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Garrett Grove’s ambiguous outlook on America’s cultural tensions

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As the second selected photographer for MPB’s Shoot the Sequel: Then & Now America commission in collaboration with 1854/BJP, Grove is set to produce a poetic portrait of the USA by way of Washington’s Cascade Mountains

“Washington is one of the most divided states in our country,” says documentary photographer Garrett Grove. “Both economically and politically. Physically and culturally.” Like poetry writing itself, the Cascade Mountains – a vast range of rugged peaks and sprawling wilderness – cut a poignant geographical line between the opposing sides of the region: to the east are rolling wheatfields and a patchwork of small, blue-collar, Republican towns; to the west, crops of wheat and soy are replaced with lumber, tech and industrialism. Unsurprisingly, most of the democratic votes are cast here.

Garrett Grove

The Pacific Northwest state is set to be the subject of new work from Grove, one of two photographers selected for MPB’s Shoot the Sequel: Then & Now America commission in collaboration with 1854 and British Journal of Photography. Over one month, Grove has been given an open brief to create a new project exploring enduring themes of American cultural identity, and how the nation’s polarised present speaks to its complex past. 

Garrett Grove
Garrett Grove

An esteemed documentary photographer, Grove’s work has been exhibited and published around the world; most recently at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photo Center in Budapest, Hungary, and the Aperture Gallery in New York City. After moving to Washington with his family from Alaska aged eight, he’s spent his adult years bouncing around the West. “But I always end up back in Washington,” he muses. “It’s the place that feels the most like home.” It was here, while working towards his MFA at Hartford University in 2015, where Grove became hooked by the nuances of the nation’s cultural identity: schisms and anxieties in the way it perceived itself, and the crumbling myth of the American Dream.

“I had moved to this small town in central Washington, surrounded by orchards,” he recalls. “To the east was the Palouse Empire, an endless maze of wheat, legume and barley fields. It was my first time living in a farming and agricultural area, and it pulled me in with equal parts love and fear. This coincided with the rise of Trump, which brought into question a lot of beliefs I had taken for granted growing up in the United States.” 

“I could see how these communities had been used and discarded over time, because labor was cheap and the bottom line drove people out of these towns in favor of mechanization and efficiency”

In the leadup to the 2016 US presidential election, Grove began photographing the small coastal, farming and logging towns of Oregon and Washington: a series of intrinsically obscure landscapes and portraits, subtly informed by 19th and 20th Century American documentary photography, non-fiction writings around the domestication of the West, and marketing propaganda glamorising the working-class life. The images – imbued with tension, humour and a lingering peculiarity – would eventually form Grove’s critically acclaimed monograph, Errors of Possession, published by Trespasser in 2019.

“I could see how these communities had been used and discarded over time, because labor was cheap and the bottom line drove people out of these towns in favor of mechanization and efficiency,” Grove says. “But on another level, generally speaking, I couldn’t relate. Our social and political values were quite different, which created quite a push and pull of emotions. I was angry for a lot of these communities, but I couldn’t fathom how Trump became their mascot.” Despite being made within this context, Errors of Possession features no direct political imagery or moral implications; rather, a poetically ambiguous perspective on America’s burgeoning cultural tensions, potently underscored by Grove’s own struggle and confusion at traversing them.

“After a year of this, it feels like we’ve settled into a new way of living. I’m interested to go out into the areas I’ve traveled through in the past while making pictures.”

Garrett Grove
© Garrett Grove.

A year into the pandemic, Grove has been keeping a small footprint, making work mostly within Washington and often by himself. He continues to be curious about the photographs, myths and historical writings that came from the domestication of the West and the Great Depression. “The sense of survival, immediacy and suffering is palpable,” he says — which he likens to the period we’re living through now. “After a year of this, it feels like we’ve settled into a new way of living. I’m interested to go out into the areas I’ve traveled through in the past while making pictures.” With this in mind, MPB’s Shoot the Sequel: Then & Now America commission will see the photographer turn his camera to the complex nature of his home state once more.

As a major online platform for buying, selling and trading photo and video equipment, MPB’s Shoot the Sequel campaign is about realising the boundless world of creative potential that lies in every piece of used kit; the Then & Now America commission was conceived to bring this life within a larger creative and cultural context. Recirculating more than 300,000 items of used kit every year, the MPB team includes trained camera experts and seasoned photographers. Crucially, every piece of kit is inspected carefully by product specialists, and comes with a six-month warranty.

As for how Grove will carry out the brief, he plans to meander between Washington’s east and west divide, producing a series of portraits, landscapes and documentary photographs that span both sides. “With the collision of COVID-19, climate change and four years of Donald Trump, the United States hasn’t seen such a staggering rise in homelessness, political partisanship and economic inequality since the Great Depression,” Grove says. “I don’t think we truly know the exact extent of how bad any one of these situations is.”

Focusing primarily on the displaced, the working poor and the mostly abandoned streets of Seattle, Grove’s aim is to produce a meditative and amoral snapshot of the present moment: “to see it as clearly as possible, offering glimmers of beauty, humanity and hope against a backdrop of historic circumstances.”

“The Cascade Mountains may cut a line between the state geographically, but it’s all interconnected,” he says. “The distance is only physical. I hope to illustrate that.”

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently a staff writer. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, BRICKS Magazine, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.

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