I have been greatly enjoying the work of the American photographer Gregory Halpern. His practice strikes a lot of chords with me, particularly in terms of my current practice and research interests.
Three main things draw me to Halpern.
The first is Halpern’s understanding of the uncertain, slippery nature of documentary photography and his gradual move away from it and into an approach with a greater awareness of fantasy and fiction.
‘Over the years I’ve become less interested in documentary and more interested in the space between fiction and non-fiction, which sometimes feels like Surrealism to me. It became most obvious when I was working on ZZYZX, which starts with contemporary Los Angeles but sort of builds a semi-fictional world out of the city. That interest has continued, and the more I’ve thought about photography’s slippery relationship to “truth,” the more fascinated I’ve become in how photographic precision and Surrealism are not contradictory. Andre Breton argued that Surrealism’s goal was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”’ (Smyth 2020).
Halpern talks of building a ‘a semi-fictional world’ out of contemporary Los Angeles in his book ZZYZX (Halpern 2016). This is close to what I am now trying to do in my project on the city of Oxford, Silent City. I also like Halpern’s allusion here to Surrealism (and elsewhere to Magical Realism). The surreal is often formed by an unexpected conjunction of opposites, or by the unexpected presence of that which does not belong or by a sense of the inexplicable because agency and explanation are withheld. One thinks of Man Ray’s photograph Self Portrait with Gun (1932) or of Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), for example. This is the territory of the uncanny, the weird and the eerie which forms part of my research. See Figs 1-4.
Figs 1-4: Gregory Halpern 2016-2020. Social documentary becomes steadily more descriptive of a ‘semi-fictional world’ that allows the ‘chaos and contradictions’ of the world to speak for themselves (Smyth 2020). Click on an image for a larger, lightbox view.
The second reason I am drawn to Halpern’s practice is his willingness to rest in uncertainty and instead allow the ‘chaos and contradictions’ of the world to speak for themselves. Halpern does not try to pretend that in apparently documentary images he is ever offering more than a subjective view.
‘What’s interesting to me about the world is its chaos and contradictions, the way opposites can be so beautiful in relation to each other. I like how you can be attracted and repelled by something at the same moment. I want my images to create cognitive dissonance. If I feel that a sensation caused by an image is singular in nature—awe, beauty, dread, for example—I wind up finding the image to be manipulative, and unfaithful to the contradictory natures of reality. I think we underestimate our viewers’ and ability to read the work.
‘For me, what makes photography such an exciting and troubling artform in general is the deception and tension hard-wired into it, the difficulty of defining its slippery relationship to truth. A photograph has potential to be much more objectively truthful or factual than, say, a painting, but painting is more honest about its intentions and possibilities’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).
If photography is ‘never entirely fiction or non-fiction’, however, then what does a photograph really show? I would suggest that what it always shows are traces, some vivid and some faint, but traces of what? Halpern suggests that the world (and the image) are too complex to be reducible to a set of perfectly indexical facts and that what instead all images confront us with is ‘a rightfully impenetrable thing’. It is up to the viewer of make sense the image and any attempt by the artist to impose a meaning is false and unwelcome.
‘Photographers have a way of organizing/simplifying the chaos that is the world around us. And it is said that photography is uniquely suited to “reflect” the world around us, but what if our surroundings are complex to the point of being visually and verbally indescribable? That conundrum is the reality I want to reflect, with the creation of a rightfully impenetrable thing’ (Magnum Photos 2020).
The third reason I am drawn to Halpern’s practice is his interest in the photobook as his primary mode of expression.
‘I love the space between images. The things that happen when you turn the page, when you are looking at a new image with the ghost of the previous image lingering in your mind… I love the feel of a being swept up, as if by a stream, by a book of photographs. I love the introduction to Rinko Kawauchi’s book Illuminance, in which David Chandler writes this beautiful and simple meditation on books in general: “There is something primal in the act of opening a book for the first time. That moment of expectation, that prospect of discovery, however dulled or wearied, is still there each time we take a new book in our hands. At our most innocent and instinctive, we are prepared to be changed in some way by what we are about to see”’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).
The lesson here with any photobook is painstaking care in curation and sequencing so that the images flow one into another but, crucially, without losing sight of the overall intent of the whole work. As Halpern says of ZZYZX, his book on Los Angeles, ‘I wanted the pictures to evoke something simultaneously contemporary and ancient, a response to the Los Angeles of the moment, but also something not so literal. I wanted the space to also be somewhat mythical, the timeline somewhat Biblical’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).
In my own practice I am not seeking to be Biblical, and I am certainly not trying to portray something on the epic scale of Los Angeles, but increasingly Halpern’s approach is the intent behind my current research project. That, and the intent David Company found in Rut Blees Luxemburg’s night photography practice:
‘London a Modern Project … used the visual estrangement of night photography to depict anonymous architecture. Motorway flyovers, tower blocks, car parks and garages were transformed into surfaces revealing social structures and urban behaviour’ (Company 2012: 108).
BOURGEOIS-VIGNON, Anne. 2018. ‘Power and the Camera: Gregory Halpern Talks Intuition, Reflection and Representation’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gregory-halpern-profile-intuition-representation/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].
CAMPANY, David. 2012. Art and Photography. Abridged. London: Phaidon.
HALPERN, Gregory. 2018. Confederate Moons. Oakland, CA: TBW Books.
HALPERN, Gregory and Clément CHÉROUX. 2020. Le the Sun Beheaded Be. New York: Aperture Foundation.
HALPERN, Gregory. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.
MAGNUM PHOTOS. 2020. ‘Gregory Halpern’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/gregory-halpern/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].
SMYTH, Diane. 2020. ‘Gregory Halpern: Let the Sun Beheaded Be’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/let-the-sun-beheaded-be/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].
Figure 1: Gregory HALPERN. 2016. ‘Wicker chairs overlooking downtown LA’. From: Gregory Halpern. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.
Figure 2: Gregory HALPERN. 2016. ‘Blue Tarp Smiley Face’. From Gregory Halpern. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.
Figure: Gregory HALPERN. 2020. ‘Guadeloupe’. From: Gregory Halpern and Clément Chéroux. 2020. Let the Sun Beheaded Be. New York: Aperture Foundation.
Figure 4: Gregory HALPERN. 2018. [Untitled]. From: Gregory Halpern. 2018. Confederate Moons. Oakland, CA: TBW Books.