it, drying out, dying, and becoming lost and absorbed into life’s renewal.
Essayist Neil Campbell writes on Ormerod “Ormerod’s America is more often than not seen from ‘outside’, even when he is physically within; from its edges, geographically and socially, from small-towns, half-built housing projects, roadsides, highway intersections and parking lots” (Campbell, 2011). Campbell goes on to write an impressive critique on the social connotations of the work of Ormerod and delves deep into a theory he calls ‘Critical Regionalism’. Campbell discusses how Ormerod’s work manages to project ideologies and thoughts so opposing to the American dream and enables us as viewers, to read into a more critical depiction of a region and/or subsequent society due to Ormerod’s own ‘alienism’. “Ormerod rejected the notion of epic distance and sacredness embedded in Adams’ work and preferred more contradictory and problematic representations of ‘lived’ spaces with all the complex relations that this involves. Rather than shy away from the banal and ugly in an attempt to promote a view of the persistent beauty of the sublime wilderness” (Campbell, 2011). It’s this boldness in a medium considered so objective, that makes it all the more likely to cause controversy.
American essayist Susan Sontag writes; “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph it is to participate in someone else’s mortality. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (Sontag, 1977). Sontag digs up a morbid idea that every image we take preserves a moment in time, an objective snapshot of real life, and a reminder of our own mortality, of our inevitably impending death. To me, Ormerod’s work seems like a disenchanted, eye opening view of disillusioned suburbia, widening the cracks in the American middle classes. It only adds to a bleaker end to find that Ormerod tragically died in a car accident in Arizona while photographing States of America.
It seems that the idea of American loneliness is not a concept discovered by Ormerod or Hopper; “There is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room. It is even stranger than a man talking to himself or a woman standing dreaming at her stove. Suddenly the TV reveals itself for what it really is; a video of another world, ultimately addressed to no-one at all, delivering the images indifferently, indifferent to it’s own message”, Baudrillard then goes on to summarise; “In short, in America, the arrival of night-time or periods of rest cannot be accepted, nor can the Americans bear to see the technological process halted.” (Baudrillard, 1986).
I wonder if Baudrillard would decipher the work of Ormerod to be reminiscent an accurate of his own experiences of America. It could be that we are drawn to this melancholia, that we read into these signs and codes and fabricate a set of ideals that relate to us somewhere within. I wonder if this foreign attachment to America, like photography, is our search for a tangible memento mori.
The work of Edward Hopper has an iconic and profound place in American History. Not dissimilar from Ormerod’s stark images of social emptiness, Hopper’s painting Fig 6 depicts a feeling that seems universally melancholic yet something that is not necessarily painful and possibly endearing to experience. Schmeid ponders; “Hopper depicted much more than the depression and economic crisis of the 1930’s, he depicted the crisis of an alienated world, the loneliness of the human situation in the modern age”. He goes on to contextualise Hopper’s distinctly controlled aesthetic; “interiors devoid of human habitation. As Hopper’s interiors grew emptier, the feeling of loneliness and abandonment they evoked deepened, ultimately becoming a sense of ubiquitous crisis” (Schmeid, 1995).
Maybe these images are simply a stark tribute to the human condition. I can’t help but wonder, to the Briton, do these images seem so distant that they’re almost un-relatable or seen as an ‘exotic’? Hopper’s images are distinctly reminiscent of photographer Gregory Crewdson who gained fame for his large-scale cinematic movie sets, vividly constructed for the mere production of a single large format still. It strikes me that 60 years later, an aesthetic lives on; I wonder why we’re so drawn to it?
Fig 7 reveals a lone car in an empty American street; it’s own tyre marks the only trace of existence, alongside the disturbingly still figure, alone under an artificial light. The visual signs and codes of this image hold a real similarity to those in Hopper’s paintings, both Fig 6 and 7 point towards the automobile and its significance to this ‘aloneness’. The car itself is innate to American culture, and it’s the speed and convenience and consumerism that Freud referred to as the ‘Death Drive’. Freud believed that everyone has a life instinct and a death instinct, and our death instinct is externally manifested as a desire for sex, aggression, speed etc. Even the highway itself could be seen as a device to facilitate our death drives, and ultimately let the instinct reach its climax; death. America seems to be a country so open to allowing ones death drive no limits. There seems to be little restraint towards indulgence and if a man wants his death drive to get the better of him, then so it may.
Crewdson’s work has such a direct correlation with Hollywood, I wonder if the still image is a slightly subversive response to popular cinema. Does the still provide more leeway for the viewer to apply his or her own writerly pleasures on the image? Essayist Diane Dufour writes “Objectivity. The photographic truth, in assidavit of reality. The chemical imprint of the negative reproduces the real, certifies it and thereby guarantees its authenticity. Cinema, on the other hand, smashes this objective frame” (Dufour, 2008). On Hopper, Theisen writes, “Everything, as they say, comes full circle. In 2004, a large detail showing the Nighthawks diner was reproduced on free start-up discs for Internet connections with no noticeable changes except for an open laptop on the counter as part of a marketing campaign for America Online…
Perhaps they were merely expressing, via Hopper, the state of their employees morale.” (Theisen, 2006).
De Boton, on Fig 6, writes “But in Hopper’s hands, the isolation is once again made poignant and enticing. The darkness that spreads like a fog from right of the canvas, a harbinger of fear, contrasts with the security of the station. Against the backdrop of night and wild woods, in this last outpost of humanity, a sense of kinship may be easier to develop than in daylight in the city” (De Boton, 2002). De Boton manages to cypher a sense of belonging from Hopper’s work; a rounded and balanced depiction of humanity. In contrast, De Boton’s writerly role in his own deciphering of Hopper’s work reveals a message much more hopeful. De Boton’s philosophical writings on travel focus on the notion of the unknown, our intrinsic desire for escapism. It’s particularly interesting how our desire to travel temporarily intoxicates and masks over our own perception of identity. De Boton explains that people tend to project a self-altered identity over their own when picturing themselves exploring Rome or meandering through Aztec ruins. He goes on to explain that people often forget they will be, in fact, living their same lives by the Riviera, complete with argumentative spouse, niggling toothache and unruly children. He writes that our quest for travel is somewhat symbolic of our journey through life itself “If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels” (De Boton, 2002).
On tourism, Susan Sontag writes, “All photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of a space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism” (Sontag, 1977). Could the photograph really act as a form of psychological relief, a comforting freeze-frame of a past that we as human beings are scared of ever losing? This would suggest that even the notion of travel could be purely to satiate an untapped desire to experience, document and collect memories fueled by a sense of insecurity – a fear of loss.
A particularly high profile example for misinterpreted texts involved American photographer Philip Lorca diCorcia. Fig 9 shows an image from DiCorcia’s exhibition entitled Twilight. The series of photographs were taken in suburban American towns (again, buying into a similar aesthetic to Ormerod and Crewdson). DiCorcia took a series of portraits of local rent-boys, paying them an hourly rate and publicly exhibiting their price alongside the prints. The exhibition caused a public outrage with the general public reading specific sets of signs in a way that caused offence. His images ignited heated discussions on both the sex trade and homosexuality. Author Peter Galassi writes “And too often they had been presented as not only true but good, as agents of social reform. As a result, the open motive of exploring social life with a camera had become encumbered with the burdensome expectation that photography could make the world better” (Galassi, 2003). DiCorcia’s work could be a perfect embodiment of all that is American. “Since diCorcia provides only the fragment, we must complete the stories ourselves, investigating his pictures with our own dramas and dreams” (Galassi, 2003). DiCorcia’s work seems to embody a lack of dreams, yet a blinking light of hope. A blank billboard for us to project our own advertisements upon. “The inwardness of diCorcia’s characters is often not mere reverie but something graver, which opens to us the inward depths of our own lives” (Galassi, 2003).
British Photographer Paul Graham was born in 1956 and famously challenged the cultural norms in which photography can be ‘authored’. Graham’s work distinctly thrives within Barthes’ theory of ‘signs and codes’. His work requires the viewer to challenge and conjure their own ideas of what lies visually before them, and it’s Graham’s particular subtleness that seems to result in a much more harrowing reaction. Fig 10 depicts at a glance, a slightly disheveled roundabout in suburban Belfast. It’s not until the viewer is exposed to Graham’s entire series ‘Troubled Land’, that one can finally piece together and contextualise these images. Theorist Andrew Wilson comments on Roundabout - “The often discrete, hidden nature of the marks that scar the landscape – political posters hung so high they cannot be torn down, observation posts and distant helicopters shrouded by trees, a union jack flying from an isolated tree top” (Wilson, 1996). Graham was an emerging photographer in the early 80s and his unconventional approach to documentary photography really enabled him to secure his place within the industry. His method was criticized for not getting ‘close enough’ to the subject in question, almost providing a more objective image for the viewer to take from it as they please. Maybe this, in Barthes’ theory pulls away the control of the author and forces the viewer to ‘write’ his or her own narrative and to see the image for what it really is. This approach proved extremely threatening in the world of war documentary photography, and to rub further salt in the wound, Graham printed all of his photographs in large-scale colour gallery prints. Wilson writes; “Where a photojournalist would have used a tele-photo lens to capture exchange between motorist and soldiers, Graham has pulled back to capture the context that defines that action. Looked at in this way, the compositional meaning of the photograph, as opposed to its pictorial structure, is not one-sided”. Wilson adds “(Graham was criticised for) portraying the ‘troubles’ as incidental to a landscape which, as a result, was shown to be normal” (Wilson, 1996).
Fig 11 depicts a relatively ordinary landscape photograph. It is worth mentioning that the use of the colour image as a ‘serious’ photographer was still considered controversial, and garishly candid. Colour photography was reserved for the holiday snapshots and family photographs. Never was it shown to document war, never to depict sadness or turmoil, and never to be shown in a gallery. Wilson writes “The linkage of disregarded everyday images with momentous event of historical importance proposed a strategy that Graham had consistently enlarged and exploited in his work” (Wilson, 1996). I think it’s important to focus on the idea of ‘exploitation’. Graham really did ‘exploit’ the colour photographic medium for all that it could offer, all that it’s lighthearted features could contextualise for him. It’s this notion of the candid that seems to bring these images not only to earth, but frankly knocking on our front doors. Fig 12 and 13 were a famous cause for dispute; Graham’s series ‘Beyond Caring’ bleakly depicted a post-Thatcherite Britain, the cleansing of the working classes. A critic famously told Graham that his work, particularly because it was in colour, was ‘poisonous’. I think this particular critic was rather offended at how Graham brutally forces an issue into reality, providing an objective viewpoint. Shedding his large-format camera, Graham hit the bleak job centres of middle England, documenting life in the depleting working classes.
A critic once said about Fig 12, the child’s coat is pink, which therefore denotes happiness. He went on to explain that the colour of this photograph completely defies its original meaning. On Fig 13, Wilson writes “People waiting in the benefit office are perceived as being analogous with the rubbish at their feet, as just so much discarded waste” (Wilson, 1996).
I wonder if photography has an innate link to the current climate and while flicking through the work of Graham, I spot a series that to me, has unparalleled similarity to the work of American Photographer Ryan McGinley. Graham’s series End of an Age, Fig 14 and Fig 15 depicts a collection of highly saturated images, images that document the latter part of youth, an uncomfortable portrait of youthful excess emerging into adult responsibility.
Ryan McGinley’s Irregular Regulars series Fig 16 taken nearly 10 years later depicts a particularly similar aesthetic and narrative. Could this either be a sign that things haven’t changed socially or culturally, or the End of An Age proved to become part of McGinley’s subconscious intertextual inventory? It seems that both photographers’ have a similar drive, or am I as the ‘writer’, just writing my own story?
Stephen Shore was born in 1947 and is part of a small group of American photographers known as the ‘colour masters’ of the 1970s and considered a key figure in the modern universal perception of ‘Americana’ and the so apparent collapse of the American dream. Like Ormerod, Shore’s work (much earlier on) shined a light on America’s uncanny and the darker and less idealistic opposites to the political agenda in full swing under Nixon and Reagan’s reign.
From the earliest of his most notorious work American Surfaces, Fig 17 shows a highly saturated image of a woman staring forward into what we can only assume is the distance, whilst a tapestry of reflections glare at the viewer with an intoxicating azure. There’s a melancholy sense of stillness in this image that seems to resonate with the work of Edward Hopper and later, Crewdson. There’s a sense of the freezing of time within a space and class reserved for luxury and recreation but all that remains is a visible silence, a moment of loneliness. Shore was one of the photographers alongside the likes of William Eggleston who confronted the ‘taboo of colour’ in America, much like the work of aforementioned Paul Graham in the UK. It’s interesting that this use of colour has its innate associations with America; a vital part of Americana – the neon lights, the highly saturated billboards. It seems that to exploit colour, is to exploit America’s very worth.
Unlike the work of Ormerod, Shore chose to travel America extensively using a large format land camera. “(The view camera is..) The photographic means of communicating what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness”. Shore goes on to write (on American Surfaces) “The book you’re now holding in your hands amounts to what might be called the photographic equivalent to a directors cut” (Shore, 2004). It’s interesting that Shore might compare his work to that of work projected on a cinema screen, and it’s this comparison between still photography that I will touch upon further. Shore’s use of the land camera allows him to photograph in a meditative way, much like Adams he would be taking multiple exposure readings, waiting and holding his breath for the ultimate and perfect moment to capture. Although, it must be said, the similarities between the work of Shore and Adams stop abruptly there. Shore’s work depicts a social time and place in American history, an identity crisis of politics and aspiration, whereas Ansel Adams’ work is, debatably, part of the very glorified political propaganda. Could Shore’s painstaking approach to his work innately allow him to gain more control over, in Barthes’s terms, the ‘authoring’ of his work and therefore less room for the writerly pleasures of the audience?
Fig 18 is a photographic bundle of intertextuality, and in a way, a succinct and poignant embodiment of American culture. The billboard, cinematic in presence, depicts an aspiration. The scrubbed out blocks where text would have been placed suggest the image was an advertisement for travel, the image of a mountain, a frontier in the distance reflects onto the water. Outside of the billboard, a second frontier is seen in the distance, more dusty and lacking in as much awe or lustre as the bright, printed image. I wonder if this could be a reflection of the ever-dissatisfied aspirations of the American psyche. The billboard image seems so close to home that the destination is not exotic but domestic. With the text scrubbed out, the billboard takes on a painterly quality, as if an artist left his unfinished painting of the landscape. It’s a landscape from a few years ago, the America that once was. I think its important to mention that alongside this sociological plethora of analysis, the exposure and colour balance of the image is exquisitely refined, and I think its this level of supreme craftsmanship that really lent Shore a hand in becoming recognised as a serious photographer in colour, in the 1970s. To become a fully respected US Citizen, work ethic plays such a vital role in reputation and its this role that goes back since the earliest European settlers, infusing the nation with a sense of Republican ethic. It seems that the ‘scrimping traveller’ reputation of the photographic artist is a difficult one to be taken seriously. And Shore certainly managed to bridge that void.
Years before the work of Shore, photographer William Eggleston was already taking snapshots of an America slightly more hopeful. The work of Eggleston depicts America in a pre-oil crisis era, in a time and place where things were hopeful, glossy and exciting. A large body of his work depicts a time on the fringe of crisis, yet blissfully unaware. Eggleston’s work was already paving the way for future colour photographers such as Shore, and Graham and like both, his early work was taken purely with the intention of snapshot photography not to be displayed in a gallery environment. This was purely due to a sense of impossibility in such strict and bureaucratic times, photographically.
The work of Stephen Shore and in particular Fig 17, Ginger Shore, reminds me of the work of British painter David Hockney ‘A Bigger Splash’. Although the general mise en scène and visual emotion behind the works seem different, there is an uncanny relationship between the manifestation of allure, aspiration, and desire.
On first sight it seems that these proposed transatlantic similarities are in fact, quite abstract. However, on closer inspection there’s a real crossover. For a start, both images are captured in America; Shore’s in Florida and Hockney’s in California. It’s interesting that Tate Modern in London (November –April 2013) have recently opened a curated series of works based on the general aesthetic of Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’. Could it be that such an image from the 1960s rife with a sense of lonely exoticism be once again relevant to today’s psyche? I recently visited an exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery entitled “Shoot! Existential Photography” that focused on the early works of photographers focusing on people with guns and the very fragility of that subjects’ existence. Why are we seeing this resurgence of interest in existentialism?
It has been said that Hockney spent days with many failed attempts meticulously trying to capture the texture and excitement of water in acrylics, and its this slow meditative process that resulted in an image that in a way, is mysteriously bleak and empty. Like Shore’s meticulous land camera, Hockney’s slowly authored process reveals an image unnervingly hyperreal in feel. Shore on colour film, “It shows the colour of light, the quality of light can impart psychological resonance to an image. By showing the colour of light, colour photography avails itself of a dimension black-and-white doesn’t have” (Shore, 2005). If we look at Fig 17, there is a real similarity of ‘stillness’ and it’s interesting that Hockney painted Fig 22 as a visitor, as an alien. Once again, the view of the outsider looking in. Sontag writes, “There is nothing surprising in the fact that painters have used photographs as visual aids. But no one expects photographers to get help from painting. Photographs may be incorporated or transcribed into the painting, but photography encapsulates art itself” (Sontag, 1977).
Photographer Len Jenshel, born in New York in 1949 is a landscape photographer, noted for his work on the American West. What interests me about Jenshel is his commercial success as a photographer laden with an aesthetic that seems ‘Post-Eggleston’ and ‘Post-Shore’ and this, to me, signifies a change in cultural norms and the desensitization of the American counterculture. Jenshel has adapted his work into the digital field and has produced work for New York authorities and the National Geographic. One particular image, Fig 23 depicts a bizarre layering of frontiers, the manmade and the primitive. Much like Shore’s Fig 18 there is a sense of idiosyncrasy, and almost demoralization of the human race.
The image’s intoxicatingly saturated colour palate shows three degrees of civilization. The first being the intangible paradox of the open expanse, the ultimate in the primitive, the second being the constructed brick wall, made from the earth of the same hue, and the third being the garish sharpness of the car, its imported materials and reflective metal posterior. There’s something about this photograph that to me, feels perfect and I think if I were to articulate the reasons behind this it would be the soft sense of humour, the wonder and the spectacle of the monuments alongside the mundane satire of the vehicle. Maybe these are my writerly pleasures talking?
British photographer Richard Heeps has spent the majority of his career drawing parallels between American and British culture. His work documents the ever mirroring social changes and the specific groups in the UK who mimic the youth groups of America with dedicated imitation.
His work relates directly to the ever-strengthened allure of America and its subsequent effect on Britain. Man’s Ruin is the result of studying Americana in the UK and the USA for over 10 years. Fig 24 depicts two men ‘Wing Walking’ on a 1950’s American car. The year is in fact, 2000 and the road is in the Eastern county of Norfolk. There’s a real level of challenge between what is really ‘American’ and what is not. What really defines America? What makes this image not truly American? Somehow I feel location is only the tip of the iceberg. Critic Kevin Jackson writes on Heeps “Man’s Ruin, the title is adopted from the tattoo flash of American artist Sailor Jerry. It draws a selection of images together which tells the story of the spirit and pursuit of all the American dream” (Jackson, 2007). It’s the sheer sense of ambiguity that really adds to the beauty and success of Heeps’ work and his images are symbolic of the existentialist youth rebellion, that playful nonchalance. Jackson goes on to say “Heeps preserves and celebrates places, where the wrecking ball is looming” (Jackson, 2007). Reminiscent of the death-drive, this is the countercultural punk ideology that rips through the psyche of the modern wasted youth. The wrecking ball may be looming, but no one cares.
“He (Heeps) would for example, take pictures of lorries – or, as Americans would say, trucks –glinting in the late sunlight under lowering skies. It happened to be near Cambridge, but it might easily have been Oklahoma” (Jackson, 2007). Heeps was fascinated with the glory of being an American, the beauty that is so seemingly imbued within its soil – his work manages to pull together an uncomfortable sense of unity, confronting America with its biggest nightmare; equality. Jackson concludes, “He has an enduring fascination for mythical Americana… The America that draws Heeps’ attention is, in large part, an America that emerged around the early 1950’s fueled by the Baby Boom and by massive post-war prosperity. An America which Heeps is too young to have seen at first hand, but which survives in the recycled and remembered popular culture of that period” (Jackson, 2007).
This brings me to the existentialists, the generation that began to question not only its very existence, but the ideologies of western society alongside this. With the eruption of the teenager as a result of the extensive loss of life in the early 1940s due to World War 2, could it be a lesser value on life, the loss of fathers/family members and the subsequent post war prosperity colliding to construct the shiny 1950s bittersweet Americana that still so dominantly informs the American identity?
Society had been shattered and dismantled by the throws of war, and it had to be redefined. Teenagers were given status and the progressive freedom to construct their own domineering stance in society, and a driving force behind this existential newfound freedom was the Existentialists or ‘Beat Generation’. The emergence of the teenager in society has a profound and permanent effect on culture. Hailing from the French philosophy (Sartre, Beauvoir) of its time, the beat generation “signals his alienness not by presenting an alternative style but rather by an indifference (though it may be) to style itself. None of which will be so remarkable were it not for the fact that the world, which the Beat chooses to pass through, is a world where style is defied” (Polhemus, 2010). The subtlety of the Beat generation’s dress opposed their live fast, live for kicks and larger than life attitude to the open road, the American wilderness and fast cars. A key figure in Beat culture is Jack Kerouac. His 1957 novel ‘On the Road’ sent shockwaves through the literary world with its erratic and fast moving prose, written as one semi auto-biographical unedited session on a 120 foot scroll of taped tracing paper, his subject matter and unhinged, spiritual sense of existence had its effects on a new generation of teenagers across America and subsequently, the UK. Within the novel, Kerouac vicariously homes in on the explosive character of his closest friend Dean Moriarty. It interesting that Moriarty showed little restraint whatsoever, closing boundaries on sexuality, masculinity or in fact, any of societies expectations. The beats were almost like legal outlaws of the modern age. Kerouac’s introspective, yet rebellious and youthful writings marked the beginning of independent thought in youth, emerging youth groups, and subsequently the start of true counterculture as its known today. “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” (Kerouac, 1957). Its clear that the Kerouac way is it live fast and die young, explode with exuberance and sheer brilliance of character and then spontaneously combust into the night sky at any sign of flail.
Graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World (1997) tells the story of two teenage girls living in a town in Middle America. Ghost World is fuelled by the despondent angst-ridden nonchalance that likely wrote it; and paints a stark picture of an American generation blighted by reckless right-wing politics and false promise.
The stance utilised by Clowes is largely ‘beyond caring’, dysphonic, and suggestive of a generation desensitized. The two protagonists live their lives though a veil of innocent, hopeful cynicism living in a middle class town and spending their entire teens dissatisfied, hell bent on leaving. The town itself seems relatively comfortable, but the characters draw attention to the drab and mundane, desperate to escape its ‘uncoolness’. It’s interesting that there are no direct suggestions of poverty nor particular financial struggle within the novel. However there is a real sense of urban alienation, much like the work of Ormerod and Hopper, which seems so counter typical, yet a counterculture cliché of the American dream we’re led to believe. Does this ridicule the famed patriotism of America, accusing it as a nation of blind jingoism? Or are these creative responses merely fashionable in mise-en-scene and in no way representative of troubled times? Fig 29 shows an image of one of the girls blowing a bubblegum bubble, and I can’t help but draw a direct comparison to Fig 3, Michael Ormerod’s portrait of a girl standing alone on a curb blowing bubblegum taken in the late eighties. Maybe to the naïve European, Ghost World looks bleaker than to Americans, could this stance just be the American vernacular?
Perhaps we are a world now desensitized by a bombardment of signs and codes. The German word ‘Heimat’ translates inconclusively towards a sense of home, belonging, a sense of national identity. The word draws from the German ‘Heim’ meaning ‘home’ and Interestingly, the translation of ‘uncanny’ is the unheimlich – the ‘unhomely’. Could, like in Ghost World, the uncanny or unheimlich provide a sense of Heimat to the outsider, a Heimat of a different sensibility? Unheimlich in turn becomes a countercultural Heimat. It seems people seek psychological comfort in being countertypical and a member of the ‘uncanny’ in particular eras of uncertainty. I wonder if this relates to a desire to distance oneself from unsatisfactory political agenda and economic downfall. Not only could this sense of the unheimlich be related to counterculture, but also to the unfamiliarity of travel and subsequently the European view on America. De Boton writes “With the in-flight tray, we make ourselves at home in this unhomely place: we appropriate the extraterrestrial landscape with the help of a chilled bread roll and a plastic tray of potato salad” (De Boton, 2002).
The billboard is a common fixture in America. It’s interesting how so many photographers re-appropriate the billboard as a metaphorical structure. They appear like cinema screens, projections that attempt to evoke allure, like tempting viewfinders into a new dimension of consumerism. The work of Ormerod, Fig 2 and Shore Fig 18 also depict billboards much like my own work Fig 31 and Misrach’s Fig 32. The similarity with Misrach and mine’s billboards is the fact that they’re empty. Which to me is so American, yet so un-American. Its empty and bleak amongst the bright lights of New York, but it has no real trace of consumerism. It’s a paradoxical structure. Mark Frauenfelder writes on American society “in America, our memories are mostly the debris of consumption, either the promise of satisfaction or the different containers in which the failed promise was packaged” (Frauenfelder, 2003). My billboard in Fig 33 is exactly that, the container where a promise was once packaged.
My own work focuses on the idea that Americana is a ‘found’ culture; a series of connotations that relate to a specific set of ideals that can be forged aesthetically. I produced a series of work entitled Anglocana that was shot by driving around rural Sussex and Nottinghamshire, finding locations, like Heeps, that could be in America.
I found personally that to experience the true New York, the true America in fact, is to witness a world-notorious opera performance being streamed live to the awaiting world, but you’re the one standing behind those red velvet curtains, backstage. Its that sense of the ‘backstage’ and the ‘audience’ that is just a micro-frontier. All America seems to be is a series of left and rights, stops and go’s, rights and wrongs, war and peace. There is no in-between; there is no tolerance. However, I find America such an aesthetically beautiful country, rife with myth and opportunity. I find myself overwhelmed with inspiration when I’m there. My work, like America itself, seems to be looking for answers. Why am I even drawn there?
Counterculture, the teenager, existentialism, the blues, death and freedom all conjoin into the darkest corners of Western culture. The work of all these photographers has such direct correlations with the politics of their times, that the creative world seems to function as a mirror of social climate. It seems that the jadedness of a post war world, the drastic combined political workings of Regan and Thatcher sustained and supported this direct and profound correlation with Britain and the United States. It’s interesting that in times of national despair such as the death of Princess Diana, the public broke down in emotional agony, news footage showing thousands of citizens openly crying about someone they’ve all never met. It seems, like in Hopper’s work, that people need to see the downs of life in order to see and make peace with the darkness in their own. Americana seems to be so openly in touch with the darker sides of life and embraces them transparently; something so alien to the British yet accompanying this is a desperate inability to process failure. It’s this pressure that seems to drive American’s even closer towards their death instinct. It seems that we’re not only bound by miles of explosive Atlantic, but our very existence is marked by a culturally unified relationship, a relationship that will likely never cease to be baffle.
Decades after Post War prosperity and the myth of Americana remains so prominent; it represents something more than just America. Americana is an embodiment of the very foundations of human desire, a liberated utopia for all to blindly hope for. From outside, we see Americana for all it’s worth – its flaws all too apparent. Yet we still watch its every move, and let it infuse us with an ethos that is intoxicating with vigor, an ethos that could only have been constructed while gazing at the open spaces of Nevada, the beaches of California, and the towering cities of the Midwest and Northeast. It’s difficult to imagine such beautiful exoticism ever ceasing to inspire the Briton.
In the immortal, yet suitably droll words of Razorlight (2006) “All my life, panic in America. All my life, there’s trouble in America”.
Barthes, R. (1967) The Death of the Author. Essay.
Baudrillard, J. (1986) America. London: Verso Books.
Baudrillard, J. (1985) Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: Univeristy of Michigan Press.
Brouws, J & Frauenfelder, M. (2003) Readymades: A catalogue of American Artifacts. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Campbell, N. (2011) Michael Ormerod as Critical Regionalist, http://critical-regionalism.com/2011/03/30/michael-ormerod-as-critical-regionalist [Accessed 11th December 2012].
Clowes, D. (1997) Ghost World. London: Random House.
De Boton, A. (2002) The Art of Travel. London: Penguin.
Dufour, D. (2008) The Image to Come. Göttingen: Steidl.
Galassi, P. (2003) Philip Lorca DiCorcia. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Heeps, R & Jackson, K. (2007) Man’s Ruin. London: John Rule.
Kerouac, J. (1957) On the Road. London: Penguin.
Morris, J. (1993) States of America – Michael Ormerod. Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications.
Morris, J. (1993) A vision of America: Michael Ormerod, a British photographer, died in a road accident in Arizona in 1991, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/a-vision-of-america-michael-ormerod-a-british-photographer-died-in-a-road-accident-in-arizona-in-1991-the-pictures-he-left-behind-show-a-country-in-decline-empty-edgy-damaged-fake-1482763.html [Accessed 11th December 2012].
Polhemus, T. (2010) Street Style. London: PYMCA.
Razorlight. (2006) America. London: Mercury Records.
Schmied, W. (1995) Edward Hopper: portraits of America. New York: Prestel Publishing.
Shore, S. (2004) Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson.
Shore, S. (2005) Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2005. London: Photographers Gallery.
Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks LLC.
Theisen, G. (2006) Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche. New York: Thomas Dunne.
Wilson, A. (1996) Paul Graham. London: Phaidon.