Omaha Sketchbook: 15 years of midwestern masculinity

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Gregory Halpern’s new photobook centers on Omaha, Nebraska, presenting a timely meditation on America and masculinity

A single image lingered at the back of Gregory Halpern’s mind while he shot Omaha Sketchbook. It was a photograph of George W. Bush delivering a 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein before invading Iraq. The still, published on the cover of The New York Times on 18 March 2003, captured a dangerous dichotomy. “It revealed things about masculinity, aggression, and confidence,” says Halpern. “The link between complete inadequacy and violence.”

Violence, together with American masculinity, vulnerability, power, childhood, and the beauty of contradictions, form the core of Ohama Sketchbook — Halpern’s latest photobook. Shot over the last 15 years in Omaha, Nebraska, the publication is a timely meditation on a certain kind of masculinity fostered, in part, by the social and political atmosphere of America’s Midwest. Boys become men, and Halpern captures the varying displays of virility that accompany the transition — from uniformed scouts standing to attention, to young men wrestling, bathed in sweat.

From Omaha Sketchbook © Gregory Halpern and MACK.
From Omaha Sketchbook © Gregory Halpern and MACK.

Ohama Sketchbook observes, but it does not pass judgment. “I never want to make work that is predetermined, where the outcome is clear from the beginning, or that serves the agenda of a single political point of view,” says Halpern. Portraits, group-shots, still lifes, and landscapes frame the every day; windows on sleepy American suburbs and those who inhabit them — a young man, with hair cascading to below his knees, clutches a rifle; another, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, pouts at the camera. “To me, the most respectful, and most interesting thing a photographer can do is simply observe and honour a person’s complexities and contradictions,” continues Halpern.

The project spans a decade-and-a-half, but it feels timeless, accumulating meaning depending on the context in which it is viewed. The images are small, pasted onto coloured sugar paper — a reproduction of Halpern’s original sketchbook. The book feels as though it could continue an endless volume of reflections on a universally-resonant theme. “I want viewers to perceive what is depicted however they wish — I provide some clear sentiments and direction, I’d say, but I also want to force them to arrive at some decisions on their own,” says Halpern.

In the following interview, Halpern, who is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Nominee Member of Magnum Photos, reflects on the making of Omaha Sketchbook, the representation of his subjects, and the personal significance of this topic.

From Omaha Sketchbook © Gregory Halpern and MACK.

British Journal of Photography: You were born in Buffalo, New York, and much of your work explores the idea of Americanness. What interests you about America — why do you keep returning to it? 

Gregory Halpern: I am not particularly patriotic, although I’m not necessarily interested in making an over-simplified critique either; it could be tempting to be judgmental in America while exploring these topics.

Some of it might be to do with the fact that I feel like an outsider here, not just in America, but in the Midwest.

My Grandfather was an illegal immigrant. He fled Hungary just before the Second World War, and, because of anti-Semitic immigration laws, he snuck into this country illegally, hidden in the bottom of a boat. Almost all of his family were killed in the Holocaust. When I was a kid, my Dad would ritualistically ask my Grandfather to tell the story of fleeing Europe and sneaking into the US.

I never used to speak about this, but it is so deeply embedded in who I am, and in how, as a child, my brain was formed to see the world, to see myself, to feel both pride, pain, and some degree of shame in relation to this history. This origin story is all connected to my understanding of my own masculinity, of America, and how I do or do not fit in here.

BJP: How did you want to portray the men and boys depicted in your work, do you want viewers to perceive them in a certain way?

GH: To me, the most respectful and interesting thing a photographer can do is simply observe and honour a person’s complexities and contradictions.

BJP: Omaha Sketchbook spans 15 years but there is a timelessness and fluidity to the images. What was your experience of working on a project for this length of time; how did you achieve such visual cohesiveness?

GH: It’s funny but I sort of lost interest in the place during the Obama years. My interest increased again when Trump was elected, which also coincided with me becoming a father of two daughters. And so, in some ways, the place simply provided a way for me to explore things I was grappling with.

My own photographic interests also shifted over the years, and, in a way, that provided a challenge because I became increasingly interested in the line between fiction and nonfiction in photography. The project began in a style that was more straight, and, at times, it was hard to force myself to fall back into that more innocent approach.

From Omaha Sketchbook © Gregory Halpern and MACK.
From Omaha Sketchbook © Gregory Halpern and MACK.

BJP: The narrative of Omaha Sketchbook is somber, but the images are aesthetically beautiful. How did you negotiate this discordance?

GH: Discordance is what life is, and what makes a work of art multi-dimensional. Because photography is so much about the question of inclusion and exclusion — in the literal sense of what one crops out of the frame, what one prints or leaves in the outtake pile — it tends to simplify and avoid discordance. In our attempts to organise reality with our cameras, we distort it.

BJP: Did the fact that the images would be presented in a photobook shape your creative process?

GH: In a sense. I knew the work was never going to be about the single image — the single moment. It was more about a multiplicity of moments, which allowed me the freedom to make images that didn’t require a complete world of tension within them. In other words, I knew I could make images that might only work within a suite of other images. Certain images might only work in conjunction with other images, in order to build more tension or to evoke a more complete sensation when looking at a spread.

BJP: Can you explain the process of creating the book? 

GH: It’s a reproduction of my original sketchbook, which I made from old construction paper. I remember going to an art store in Omaha — I was looking to buy acid-free, white paper to make a book-dummy but the paper was expensive and so white. It felt sterile like it would somehow finish or kill the work, which was in-progress and unresolved. I thought that was part of the work’s strength. So, I didn’t buy the white paper, but around the same time, I was photographing in an abandoned school and I found this treasure trove of old, faded construction paper, which I brought home. I made an accordion book of the paper and started pasting the contacts into it. The colour encouraged me to be more playful and it made me re-think the work. I loved seeing how the feeling of an image changed when I changed the background color — a soldier on pink, versus a soldier on brown, to give a simple example.

Another amazing thing about the paper was how unstable and un-archival it was. At one point, I left a spread open for a few days and then removed one of the contacts. But, when I removed it, I noticed that the paper had faded everywhere except where the contact was sitting. There was this negative/positive space, the ghost of an image, and it was better than the photograph that was there in the first place. It was so beautiful. That’s how the cover happened. After that, I kept the book shut, and I kept the unused construction paper in boxes and away from the light, like darkroom paper.

Omaha Sketchbook is published by MACK.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.