by Luca Fiore
Gregory Halpern is one of the new things of American photography. New because he is young (born in Buffalo, NY, in 1977), and new because his images and his books seem to have an extra gear: an energy, vitality and capacity of touching on life’s biggest questions which are hard to find among his peers. He publishes for leading photography publisher, Mack; he was the recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014; in 2016, his penultimate book, ZZYZX, won the award for publication of the year at the Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook Award. From next year, he will be a Nominee Member of Magnum Photo. A few weeks ago, his new work Omaha Sketchbook came out, presented at Paris Photo in early November. It is here, at Europe’s most important photography fair, that we met him. Sitting on the steps of the Grand Palais, amid a coming and going of photographers, collectors and fans, he answers questions posed by those wishing to understand the secret of his images. “Like all my books, Omaha Sketchbook has a central through-line alongside which there are many other concepts. But the book was born with the idea of the average American Midwest male. It is a project that began during George W. Bush’s presidency, and ended in that of Donald Trump. In the meantime, I have moved, had two daughters, and begun to reflect on the idea of masculinity, gender identity, and the stereotypes of the American male, still closely linked to the image of the cowboy. Then, around this group of images, which the book is anchored in, I tried to transmit the sensation one can experience by being in a particular place. Light, landscape, animals, trees. It is in the midst of this flurry of sensations that the images of men return”.
The book looks like an anastatic copy of a sketchbook, where the photographer has posted the contact sheets of the photographs, in 6x7cm format, taken in the Nebraskan cities the author lived in for several months. The small photographs (they are each only 6×7 centimeters) are grouped into short sequences. On each page, there is one, or, at most, two photographs. The color of the paper changes, accompanying the different tones of the photographs: beige, green, red, pink. A trick which stops one yearning for the full-page photograph.
“The theme of masculinity is linked to something personal. In America, and I think in Italy too, though maybe in a different form, vulnerability and weakness are considered negative traits in men, a problem. We educate our young men to be hard, teach them not to show insecurity. I was interested in examining this hardness, to see where it fails. I think that awareness of one’s own weakness enables connections to be created between people. So I looked for the cracks in this hardness”.
He indicates the portrait of a young prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, crouched beside the bed in his cell. He has a tattoo on his arm and another on his neck. “He is a prisoner, and may have done something very violent. But he is a kid. He wears his hair back a bit like James Dean. He is a hardman, but here he has a vulnerable expression. This is a bit of a contradiction”. Then he shows me three images of a man with a beard and a wide-brimmed hat, first with a rifle in his hands, then displaying his long hair which reaches his backside. “He’s the same: he has a gun in his hands, he is a hunter, but from behind, he looks like a woman”. Then he pauses over the portrait of an African-American football player: “American football players are men used to physical impact. But look: he seems very vulnerable. He looks like he needs a hug”.
Vulnerability, Halpern explains, is a form of force: “When we are too certain, our errors can lead to wars. We feel threatened by what is different from us, and we feel the need to respond in the same way. Like the US’ reaction to 9/11: Bush was itching to react; today, the entire world is paying the price of that haste. But I think that this totally masculine need of needing to appear tough is the origin of many other problems”.
Yet the book, by Halpern’s own admission, speaks about other themes as well. Though it is difficult to say exactly what. Yes, there is hunting, sport, automobiles, wrestling. But what is that ladder leaning against a fir tree doing there? Where does that lead? And what about those three photos of the same barn, in which the grass of the lawn in front of it appears in three different tones of green? Do they speak of the passing of time? And what about that snake moving menacingly?
Yet it is also a question of style and direction of research. Halpern appears to be completely immersed in the American documentary photography tradition, yet, at the same time, seems to distance himself from it. “It is not easy to explain what is different about my photography compared to the great masters I look up to, Walker Evans and Robert Franck above all. Maybe it’s that I wish to explore situations in which fiction and documentary can co-exist. I don’t know what to call it; maybe “’magical realism’”.
In the summer of 2017 he spent a month between North and South Carolina, during which time there was a total solar eclipse. Explaining that project, Halpern said: “I was fascinated by the idea that the entire nation was looking at the sun, enjoying the apocalyptic excitement of seeing the moon temporarily extinguish our source of life, all of us together”. Those images were published in 2018 in a book titled Confederate Moon. “The eclipse is a phenomenon often studied by photography lovers who, usually, take pretty basic photos. I tried to consider not only what people were seeing in the sky, but also what was happening behind them. I finished the project in little over a month, and I was interested to see what would happen if I put together a series of such contradictory photos. Ultimately, we photographers say that we document reality, but all we do is freeze whatever enters our frame. If you think about it, that is a fiction. So, I tried to include what may not usually be in the frame”.
Made with images taken over a five-year period in Southern California, ZZYXZ (this is not a typo, the title is the name of a village between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, on the border of the Mojave) presents not only landscapes and still lifes, but also portraits of people encountered on the road, and images posed by actors: “it is a mix of documentary and science-fiction”. The book was initially going to be entitled Babylon or Kingdom. It attempts to be, the photographer explains, a journey into a post-apocalyptic future, and, simultaneously, into a biblical past. It opens with the photo of an arm stretched out towards the sky: the hand is open and there are seven stars tattooed on the palm. It is a present-day image of the Apocalypse of St. John: “In his right hand, he held seven stars, a sharp double-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face resembled the sun shining in all its glory”. Halpern does not consider himself religious; he read the Bible as a work of literature. He explains: “It is a text which I loved. It is such a strange form of story: crazy, apocalyptic, sci-fi. It is strange that this type of narrative, so modern, should be the source of such conservative values. For me, religious art is surprising. I don’t know much about it, but when I went to Italy, I understood that I was more interested in it than in contemporary art. It contains both magic and horror. It is dark. But the beauty of the sun is very important: it points towards heaven. I like the light of magical things, shining in the darkness. Literally and metaphorically”.
Thinking that an image can truly become a metaphor, and speak of the biggest things in life, requires belief in the language of photography. “Yes, life and death. Hope and desperation. And light serves to trigger a certain type of feeling. The light of the sun…it sounds a bit stupid to say it like this, but it is so beautiful…it is so simple, but it is what keeps me going. Seeing the sun balancing in the lens is something magical. I am not religious, but that is the closest thing I can think of to spiritual feeling”.
Before sending ZZYXZ to print, Halpern sent a draft to Robert Adams, one of the fathers of American photography, author of the essential Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. In response, Adams wrote: “Beauty, and its implied promise, are the metaphor which gives art its value. It helps us to rediscover some of our best intuitions, those which encourage us to care”. For Adams, Halpern explains, the search for beauty is not a pursuit of the past. “In the American art schools, its considered something for losers. Adams hates people like Jeff Koons, who bases everything on irony and on business. In that type of art, there is no hope. For him, finding beauty in the world is a form of home and spirituality”. What about for Halpern, a forty-year old liberal? Does beauty still have a value? “Nowadays, it is so easy to have no hope. Ugliness is everywhere. We all know how evil the world, and people, can be. Finding beauty is important. But Adams says that we have to do it without lying. Because some photos of a sunset or a flower lie, and don’t say much”. The next project in the pipeline is a book on Buffalo, his birthplace. It is a project that has been ongoing now for twenty years. It is a difficult piece, because speaking of places where one grew up is to speak of oneself. There is a real risk of working on it for one’s whole life.
“But I decided that I want to finish it. I’ll give myself another year, then I want to publish it in 2021”. It is a project he has been speaking about for a long time. As early as 2010, in a conference in New York, he was dropping hints about the project. Describing it, he said he wished to show the extent to which ruin is “inextricably linked to grace”. Much time has now passed, and today, he says, he cannot recall what he meant on that occasion. It is another theme linked to hope? Why, despite ruin, can there still be hope? “Because if we don’t think like this, all that is left is desperation. I don’t know, maybe that’s the reason for getting up in the morning and carrying on. We all need a reason to start our day. Many feel they are on a precipice, overlooking a disaster. But we must keep believing, even if hope is so fragile. We need it, otherwise we are just animals. Maybe what distinguishes us from animals is the faith that there might be, I don’t know, something greater out there”.