The United States is one of the most photographed countries in the world. What photographer hasn’t wanted to make a trek to America to record what they see? They come because they have seen the photos of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans and many others. They come with fix ideas about America as the result of what they have seen in the press. America in the camera’s eye often tends to be a country of oddities. A country of extremes – nothing in the middle except the middle class and they seem rather bland. In both directions up and down there are strange, bizarre, sad, odd people and places. Foreign magazines love stories that play up Paris Hilton or other celebrities. They love crime, drugs, poverty, the extreme rich, the conservatives, the religious, the teens and anything weird. The public doesn’t seem to want photo essays with happy endings? But are visiting photographers, with their quickly captured clichés, missing something that can only be seen by people who live and work in America and document it from the inside?
In this issue of PRIVATE there are fourteen essays, all by photographers who are either American or live in America. They cover a wide range of subjects. Quite a few, if not most of the essays, don’t have sunny skies and happy endings. That’s not what serious photographers like to record. But even when there is a cliché subject, these photographers have taken the time to study their subject and go beyond cliché images. This is their evidence about America, from the streets of New York City, to the rural South and across the plains where Native Americans live (There are no Indians here. That was a mistake when early explorers thought they had gone clear around the world to the country of India!) and on to the streets of Los Angeles and much more.
There are the familiar subjects at the top of the news like the war in Iraq. What better way to describe the toll the war has taken on the USA than to show what it has happened to the soldiers sent there to fight a war that isn’t necessary. There are essays about poor but proud African Americans of the rural tobacco land of Virginia who hold their heads high. These people refuse to look depressed for the photographer. They want us to know they don’t have much but they can still live with dignity and pride! There is even a transvestite who does not live in a big city but instead lives and works with his/her hands on a farm in conservative America but is not afraid to show both sides. These photographers show us things about America that we don’t always see.
Some of these photographers like Edmund Leveckis and Maura Sullivan find subjects that document their dreams and inner feelings. Their images are metaphors for how they feel about America or about how people left their spirits inside buildings. One essays shows how young women in rural America still don’t have a better life. They are left with children no father or government wants to help. The elected officials don’t see that it is their system that has created such a sad situation. It is not the women’s fault. Cowboys work for little money because they truly love what they do. Look at their faces and you will know too.
These photographers have been patient and have looked, listened, waited and tired to understand what was in front of their cameras. You will see their care and concern when you carefully study these images. They are not images to be quickly rushed through like channel surfing on a television set. They are meant to be slowly appreciated for what they show us about America that we have not seen in the press or in images made by photographers who briefly visited the United States.
And one last thing – the final photograph, by Christopher Anderson – of a man – what is he doing? Screaming? Whatever it is – I can hear it loud – it says more about frustration in America than any others I have seen recently.
(by Robert Stevens)