Photo Realism

Jonathan Knott, 22.09.2017
Taking a closer look at America
Images are an integral part of brand-building in modern America. Its president made his name on a reality TV show, while its celebrities provide glimpses into carefully managed lives through Instagram.

Images have also helped mainstream American culture become a dominant influence across much of the world. But as the role of America as a moral and economic leader comes ever more into question, they can also help us reach a deeper and more accurate understanding of the country.

The diversity of photographs featured in States of America, an exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary (until 26 November), prompts viewers to reassess what they think they know about the United States. The show contains work by 17 photographers, ranging from the 1960s to the 1980s.

The images are valuable in their own right. But it’s also hard not to see the exhibition in the light of America’s current problems. And what it helps us to see is that many of these have their roots in economic and social developments reaching back decades.

Garry Winogrand’s photos portray women enjoying the freedoms they gained in the 1960s and 1970s, underlining the social change that has happened since the second world war, but also reminding us that many people feel uncomfortable with that change.

And another factor behind the rising anger in American politics has come as people see the comfortably bland lifestyles documented in Bill Owens’ 1972 Suburbia series become an unattainable dream. The caption to a photograph of a couple feeding a baby in their kitchen says: "We're really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food, and we have a really nice home."

Of course, a statement like this is unlikely to tell the whole truth. And no one would have understood this better than the colour photography pioneer, William Eggleston.

The Eggleston photos in this exhibition are from his Los Alamos series, created between 1965 and 1974 on road trips across the US. To me, they brought to mind the films of the director David Lynch (who I later discovered is an Eggleston fan). Like Lynch, Eggleston draws out the strangeness running through everyday life. And also like Lynch, he frequently turns his lens on American clichés and stereotypes.

Eggleston’s colours seem at once vivid and washed out. They bring into focus the powerful allure of the American Dream, and the emptiness that is its flip side. Bright sunlight floods through a plane window, sparkling in a glass of iced drink; ketchup dispensers and condiments sit on a burger joint windowsill; a car waits in front of a soda shop with a faded “Delta Kream” sign. 

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Las Vegas (yellow shirt guy at pinball machine), "Los Alamos" Folio 4, by William Eggleston

Images like these encourage us to look more critically at the conventions and assumptions of American culture. So it’s appropriate that the series is named after the New Mexico town where the first atomic bomb was developed in the 1940s, alluding to the huge military power on which the country’s society ultimately rests.

Apart from the photos accompanied by comments from the subjects, the exhibition is sparing in its use of text, with only a general introduction for each photographer. Although at times I would have liked to know more about the individual works, this approach is effective at making visitors pay close attention to the actual images.

In a similar way, understanding America’s current situation may depend on looking more closely at what the country really is, and how it got there.

States of America is at Nottingham Contemporary until 26 November

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