Gregory Halpern’s latest book ZZYZX takes its name from a small town on the outskirts of California’s Mojave Desert. Mythology and realism bleed into one another in this poetic body of work, which tracks the westward journey from the desert east of Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean.
Celia Graham-Dixon: Can you tell us a bit about how you approached sequencing, pacing and flow in ZZYZX?
Gregory Halpern: The pictures in the book begin in the desert east of Los Angeles and move west through the city, ending at the Pacific. It’s a general westward movement that might allude to a thirst for water, as well as the original expansion of America, which was born in the east and which hungrily drove itself west until reaching the Pacific, thereby fulfilling its ‘manifest’ destiny. Two hundred years ago, President Jefferson charged the great explorers Lewis and Clark to go west, to map the uncharted country and to prepare the way for American commerce. It is a journey that many Americans take pleasure in repeating for themselves, in their own way. That drive west has become a rite of passage,a journey during which Americans might discover their country and themselves along the way. I can’t help thinking how today historians still speculate about why, after reaching the Pacific and turning back to the east, Lewis fell into a deep depression and committed suicide.
CG-D: How did the location inform the way you thought about and approached shooting the images?
GH: The process of falling in love with southern California was a slow one, and one that began as repulsion. I was turned off by the sprawl, the lack of a city centre, the influence of Hollywood, the colours of the place and the superficiality. With time, I became increasingly interested in the idea that it felt like a challenge, an impossible place to understand. I loved that it seemed unknowable, that there didn’t seem to be a right or wrong way to picture it; that beauty and ugliness, hope and despair, always seemed right on top of each other.
CG-D: Despite some elements of documentary style, your images portray a unique, subjective vision. How does this contradictory aspect of photography serve your practice?
GH: I think what’s most interesting to me about photography is the deception and tension hard-wired into
it – the difficulty of defining its relationship to truth. A photograph has the potential to be much more objectively truthful or factual than, say, a painting, but painting is more honest about its intentions and possibilities; it doesn’t claim anything other than its own subjectivity. I think photography inhabits a fascinating space between fiction and non- fiction. Photographs are never really entirely one or the other.
CG-D: When discussing the difference between the shooting process and the editing process, you have described the former as intuitive and the latter as analytical. Would you say there is something quite literary about this method of working?
GH: I am really excited about photobook-making as a narrative project. It’s rare that I prefer the exhibition to the book. My photographic process mirrors my writing process, which is to write a lot, quickly and intuitively, to get it onto the page and to not be too judgemental about it. Then the editing process is quite slow, painfully so at times. To get one satisfactory page of writing I often have to write ten.
CG-D: The relationship between the images in ZZYZX seems as important as the subject and composition of each individual image. What quality does the book format bring to your work?
GH: I like the idea that the work might sit somewhere between mythology and realism and I think the book format lends itself to both genres well. The binding of pages into a fixed visual sequence creates a limitation within which a very specific art form can blossom. Opening the cover, turning the page, not knowing what will come next, the sense of anticipation as you turn pages – I think it all taps into some kind of very old, almost primal desire for a tale.
CG-D: The people you have pictured in ZZYZX are all full of character and there is an incredible sense of intimacy in your portraits of them. What is your approach to portraiture?
GH: I am very straightforward with my process. I see someone I am interested in, which essentially means I just want to look at them longer. My nerves still challenge me when it comes to approaching them and I often have to talk myself into it. I usually explain very simply and directly that I am working on a book of photographs and that I was wondering if I could take their portrait. That sounds simple, but there is definitely anxiety in that process for me. It’s not something I necessarily look forward to, but I keep coming back to them because I am fascinated by the delicacy of the exchange, the tenuousness of the relationship, the unpredictability of the outcome. I’m fascinated how a portrait of an anonymous stranger can take on meaning for another stranger – how an anonymous viewer can look at that person (a person who should mean nothing to them) and feel something. There’s no logical reason for it.
Words by Celia Graham-Dixon
All imagery © courtesy of Mack/Gregory Halpern