State of the Nation: new American photography

MP3 - Midwest Photographer's Publication Project
Kelli Connell, Justin Newhall, Brian Ulrich
(3 volumes - 55pp each. Aperture 547 West 27th St. New York NY10001)

Photographers are insecure creatures at heart. On the one hand, there is a lingering doubt about whether the medium's position as art rather than mere craft is yet safe. On the other, given the sheer volume of photographic images produced over the last century and a half, photographers constantly fret that whatever their subject and approach, somebody else will have 'done it' at some time in the past. There is, of course, always the potential for an artist to say something new regardless of how well-trodden the ground appears to be, but what is undeniable is that the bar is set that much higher in those cases.
This second question was very much at the front of my mind when considering this collection of 3 monographs, part of an ongoing series from Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography which has been publishing portfolios showcasing emerging photographic talent from the American mid-west since 1982. The issues explored by the 3 photographers - the treatment of history/heritage in the US, personal identity and modern consumerism - are not exactly new ground photographically.

Justin Newhall finds his subjects along the route of the early nineteenth century pioneering explorers of the American West, Lewis and Clark, whose expedition has become a symbol of both individual heroism and national ambition. The real drama and danger of the original journey has been replaced by the comfortable non-threatening world of the early 21st century. Historic sites are marked by uninspiring memorials or in some cases they have disappeared altogether under modern vernacular architecture. We have re-enactments of battles, murals of bears chasing intrepid explorers, real horses replaced by children's playground animals - reality replaced by a simulacrum.

Newhall's style owes much to the cool, detached approach pioneered by the so-called 'New Topographic' photographers in the 1970s. The American landscape has been the most common subject of this deadpan aesthetic and it is difficult to view Newhall's work in isolation from those who have gone before him. Shying away from the grand vistas of the pictorialist photographers in favour of the more mundane and less aesthetically appealing landscape of the modern west is hardly a novel departure. The packaging of the past, the transformation of messy history into sanitised heritage is a story that has been told numerous times before. The 'deadpan' style works best when applied to subjects not usually associated with that approach; then it can genuinely work to undermine an accepted view. The problem here is that there can't be many observers left who don't see through the faćade presented by roadside monuments and heritage attractions and Newhall's images leave us ultimately with a feeling of 'so what'?

Kelli Connell's 'Double Life' is also, at first glance, a relatively straightforward narrative. It appears to be a simple record of the relationship between two young women, a series of images showing the pair in a variety of domestic and other everyday situations. However, there are two 'deceptions' within the images. First, what are apparently a series of unexceptional moments lifted from the flow of everyday life are in fact carefully staged scenarios - a common enough photographic conceit. More surprisingly the accompanying text reveals that the two women are actually one person digitally duplicated. 

Once the viewer is aware of the technical manipulation at the heart of the work, a change in the approach to it is unavoidable. While the initial reaction is to scrutinise the images to see how deftly the digital trickery has been achieved (and it is
technically brilliant) the wider question is how the fact the two characters are actually the same person affects our reading of the images. At a superficial level, it leads us to question our visual acuity. While the women undoubtedly look similar to one another and could pass for sisters, by using nothing more complex than different camera angles the photographer effortlessly fools the viewer. On another level, the work raises issues of identity, of ego and alter ego. That Connell does not choose to create two obviously separate and widely divergent characters actually adds to the power of the images and she succeeds in conveying subtly nuanced personalities. 

It could be argued that the work's impact is somewhat diminished by the fact that it depends in large part on us knowing that the two characters in the images are the same person - something we can only learn only from information divulged apart from the photographs themselves. While I personally am sympathetic to the view that art should be self-contained and, as far as possible, speak for itself, in this case the work remains sufficiently strong to stand up on its own merits.   

In scrutinising the mechanics of American consumer culture through the prism of the 'big box' retailers, Brian Ulrich appears to have chosen a subject about which it is most difficult to produce original insights. Do we really need to be reminded again about the excesses of the throwaway society or the depressing truth that credit-fuelled gorging on tat which people neither need nor really even want is not the road to personal or societal fulfilment?

However, it is the historical context, namely the post 9/11 world, which casts Ulrich's work in an entirely new light and lends it a particular poignancy. In the weeks after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the President told the country that the best way to show their defiance in the face of the Al Quaeda threat was to get back into the shops:

'I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy…The vitality of our economy depends on the willingness of American's to spend.'
George W. Bush

At a stroke, Bush transformed consumption into a patriotic duty and in Ulrich's images the alternately blank and grim faced shoppers seem to treat it as nothing more than that. So while Ulrich's main theme seems to be excess - the work's title 'Copia' means plenty or abundance - for me it is the sheer joylessness on the faces in the stores and malls that punches out of the images. Bush's consumer shock-troops don't seem to be enjoying their mission in the aisles of Wal Mart any more than the soldiers on the ground in Iraq are enjoying theirs. The only smiling faces on display are in the advertisements on the supermarket walls.

Two images stand out as non-too-subtle metaphors for present day America. In the first, a sign above a bank teller machine in the lobby of a Las Vegas casino reads 'Cash & Redemption
'. Redemption through consumption and gambling - an almost perfect summary of the American dream in the 21st century. In the second image a sign in a gas station window states:

Homeland Security Threat Level Today: Please see cashier for details

That it reads like a 'Today's Special' promotion for baked beans or diapers shows that even global terrorism has been effortlessly subsumed into the language of American consumer culture. This is either comforting or truly terrifying. The photographer leaves us to decide which. . 

     © Colin Bradbury 2007