Photographs ©Greg Halpern
James Turnley introduced me to A by Greg Halpern. He bought the book spontaneously and shared it at the first photobook meetup in New York. I didn’t get a chance to look at it that night but the name stuck in my mind. James and I exchanged a few emails about the work, making plans to review it, or feature it here. It didn’t come together.
Then Halpern’s interview on Vice appeared on my radar. Interviews with photographers are everywhere on the internet these days, but it’s rare that you come across one with the type of insight that alters the way you think about photography. Halpern did that in this interview.
VICE: Is this book fiction or non-fiction?
Gregory Halpern: If the images are examined individually, they are in a literal sense closest to non-fiction. The people, places, and animals in the book really did exist—in the singular ways that I experienced them when I photographed them. As for how it all adds up—the book’s particular and subjective edit—the work is closer to fiction. The book was intended to come from the American Rust Belt without being about it.
A few weeks ago I went to Dashwood books for the first time to pick up three books that I’d eventually giveaway to our 2011 subscribers. While browsing the inventory I found Halpern’s A. There was no way I couldn’t page through it. After I closed the book I decided to buy it. Not for the giveaway, but for myself.
I told the nice Asian lady at the counter that I’d heard it was a good book. She asked me what it was about. I tried to describe it as best I could. I mumbled something about it being bleak and depressing.
“But at the end there’s hope, no?” she replied.
I didn’t have an answer. I muttered, “Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know. Did you read the interview with him in Vice?”
She hadn’t but wrote down ‘Vice’ on a piece of paper so she could check it out later.
Vice: Are you an optimist?
Gregory Halpern: I think so. And at first it might not look it, but I think the book is ultimately optimistic as well. Many of the images in the book reference death. At the same time, I wanted to punctuate that inevitability with images that are, at least to me, very hopeful. Ultimately we all fail, but there is beauty in the effort to avoid it. Hope and despair are intimately related. Hope is the envisioning of that which is not present. At times I think the creation of a photograph can function that way.
As I rode the train home I thought about the book. The ambiguity and sparse edit hooked me. Halpern sets the tone early in the book. In parts of this country, everything is falling apart and there’s not much the people who live in those places can do about it except keep moving along, bloody noses and all. We feel the full brunt of the forces of nature and what the world looks like as it slowly crumbles. At this point, it’s tough not to view the work as Halpern’s reaction to the ‘great recession,’ but I think it points at problems that transcend this particular period of time.
These photographs are ‘tough’ as Winnogrand might say, and yet have a certain visual harmony to them that can’t be removed from the equation. And here’s where I think Halpern is holding his cards closest to his chest. He knows these photographs have a magnetic visual appeal outside the context of the subject matter. Context be damned. I think this is probably why there’s no text in the book. He doesn’t want to give anything away. We don’t have a clue where or when these photographs were made. We can piece it together if we do the research online, but that’s about it. They were made in “Buffalo, Rochester, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Memphis, Detroit, and other small cities in between.” That’s all we really know and all we really need to know.
Gregory Halpern: Initially, we conceived of the book as seven or eight chapters, each separated by distinct breaks, but in practice, we found the breaks too jarring. Ultimately, we kept the basic structure of the chapters but eliminated the breaks. This allows the reader to have the experience of being sucked into an uninterrupted stream.
After two weeks with the book I’d become completely sucked into the “uninterrupted stream” of Halpern’s vision. I knew this feeling. It’s the way I feel anytime a work of art gets under my skin, and sticks with me for a prolonged period of time.
A few days after buying the book I realized Halpern’s work was showing at CLAMPART, so I made a plan to head to Chelsea to check it out, as well as a few other shows.
Saturday, January 21st, 2012 was a cold snowy, slushy day. I met Richard Bram on the corner of 23rd St. and 10th Ave. We checked out a few shows, Weegee, Joel Sternfeld, and Bertien van Manen. Each very good, but I was waiting for Halpern.
As we walked into CLAMPART and I immediately gravitated to the prints, inspecting them closely. I noticed a few that I didn’t recognize from the book, or at least that I couldn’t remember.
“That’s a great photograph to see as you walk in,” Richard said as he pointed to Halpern’s feral kitten photograph.
I walked around looking for the optimism in the photographs. It had started to emerge a bit in the last few weeks but I wasn’t fully convinced. The work was still veered toward bleak and pessimistic for me. If you’re poor in the United States, you’re fucked. The system is broken. Shit is crumbling around you. What do you have to look forward to? I didn’t see the hope.
Vice: What do you look for in the photography that you like?
Gregory Halpern: It is often said that photography is uniquely suited to portray or reflect the world around us. And yet our surroundings are complex, in my opinion, to the point of being visually or verbally indescribable. I want my photographs to reflect that impossibility, to respond to that complexity and to create an equally complex, perhaps impenetrable, thing.
I think he succeeds in his desire to create a “complex, perhaps impenetrable, thing.” As I left the gallery a few of the photographs lingered with me. I tried to decide if the work was ultimately hopeful. I didn’t arrive at an answer, and still haven’t. Maybe hope is just as complex and impenetrable as Halpern’s photographs.