“I want to start over, with an imagination adequate to the possibilities and the strangeness and the dangers on this earth in this moment.“
Gregory Halpern’s A begins with a warning, an invitation and a sort of subtle disclaimer. In fact it begins before this and in a more complex way, but we can leave that for later on. The first photograph of the sequence is of a kitten not quite yet cat, pausing mid-stride to turn and in baring its sharp teeth warning us off as intruders who have barely entered the fray. The cat seems to be crossing an unremarkable byroad that could as readily traverse the countryside as the outskirts of a small city. Its location, its provenance, the reason for its deep hostility or fear – all of this and more remains unclear, unspecified, unexplained. For a viewer new to Halpern’s work, to begin with such a photograph could well seem wilfully obtuse or irreverent or deliberately misleading in some way, but a kitten-not-yet cat will warn off a stranger for fear that they may stray too close, seek to touch or worse still take hold of them, and in taking possession of them do them harm – rob them of something that is essentially theirs. The photograph works as a mirror as well as an admonishment or alarm – as much for the photographer as for the viewer. It warns us to have a care, to tread a little lightly and with caution, to be careful as to what it is we seek to take hold of, careful about what it is that we think we might possess. It warns us not to try to get too close.
The second photograph of the sequence is of a battered sort of picket fence of which all that remains, in its present dilapidation, is the gate but not the gatepost – a hodgepodge of iron and wood that is more redolent of clapboards and back alleys than the suburban idyll in which the picket fence has for so long enjoyed its pride of place. The photograph recalls, and in some oblique way refers back to the famous Paul Strand photograph White Fence, Port Kent, NY – 1916. In Halpern’s image the fence is an open gate, hospitable and welcoming in principle and yet also somewhat cautionary, if for nothing other than the depth of the gloom and brokenness that surrounds it. John Berger described the space in which this photograph was made in an essay he wrote some thirty years earlier: “In these zones, even the ground is smashed – garden soil, doorsteps, pavements, kerbstones, roads. As if everything, once loved, was now chipped and in pieces.”* Halpern’s gate gives a cautious welcome, a welcome that forewarns us of the risk of further broken glass underfoot…
The third image, tucked in on the verso face of the page, is at once deeply metaphorical and beautiful in a hypnotic way. It shows a shard of glass laying on a gravelled patch of earth, its four edges radiating the reflected glow of some unspecified light with such intensity that they blur as if moving or resonating to the frequency of the light. It is unclear whether the photograph was made during the evening or even the night — such is the graduated cadence of shade in the photograph, the light could conceivably be falling from a streetlamp or be refracted from a setting sun. The tone of the photograph – the even white colour of the light – would suggest something artificial is illuminating the scene, but what is so magnetic about the image is its darkness, and the way that that textured darkness makes an enigma of the slender fragment of reflected light. We are encouraged by its placement within the frame, and by its bright inscrutable surface to peer through the glass, darkly – an effort that will not reward with us the comfortable certainties of an identifiable fact, but one that in the making of it reawakens our love of mystery.
These three pictures forewarn us as viewers, but they nevertheless invite us to look in. They indicate the likely prospect of violence, of an indifferent desolation, but also of radiance and something unknowable – something toward which we may be drawn if we are willing to risk abandoning our complacency in order to wrestle with the complex, and at times contradictory business of looking closely at beautiful images of a space that has borne great neglect and misfortune. The idyllic suburban picket fence was always more a symbol of the separateness and the sanctity of a proscribed space than of unity — Halpern’s is broken, but more than that it is also open, and in its broken openness it unites two things that previously were separate: outside and inside. In the Bible, the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians is about ‘Love’ – it is also the first recorded instance of the phrase “through a glass, darkly”. A is not a religious book, but its opening invitation and the spirit that animates it is as a whole is one of deep sincerity, respect and affection – it rests upon some faith in the belief that something as partial and fragmentary as a view through a piece of glass, in the dark, can still lead us a little closer toward some essential truth, whether the route be that of fact or of fiction.
At the time of writing the most expensive political campaign in the history of the world is unfolding in America, and both ‘sides’ are engaged in an exercise of carpeting the airwaves with testimony to their fitness to rule, and their deep and abiding love of country. The best estimates are that by the day after the polls close, something in excess of $1,750m will have been spent on the production of these campaigns, and while they are at times waged with a cynical ferocity, the very fact of their cost is proof enough of the interests to which they inevitably cater. In the intervening years since the last elections, a great deal has been made of the sufferings of the middle class, and of the diminishing breadth of opportunities for prosperity that they now enjoy. The prohibitive favourite for the Republican nomination is already being singled out for his apparent callousness toward those less fortunate than he, and for his opposition to the incumbent president’s support of them in the modest bail-outs that followed the dawn of the Great Recession. Very little at all is said about the working poor – about the continued slow-speed car crash that has been their lot since the 1950s boom in the credit economy and the proliferation of the automobile signalled the beginning of their long decline into obscurity, as de-industrialisation and suburbanisation left them stretched and unprepared for the changing logic of modernising ‘First World’ economies.
The last great symbol of our muscular and inevitable forward progress was the automobile, and the array of attendant efficiencies and private benefits it promised to bring us. It was followed by the computer, the computer chip and the internet — decidedly less iconic metonyms for development but equally real all the same. The automobile promised autonomy, and the prospect of narrowing the gap between our desires and their horizon, just as computers do now. The advent of both devices has indeed brought revolutionary and positive change to the world at large, but it has at one and the same time proven to be a double-edged sword for those whose prospects for betterment depended upon the Industrial Revolution for gainful employment and social mobility. In America the region that best typifies this turn in recent history is the Rust Belt, and the city that stands as its symbol (for good and for ill) is Detroit. The whole rubric of industrialisation and the purest model of its best hopes is in so many ways summed up by Detroit, a city whose present circumstance is owed to a mesh of far more complex political and socio-economic factors than the mere dissolution of industry, but that is nevertheless deeply and possibly forever linked with it.
“Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities and urbanism and against the Fordist model of concentrated large-scale manufacture. Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning; the city had blown up rapidly and would spend the next several decades simply disintegrating.
No, it wasn’t cars alone that ruined Detroit. It was the whole improbable equation of the city in the first place, the “inherent contradictions.” The city was done in by deindustrialization, decentralization, the post-World War II spread of highways and freeways, government incentives to homeowners, and disinvestment in cities that aided and abetted large-scale white flight into the burgeoning suburbs of those years. Chunks of downtown Detroit were sacrificed early, in the postwar years, so that broad arterial freeways —the Edsel Freeway, the Chrysler Freeway — could bring commuters in from beyond city limits.
All of this was happening everywhere else too, of course. The manufacturing belt became the rust belt. Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, and other cities clustered around the Great Lakes were hit hard, and the shrinking stretched down to St. Louis and across to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Newark. Now that it has entered a second gilded age, no one seems to remember that New York was a snowballing disaster forty or fifty years ago. The old textile district south of Houston Street had emptied out so completely that in 1962 the City Club of New York published a report on it and other former commercial areas titled “The Wastelands of New York City.” San Francisco went the same way. It was a blue-collar port city until the waterfront dried up and the longshoremen faded away.“
– from “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape” by Rebecca Solnit, in Harpers – July 2007.
It is to the present circumstance of this decline — a gradual decaying of promise that has gone on in one way or another for fifty years — and to a particular, and deeply personal encounter with that reality that Halpern’s photographs address themselves. They are, in the words of their author, “from the American Rust Belt without being about it“. Such a statement may seem contradictory, but his pictures address a larger arc than their particular locale and the circumstances of their making. Halpern’s photographs are comprised of too many tangential abstractions to be adjudged to have sought to tell the story of the Rust Belt through a precise landscape that serves as the Rust Belt. Instead they seek through the cumulative effect of broad and narrow views to articulate an emotional core that can serve as an analogue for his experience, and for the overall shape it now retains. The pictures go together in a complementary way to build up the outlines of a world of marginality and hardship, but one leavened by the occasional glories of the passing sun, the odd hilarious anachronism, or by some spontaneous and unselfconscious moment of joy or trust or togetherness or ecstasy, so that those tender mercies epitomised by the fragile blossoming of a tree or the heavenward ascent of some refuse that has turned into a minor comet make of the work as a whole a kind of earthbound dream. The world these photographs conjure up is recognisably real and scarred by all of our familiar excesses, but is also otherworldly – as much prelapsarian as it is post-apocalyptic.
A set of paired images serves to illustrate this dichotomy. Somewhere around fifteen photographs into the sequence there are a pair of portrait-framed pictures of what look like two houses – a device Halpern repeats to great cumulative effect. On the recto side of the page we find the first of these houses in the midst of what looks like a biblical storm, gushing water that pours in through the tattered remnants of its roof and through its empty window-frames out and floods out down onto the porch and down the stairs to the street past the scraps of its broken balustrade and into a small pool of water overfilling with runoff. Parts of the house are obscured by an over-exposure of the image that makes the raincloud both visible and impenetrable, an effect which manages at one and the same time to remove context from the frame (Where are we? Are any other homes similarly affected?) while accentuating the visceral intensity of the storm — telling us more and telling us nothing in the same frame. On the verso side of that same page, as we turn we are confronted by a house remarkably similar to the preceding one, also subsumed by an intensity of light and in the throes of a similarly inevitable collapse – gutted and decrepit, but this time being consumed by fire. In both photographs the drooping branches of a willow tree frame some edge of the house, which, added to their similarity gives a sense of contiguity that cannot fully be substantiated – we can fumble for a linkage we know cannot be proven. But what more essentially links them is an unopposed devastation, both by water, and by fire – a devastation that seems so ordinary and thus so extraordinary for the absence of any semblance of intervention. The irremediable abstraction of detail in these images leaves us with a riddle at once enchanting, memorable and deeply enigmatic: the photographs describe an unnamed devastation that has the air of a reverie, is forlorn, unreal, and cannot be attributed to anything leading to knowledge – at least in its narrow sense.
Towards the end of the sequence, a little over ten photographs before the book finishes, there is a portrait of a little boy riding high on his (father’s?) shoulders at what looks to be a town fair, his gaze riveted somewhere off to the left and outside of the frame, little pin-pricks of light glowing outward from the middle of his eyes. It’s a wonderfully straightforward and warm portrait, beautiful more than anything for its simplicity, for the clarity with which it depicts curiosity, youth and fascination. I suspect that it’s also a nod to the penultimate photograph in Chris Killip’s seminal book In Flagrante – a work that left a high-water mark for photographic explorations of people left to endure great economic hardship. I want to say that both works share certain common beliefs, that they stand squarely together with those whom Dwight Macdonald long ago described as “Our Invisible Poor” while refusing in any way to speak on their behalf. I think that both books express a healthy scepticism about the emancipatory potential of photography – most specifically photography of a documentary style – without doubting its ability to summon from us greater depths of sensitivity, or its capacity to embody grace in however partial and momentary a way.
Chris Killip’s epochal work In Flagrante begins with a beautiful Yeats poem, followed by an image of an artist at work painting the landscape of the shoulders of a cove, the troubled water in the painting and the roiling clouds above at odds with what we can see in the expanse of ‘dead space’ behind the painter’s canvas. After the masthead comes Killip’s terse and concise prologue, in which he wrote the now well-known sentence: “This book is a fiction about metaphor.” The opening lines of Killip’s prologue declared that “[t]he objective history of England doesn’t amount to much if you don’t believe in it, and I don’t, and I don’t believe that anyone in these photographs does either as they face the reality of de-industrialisation in a system that which regards their lives as disposable. To the people in these photographs I am superfluous, my life does not depend upon their struggle, only my hopes.” In pictorial terms Halpern’s photographs share little or nothing in common with Killip’s pictures, but A works off precisely the same premise and interrogates the circumstances of precisely the same kind of abandonment that In Flagrante did — each book separated by an ocean and thirty-three years, and yet witness to the same steady process of asphyxiation by which those who separately have little or no voice are left to quietly fade away in obscurity.
I think that it is due to an overlapping sympathy shared by both works that Halpern’s A in fact begins on its cover with such an enigmatic image: sections of a radiologist’s scans, made in November of 2008 in the photographer’s hometown, and thus quite feasibly scans of the photographer himself. In Flagrante is bookended by photographs in which Killip’s shadow complete with the camera leans into the bottom third of the frame, as a way of declaring first his presence, second his presence as the creator of all these images, third his externality to what it is he has depicted, and thus fourth the deeply partial nature of the work as any kind of ‘objective history’. Here we are likely faced with a group of images of the photographer’s head and neck at a level of minute precision photographic cameras cannot produce: images of great informational value that tell us precisely nothing, but that also customarily serve to point us toward some possible injury or to the welcome absence of harm. The scans, skewed on an angle as they are, introduce both the author and a sense of the inscrutable or unknowable, and to my mind they declare that we will most probably never know the circumstances or the particular significance of the events that led to these photographs, but in the moment of their making what they depicted was true. The cover signals to us a fiction made of fact.
The overlapping map illustrations at the beginning of the book give us more information than we can decipher, and leave us wondering where we are and where the pictures are in all of this – wondering whether where is the measure of greatest significance in terms of these images, whether it isn’t between us and outside of any four mapped segments. A’s is a particularly diffuse and peripatetic where – it’s American but it has been metastasising. It’s in the earth and the leaves and the wind and the crevices and the trees and the underbrush and the railings and the sodden ground and the scorched earth and the budget and the irradiated skies and the glitter, the profusions of sudden colour, the reflections, the pooling shadow, the briefness, the intensity, the millennial pace of change, the separateness, the togetherness, the whole bruised confection of it all; it’s in the stubbornness, the unbending persistence, the clear-eyed gaze, the fragility of focus, the coarseness of the textures, the “incomprehensible syllable of wind”. It’s anywhere, and it’s now.
by Philip Levine
Words go on travelling from voice
to voice while the phones are still
and the wires hum in the cold. Now
and then dark winter birds settle
slowly on the crossbars, where huddled
they caw out their loneliness. Except
for them the March world is white
and barely alive. The train to Providence
moans somewhere near the end
of town, and the churning of metal
on metal from so many miles away
is only a high thin note trilling
the frozen air. Years ago I lived
not far from here, grown to fat
and austerity, a man who came
closely shaven to breakfast and ate
in silence and left punctually, alone,
for work. So it was I saw it all
and turned away to where snow
fell into snow and the wind spoke
in the incomprehensible syllable
of wind, and I could be anyone:
a man whose life lay open before him,
a book with no ending, a widow
bearing white carnations at dusk
to a hillside graveyard turned
to blank rubble, a cinder floating
down to earth and blinking slowly out,
too small to mean a thing, too tired
to even sigh. If life comes back,
as we are told it does, each time one
step closer to the edge of truth,
then I am ready for the dawn
that calls a sullen boy from sleep
rubbing his eyes on a white window
and knowing none of it can last the day.
A also asks questions about time, and about its own future. In its counterpointing of youth and old age, and in the contrasting extremes of civilisation it depicts – boarded up clapboard homes set against the diffident verticality of skyscrapers – it suggests a world coming steadily apart at its seams. This process is never taken for a sudden and unanticipated reversal, or the regrettable byproduct of some force majeure. In the photograph of three pillars and a foundation stone, each overgrown and fenced in by some rusted strip of wire we can just make out the three principles engraved in the stone in the way not only of a declaration but a demand: “Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear…”
In the main, those living in the world Halpern depicts are people compelled either to persevere against an inevitable and (likely) immovable neglect, to give up or to start over anew – a resolve so central to the founding of their nation. They will be compelled to begin again in the rubble, down among the animals who have steadily reclaimed the city from the encroachments of its own process of urbanisation. So many of those things we consider to be elementary protections seem absent or inadequate to the abjection of their circumstances, but there are enigmatic and wondrous embers of hope alight even in this darkness: in amid the twilight and the dark branches on hilltops, resting between two worn logs like an alter flowering after a wildfire, even in the ineffable strange beauties of the night.
By the end of this election cycle somewhere in excess of nine million American homes will have been foreclosed upon, while another eleven million remain underwater – their inhabitants thus at risk of an imminent expulsion. These and other similarly bleak statistical pronouncements have over the preceding years merged into a generalised welter of catastrophes toward which we are encouraged, more than anything else, to feel despair. Photography will not stop the rot. In and of itself photography’s job, its only remit, is to illuminate, to give form to, to make some effort at clarifying who and how and where we are – not to alter those things. That task, in its infinite myriad complexities, is our own should we so choose – if we are fortunate enough to so choose. That being said, work like this suggests that we would do well simply to begin again by looking, with a greater measure of patience than urgent expectation, and always with hope.
“Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.“