“It’s hard to know when to stop,” says Gregory Halpern. “I remember putting my camera away on a trip home and being relieved it was out of sight. I never feel that way, so that was clearly a sign. I haven’t kept track, but I shot maybe 700 to 1000 rolls of film.”
He’s talking about ZZYZX, which he’s worked on for five years, partly supported by a Guggenheim fellowship. Shot in Southern California, starting out on the eastern fringes of the state then moving slowly westwards towards Los Angeles and the Pacific, it’s named after an ‘unincorporated community’ in the Mojave desert, and has a similar sense of the outsider. The opening picture shows a gnarled hand, with a callus on the thumb and dirt in the fingernails, outstretched to show seven stars tattooed on the palm. The next shows stark black trees in the desert in the wake of a fire.
Elsewhere, people seemingly from the fringes of society sleep rough, or clutch arcane, scribbled notes. A shot of a gleaming skyscraper, home to Deloitte’s offices in LA, appears to inhabit a different planet. The final photograph shows oranges floating in fetid water, evoking, yet at the same time undercutting, the sunny notion of the Golden State.
Chris Killip writes that “traditional American landscape photography has become a rather moribund photographic trope …a sanctified, cliched reverence has become the norm”. In Halpern’s California work, Killip detects a much more singular voice at work. “I see him removing himself from the comforts of the past and endeavouring to strike out afresh, rethinking his conditioning and antecedents to break free of this particular mould,” he says.
Halpern, who was born in 1977 in Buffalo, New York, was initially drawn to Los Angeles because it “felt impossible to describe”. And this sense of the inscrutable comes through in the work, published as a photobook by MACK (winning the 2016 Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook of the Year) and exhibited in Autumn 2016 at Webber Gallery in London. The scribblings held by dirty hands don’t really make any sense; the images don’t add up to a conventional story or narrative. But they do work together to create a coherent whole; a journey of sorts across the landscape, seemingly from day to night.
“My work has moved away from more traditional notions of documentary and closer to forms of fiction,” says Halpern, who has published four photobooks to date, and shoots editorial for the likes of T, The New York Times Style Magazine, and The Fader. Having originally studied history and literature at Harvard, he was inspired by the deliberate evasions of novelists, he says – the way they leave holes “to be filled by the minds of their readers, suggesting meanings which readers might then take pleasure in creatively interpreting”.
ZZYZX was also inspired by his dreams, which often seem to take place in the same imaginary location, and also by the medium of photography itself and what Halpern describes as its duplicitous “ability/problem of being able to focus on and select such a narrow set of things, and then put them next to each other as if they represented some version of reality”.
Early on, Halpern thought of naming the project Kingdom or Babylon, says publisher Michael Mack; “but Greg decided both were too obvious and didn’t allow sufficient scope for the viewer to enter the world he has created, and build their own story.”