The United States is home to the apex of the photographic cliche – neon shop signs, the steaming tarmac of an open road, a yellow school bus curbside. “I was cautious about falling victim to only capturing these,” explains photographer Christopher Bethell. “During the first couple of days, I allowed myself to acclimatise to the American aesthetic before pushing myself to look through, and around, for other moments, places, or things.”
Bethell arrived in Boston in 2015 – two weeks after the last pre-major project tutorial of his photography MA at the London College of Communication. The photographer had intended to explore gentrification in Whitechapel, London, for his final project but found himself pitching something far removed – an American road trip, which would trace the history of his deceased Grandfather. The resulting project, for which he was awarded the Under 30s Gold Award in the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 2018, began on a whim.
But, the concept and his preoccupation with the US had been with Bethell for years. The photographer’s Grandfather, Joseph Leo O’Donnell, passed away when he was young. “Joey lived in the States all his life so I never met him,” says Bethell. “I grew up with an attachment to this man that I had never known. The US became synonymous with him during my childhood because I had dual nationality there and in the UK.” Bethell’s Mother and Grandmother spoke little about O’Donnell’s life – the memory was too painful. And so, the photographer created his own narrative. In Bethell’s mind, O’Donnell was a failed Jazz musician; a defeated man who eventually succumbed to the all-consuming lifestyle of Las Vegas.
Aged 22, Bethell discovered that the reality was much more complex. The revelation initially disillusioned him but four years later he was ready to re-engage. The project wasn’t easy. “I spent six weeks driving across America with my partner Bekky,” says Bethell. “Each time we left somewhere significant to my Grandfather’s story I had a meltdown about what I was doing and how it was going to work.” The photographer was keen to visit all the places his Grandfather had lived, along with those he had imagined – Boston, New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Ultimately he moved freely, allowing himself to explore anything that was of interest, or bore some relation to O’Donnell: “Old Jazz bars, ranches with horses, and car shows”.
The resulting series, The Duke of Earl, embodies Bethell’s relationship with the country: a sense of familiarity, combined with unknowing, permeates the stills. The experience only spurred Bethell’s intrigue in the United States. “Being awarded the Under 30s Gold Award in the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 2018 was incredible,” he reflects. “… it gave me the drive and the funding to go back to America at the end of 2018 to begin work on my next project.” Bethell received £1,500 and was featured in the RPS International Photography Exhibition 161 – a show comprising 100 images, which is touring the UK and Ireland throughout 2019.
Now in its 162nd year, the IPE was established the year after the Royal Photographic Society was founded and has celebrated the work of many of the most significant practitioners in the history of photography, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand. The competition welcomes submissions from photographers of all levels, working in any genre, style and format. This year’s winners will receive prizes totalling £4,000 and be featured in a nationwide touring exhibition.
On his return to the United States, Bethell lived in Clarkston, Washington for a month – the town in which O’Donnell spent his final years. “I worked for the local paper while searching for anyone that knew my Grandfather,” says Bethell. “The new work is about trying to understand him through documenting the place he chose to help him escape his afflictions.”
The RPS International Photography Exhibition 2019 is now open for entries. Submit your work before 29 July 2019 for a chance to win prizes totalling £4,000, and to be featured in a nationwide touring exhibition.
Please click here for more information abut working with Studio 1854.
Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.