Tag Archives: America

‘Americans’: Christopher Morris Captures a Nation Divided

My latest book, Americans, is the second in a series about America, even though I had no idea it would become a series when my first book, My America, was released in April 2006. That book examined Republican nationalism in the country during George W. Bush’s two terms as president. But in Americans, I’ve taken real pains to make sure there’s no political photography. There aren’t any portraits of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, and no pictures of rally signs. Instead, I sought to make an anthropological study of America—not for this week, or for this past election cycle—but a body of work that future generations could look back on to get a sense of the country’s mood.

What I found, in the eight-year period during which these photographs were made, is an America severely divided. With two long-running wars and an economy slow to recover, there is a real sense that the country is in a depressed state. Traveling across America in several road trips, I found that the mood among citizens wasn’t upbeat or lively; people are really polarized in their political positions, yet everyone is concerned about the economy and what that means for the welfare of their families.

The book contains only a handful of formal portraits. The rest is reportage—pictures taken when people were alone, pensive in thought. I looked for these moments to convey this feeling of loss and depression that I felt across the nation.

Americans recently headed to the polls to elect their next president, and on Election Day eve, there wasn’t a clear frontrunner. In fact, many polls showed voters divided near evenly between Obama and Romney—a poignant indicator that despite the winner, Americans may very well continue to be divided.

Christopher Morris is a contract photographer for TIME and represented by VII

Americans, published by Steidl, will be available in early December.

The Halls of Democracy: Places of Civic Responsibility

American citizensand those applying for the titlelearn early that they have two primary civic responsibilities: voting and jury duty. As voting booths are installed in our common areas across the nationin schools, gyms, firehouses, grocery stores and municipal buildingswe realize the true weight of our duties as citizens.

Michael Mergen, an assistant professor of photography at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., became particularly interested in votersand voting locationswhile working as a photojournalist during the 2004 presidential election. When he walked into a barbershop-turned-polling center in west Philadelphia, Mergen thought to himself, This has to be preserved.

In the years since, Mergen has photographed countless voting booths, jury rooms and naturalization facilities in his quest to document what he considers essential parts of being an American. After combing through thousands of polling sites on Excel spreadsheets, the photographer then chose stations located in private homes or unusual businesses; his journeys have taken him to pizza parlors, living rooms, garages, funeral homes and other eccentric spots scattered across Philadelphia. His eight years of work have yielded three revealing yet non-partisan series aptly titled, Vote,DeliberateandNaturalization, which collectively seek to underscore the importance of citizen-driven governance.

There are few instances in our lives where as an American you can say, I was a citizen today, Mergen says. calohealth.com . We are citizens everyday going about our business, but its rare when that becomes an actual tangible event.Its kind of amazing that casting a vote at Buds Tire in Murfreesboro, Tenn. actually [contributes to] President Obama or Governor Romney winning.

Michael Mergenis a Virginia-based photographer.

Back to School: Classroom Portraits by Julian Germain

Regardless of where we grew up, most of us spent many of our formative years sitting in a classroom. Four walls with colorful pictures on them and a teacher at the front. The language, customs and native dress might differ from place to place, but British photographer Julian Germain, who has spent eight years photographing students in classrooms around the world, found the experience of going back-to-school is universal.

His collection, which spans Brazil, Nigeria, Yemen, Russia, Taiwan, England, America and others, provides a window inside the classrooms of the world. It also represents a new vision of the traditional class photo. “Every year, your class is photographed; a photographer comes in, lines you up in almost a military fashion, but in those pictures you never see the classroom,” says Germain. “They are usually made against a brick wall or a curtain or something so you never really get a look at the space. I had this idea to examine the space where kids learn, and at the same time, examine the kids.”

(See more in Reinventing College, TIME’s special package on education)

Germain began taking photos of classrooms in 2004, not long after his daughter started school. He started by photographing a handful of schools in the northeast region of England where he lives. The following year for a trip to Argentina for a separate assignment his project took an international turn. “It had not been planned in advance, it’s something that happened very organically,” he says. “At a certain point it became clear it would be interesting to photograph schools anywhere I could.” Some of those schools are now part of a book aptly titled, Classroom Portraits.

Education, as Germain notes, is not often the subject of art. “It’s amazing, if you look around museums and things, school is never there,” he says. “Artists frequently go into schools to make art with the children, but never really to make work with education as the theme.” To that end, Germain carefully choreographed each class, just as he would any other subject. He took his photos in the last 15 minutes of the lesson. He made sure each child was visible, but otherwise left the room just as it was. Since he was dealing with often squirrelly children, he didn’t have much time. In the days of film, he says he would only shoot between two and four exposures. Now, thanks to digital, he takes about 10. “They just can’t concentrate for longer than that,” he says.

Unlike your typical school photographer, Germain never yelled, “say cheese.” “I don’t tell them to do anything,” he says. “I just tell them that the exposure is quite long and they need to be ready. I never tell them to smile or adopt a certain mood. I just tell them they need to be ready.” The result is a classroom full of students who appear just as they would to a teacher standing in front of the class delivering a lecture. In fact, Germain thinks of the camera as the teacher. “It’s not that they don’t look happy, they just aren’t grinning like a cheshire cat—they are paying attention to the ‘teacher’,” he says. Which is why you won’t find a teacher in his photos—he prefers to only photograph the students. “I found if teachers are in, they dominate,” he says. “I like the idea that the images are very democratic. I give everybody space. As soon as the teacher goes in there it kind of messes that up. I wanted to make it all about the kids.”

Making the students the focus gives them a sort of power. Because he photographed the children at eye level, when flipping through his book hundreds of eyes stare back at you. “I find that quite challenging,” he says. Indeed, he says, the whole world children inhabit has been built by adults—the education system they are in, the clothes they’re wearing, the textbooks, their notebooks, pencils, pen, the blackboard, the furniture. “It says to me, we are responsible for the world they’re in,” he says. “There’s a lot of mumbling and grumbling and despair about what young people are like, but who’s responsible for that? We are.”

Classroom Portraits was published this summer by Prestel.

Kayla Webley is a staff writer at TIME.

‘American Photographs’ by Walker Evans

Like the work of most great artists, the best of Walker Evans’ pictures are marvels of contradiction. Or, rather, they acquire their power through the contradictions they deftly reconcile. One especially striking example: a photograph from 1930 (slide 11 in this gallery) comprised of elements so incongruous that, taken together, they really should not bear scrutiny for more than a few moments before the viewer, shrugging indifferently, moves on.

But through Evans’ uncanny visual alchemy, that particular photograph’s disparate graphic elements—family photos; a half-hidden American flag; dried flowers; a truly hideous plant growing with almost unseemly vitality from a battered wooden bucket—appear not only to belong together, but to need one another in order to make sense.

MOMA

Cover

As seemingly chaotic and even unappealing as the image might feel at first glance, those wildly variant aspects of the photo—the flag, the plant, the faces—somehow cohere into something far more than the sum of their parts. Despite its initially jarring message, “Interior Detail of Portuguese House” does not, in fact, spurn scrutiny—it commands, and rewards, scrutiny. And what’s more amazing is that, after a time, the photograph appears to be gazing back. It is the viewer, and not the picture, that is the subject of an unblinking inquiry—and it’s unsettling.

But if Evans’ pictures are evidence of a rare facility for both creating and resolving contradictions, his career might be seen as his masterpiece. A fierce, determined artist, Walker Evans was for decades on staff at Time Inc.—a salaried editor at, of all places, Fortune magazine from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. That the man behind one of the seminal photographic efforts of the 20th century—the 1938 masterwork, American Photographs—went to the office each day, like any other nine-to-fiver, might astonish those photography buffs who have always, understandably, imagined Evans as nothing if not an irresistible creative force.

And yet, here again, Evans’ intrinsic contradictions—managed as Rodin might handle a lump of clay, or Koufax a curveball—are ultimately resolved in the photographs, singly and collectively, that he produced. He is both iconoclast and working stiff; company man and virtuoso.

This year marks the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs, reissued by the Museum of Modern Art in an edition that recaptures, for the first time since its original release, what might be called the book’s radical purity. (The book itself, as a physical object, is a pleasure to hold; the duotone plates are gorgeous and crisp, and the size of this edition—an at-once solid and easily handled 7.75″ x 8.75″ hardcover—does justice to the serious, unfussy, thrilling nature of the work inside.)

As in the first edition, Evans’ pictures in the MoMa release appear only on the right-hand side as one turns each page, the utterly blank page on the left—without even a caption to distract the eye—adjuring one to look, to really look, at each picture, one after the other. And as the pages (slowly, slowly) turn, Evans’ accomplishment grows more evident, more impressive, more engaging.

The standard line on Evans is that no one—with a camera or a paintbrush—had ever captured America in quite the clear-eyed, unsentimental, honest  way that he did. But that patently true declaration still fails to encompass the scale and the sustained excellence of his achievement. In American Photographs, in images made during the Great Depression in places as divergent as Pennsylvania, Alabama, New York City and Havana, Cuba, Evans did not hold a mirror up to his country and his time: no mirror ever made, after all, could so clearly reflect what he saw, and what he wanted others to see.

Instead, each and every one of Evans’ pictures provides a window—or an unadorned window frame—from which even the glass has been removed, and through which we witness a scene of such clarity and immediacy that our own contemporary surroundings, if only for a moment, seem somehow less freighted with history. Less grounded. Less real.

The details of a house in Maine (slide 17)—the surprisingly jaunty, seemingly tilted windows; the elegant shapes, graceful patterns and, above all, the textures that give the structure its personality—are not merely the handiwork of people who obviously cared about their hard work; the details of the house are reminders of, and tributes to, the enduring value of hard work and the attention to craft.

The stance, the clothing and the unreadable expression on the face of a lean, dapper citizen of Havana in 1932 (slide 9) are not merely separate elements of a snapshot: like the details of a portrait by an Old Master, they combine to suggest a time, a place and an attitude (defiant, dignified) that have survived the passing decades intact—even if, by now, the man himself must be long dead.

These pictures, and the other pictures in American Photographs, are intensely daring precisely because the man who made them worked so hard to hide—to efface—the effort that went into creating them. Each image stands on its own, while at the same time each picture references the photograph that comes before, and the photograph that follows. It is a straightforward book that stirs complex emotions. It is a treasure.

‘Walker Evans: American Photographs (Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition)’ is available through the Museum of Modern Art.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

The Mane Subject: A Book of Beards

When Justin James Muir moved to West Chester, Pa. a little over two years ago, he found himself in a hairy situation—the beards per capita ratio seemed unusually high. The phenomenon puzzled Muir, so as he settled into life in his new home, the art director did what came naturally: he began photographing the beards of his new friends. And then he photographed the bearded friends of these friends. And then the friends of their friends found their way in front of Muir’s lens too. Pretty soon, he had enough portraits to publish a book.

A Book of Beards, published earlier this month, features 125 pages of whiskered men, photographed by Muir at beard competitions, dive bars and off-the-beaten-path hideaways across the East Coast.

“I would literally look for beards everywhere I went. I would meet someone on the street and try to set up a time to shoot them or have them come to me,” Muir told TIME. He even had cards that he would give to the the well-bearded men he would encounter.

“There was no real criteria,” he explained. “It just had to be a big beard and look cool. You don’t see people like this every day—a lot of them are kinda tucked away in nooks that most people will never go to.”

Publishing A Book of Beards himself, Muir decided that all proceeds from the first press run would help Mike Cummings, a bearded friend suffering from testicular cancer without health insurance. Mike, featured on the cover of the book, also contributed a short written vignette in the book, one of 18 pieces sprinkled throughout the portraits. Muir plans to donate the funds from subsequent press runs to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

For more information about A Book of Beards or to purchase a copy, visit BookofBeards.com.

Public Assembly: The Photographs of Mike Sinclair

For this week’s issue, we combed countless archives in search of the perfect photograph to accompany a history of the American Dream, the subject of the cover story by Jon Meacham. In the end, we turned to photographer Mike Sinclair, who’s been rigorously documenting America’s heartland near his home in Kansas City, Mo. When asked about his photos, he modestly says, “I never really set out to photograph the American Dream or western culture. These are not projects. The edits come out of thinking about themes. I like going through my work and then figuring it out.”

For more than 30 years, Sinclair has documented places where people gather, like state fairs, sporting events and parks. “I grew up in the heyday of LIFE and photojournalism. I realized early on that I was better at visual things,” he tells TIME.

Sinclair decided to pursue journalism at the University of Missouri, but after one year, he realized that it wasn’t a great fit. “I came under the spell of Winogrand and Friedlander and found them more interesting as a budding photojournalist. I eventually went to Southern Illinois University, where they had an undergraduate program in fine art photography. Once I got there, I was in heaven—it combined my interest in the fine arts and photography.”

“I just like everything about taking photos and going to these events. It’s a great counterpoint to photographing modern architecture,” says Sinclair, who does the job professionally to make a living between his documentary projects. All of his images reflect the rigor of an architectural photographer with the straightforward style of masters like Walker Evans, Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore.

“I switched to architecture because I thought after 30 or 40 years I’d have some kind of record of this time and what happened,” he explains.

Sinclair’s understated and introverted approach to documenting an event feels easygoing, placing viewers in the shoes of a local rather than an outsider. He photographs on trips he plans and usually goes with his family. “I kind of plant the camera in front of people and spend time with them,” he says. In all his images, he almost feels invisible.

Sinclair has no real plans for his work except to keep making it. In the beginning, he says, “I first shared the work to the owner of the Dolphin Gallery in Kansas City and was encouraged by him to show it [elsewhere]. Eventually, through them, my work found its way into collections around the country.” These collections include The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, also in Kansas City.

Sinclair disagrees when people label him as a certain type of photographer. “I don’t think of myself as a Midwestern photographer. I think the same sort of things happen everywhere I’ve been.” His image of the Fourth of July (featured above) speaks to his claim—it feels like it could represent almost anywhere in America.

“Part of what I’m interested in is this idea of public space and the preciousness of it. It’s something that we all need,” he says.

Mike Sinclair is a photographer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His current exhibition ‘Public Assembly’ is on view at Jen Bekman Projects in New York City until June 24. 

Rebecca Norris Webb: ‘My Dakota’

In 2005, I set out to photograph my home state of South Dakota, a sparsely populated frontier state on the Great Plains with more buffalo, pronghorn, coyotes, mule deer, ring-necked pheasants and prairie dogs than people. It’s a landscape dominated by space and silence and solitude, by brutal wind and extreme weather. I was trying to capture a more intimate and personal view of the West. I was trying to capture what all that space feels like to someone who grew up there. A year into the project, however, everything changed. One of my brothers died unexpectedly. For months, one of the few things that eased my unsettled heart was the landscape of South Dakota. It seemed all I could do was drive through the badlands and prairies and photograph. I began to wonder: Does loss have its own geography?

That first year of grieving was a blur of motel rooms, back roads, and dreams of my brother. I still remember, however, one particularly elusive, haunted, dreamlike image. One overcast day on a deserted country road in the Missouri River valley, I was startled by a flock of some thousand blackbirds. I was mesmerized by how the birds flew through the stormy, unsettled Western sky as if they were one huge, dark, undulating, ravenous creature, picking clean the remains of the corn and sunflower fields in the last days of autumn.

For days when I’d least expect it, I’d see the blackbirds descend upon a field. It didn’t seem to matter how quickly I stopped the car and raised the camera to my eye. Inevitably, the dark flock vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

For at least a week, I kept dreaming about those blackbirds. Finally, one afternoon near the small town of Gray Goose, South Dakota, I saw the flock hovering over a field of sunflowers. This time I was somewhat more prepared—I had my camera around my neck, and, thanks to the dirt road’s wide shoulder, I could quickly pull over and rush toward the field, crouching low to keep from scaring off the skittery birds. I remember wondering what I’d say to the farmer if he caught me trespassing on his land.

Then something happened that I wasn’t expecting—the flock lingered in the field. Were there more seeds than usual to feed on? Were the towering sunflowers hiding me from the skittish birds? Slowly I inched closer until I was standing directly behind one of the tallest sunflowers in the field. Beneath its large bowed head, I clicked the shutter again and again until the dark flock vanished once more into the cold, grey, blustery November sky.

They say your first death is like your first love—and you’re never quite the same afterwards. After my brother died, my photographs started to change. They were more muted, often autumnal. I remember saying to the writer, Linda Hasselstrom at her ranch house near Hermosa, South Dakota, where I did much of the writing for the book, “I see summer, fall, and winter, in the photographs, but not spring.”

“When you’re grieving, there isn’t any spring,” Hasselstrom replied.

Looking again at the work now that My Dakota is finally a book, I realize that I was photographing this particularly dark time in my life in order to try to absorb it, to distill it, and, ultimately, to let it go. Not only did my first grief change me, but making My Dakota changed me as well, both as a human being and as a bookmaker.

Rebecca Norris Webb is a New York-based photographer. More of her work can be seen here. My Dakota (Radius Books) will be launched at the International Center of Photography in New York City on May 24.  There will be an exhibition of the work at the Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City, South Dakota, from June 1 through October 13.

Postcards From America: The Box Set

In May 2011, Magnum photographers Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Paolo Pellegrin, Alec Soth and Mikhael Subotzky, as well as writer Ginger Strand, set out from Austin, Texas in an RV. Two weeks and 1750 miles later, they arrived in Oakland, Calif.

Together, they documented their experience, the result of which is a new, limited edition book that launches this week. Postcards from America is a collection of objects: a book, five bumper stickers, a newspaper, two fold-outs, three cards, a poster and five zines, all in a signed and numbered box.

“We knew each other through Magnum, obviously, but we’d never actually tried to work together,” says Soth. “We wanted to see what that would be like, to see if we could create a kind of polyphonic sound. Hopefully the box book achieves that. It also gave us an opportunity to push each other creatively and conceptually, which I think has carried over into our individual work.”

The book does not attempt to document the American Southwest in y traditional sense. Instead, it uses the prototypically western experience of a road trip as an entry point into depicting the region. “Some of us are used to working only on immersive, multiyear projects,” says Subotzky. “Obviously this was very different. Doing it collectively brought a great energy and looseness to the work. The box, with all its moving and arrangeable pieces, really reflects that and reflects what we found on the road—a divided and often contradictory society, unsure about its identity and future.”

The Postcards from America box book, in a signed edition of 500, is available exclusively at www.postcards.magnumphotos.com 

The second Postcards from America project is scheduled to begin this April in Rochester, New York.

To read more about the project background on Lightbox click here. To read a dispatch from the project click here.