For MPB’s Shoot the Sequel: Then & Now America commission in collaboration with 1854, Garrett Grove documents a state fraught with tensions
A tree stump stands small, slotted in between a row of gravestones in a cemetery. A metaphor perhaps for the futility of life in a place that welcomes death with open arms. The photograph, taken by Washington-based Garrett Grove in the winter months of 2021, serves as a microcosm of his new series for Shoot the Sequel: Then & Now America commission. Optimism in the face of reality is the current that sears throughout the images.
Few places are as politically divided in America as Washington. Even the landscape here is dense with significance: the Cascade Mountain range divides the state in two, physically and culturally. On the east side, rolling wheat fields, pine trees, and crops populate the topography. The towns are small and republican. To the west, the trees become more plentiful, rain falls incessantly and crop farming is replaced with the lumber and tech industries. To no one’s surprise, most of the democratic votes are cast here. Land in America, despite its rich diversity and beauty, is seemingly always more than just landscape.
While division may seem like the universal theme in the state, Grove set out on the commission with the desire to “try to find understanding and common ground with fellow human creatures.” Speaking further on his motivations behind shooting the series, he recalls a longing to close the distance between himself and those he saw featured on the news. When asked whether he thinks he achieved what he set out to do, he’s hesitant. “I do hope that these photographs portray a little bit more compassion for the Other. For better or worse, my fascination, my love and my hate of America is embedded in all my work,” is the best he can muster. It’s an honest answer and one that could be seen as positive, in the context of an “America [that] is at a breaking point”.
Adopting a stripped back pictorial language, Grove presents a black-and-white version of Washington in which the state’s complicated foundations are manifest in the crumbling landscape. “The broader issue of capitalism and America and how we treat the landscape – those points of view will always be in my work and I can’t really shake it,” he explains. Photographs of dilapidated buildings and cracked earth allude to the fracturing and corrosion of land while manual labour and human capital are ever present in Grove’s depictions of worker tools, shovels and sheds. A woman tending to her birds in the yard and a family attempting to hoist a flag while balancing on a ladder reinforce the importance of physical work in this area of the state.
Grove’s interwoven motifs redefine his documentary material as a living history of economic injustice and climate change in America. Yet the ramifications felt by the individuals and landscape of such injustice are captured by Grove in an honest and hopeful light: open roads offer the opportunity for possibility; yearning looks maintain the promise of better days to come. “The hope was to go out and just see people and have conversations and ask how their year was, no matter what belief system they might subscribe to. I wanted to go out and be as completely non-judgmental as I could,” he summarises.
Such a tolerant and open approach proved to be effective in gaining the trust of his subjects, allowing him to portray their vulnerability as well as their grit. While travelling through Forks, a city with an autological name – it’s literally situated in the fork between the Olympic mountains and the Pacific Ocean beaches –, he was approached by two elderly men socialising in their neighbouring front yards. “They approached me first. They were both loggers but they’re retired now” Grove recalls. “They live in these trailers there and you just get the impression that this is their daily routine.” The men are pictured outside their trailers, both looking past the camera into the distance, conveying a sense of anticipation despite the otherwise nostalgic air. His ability to imbue personal moments with a universal resonance is what gives the images such an arresting quality.
“After being cooped up for a year it felt really good to take some straightforward pictures. It’s where we’re at with the US at the moment and it feels good to be out there and trying to make sense of it, trying to find an understanding.”
Grove draws on the parallels between the conditions of the 1930s and the atmosphere of modern America to create multiple resonances between his work and the Great Depression photographers. Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, the pioneers of social-documentary photography all inspired his Shoot the Sequel commission.“It felt like a time where there was no [nonsense]: people were just surviving,” he says of the period. Similarities between the contemporary and past economic disparities and political partisanship in America, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, prompted Grove to return to the photographers’ works for inspiration. “Even before the pandemic, I was drawn to their work. It feels even more poignant now,” he explains. “After being cooped up for a year it felt really good to take some straightforward pictures. It’s where we’re at with the US at the moment and it feels good to be out there and trying to make sense of it, trying to find an understanding.”
The influence of Walker’s photographs on Samoylova’s trip responds directly to the commission’s search for photographers who engage with the different ways America has been captured by generations of their peers. As a platform for used equipment, MPB’s commission explores how familiar tropes can be reimagined through different lenses. The company recirculates more than 300,000 items of used kit every year (extending the life and creative potential of photo and video equipment for creators all over the world), promoting a more sustainable industry and allowing storytellers to capture America in new contexts.
The commission, which was run by MPB and 1854 had specifically called for works that explore the iconic moments, movements and narratives that traverse America’s past and present. Grove’s interest in the contemporary socio-political backdrop of Washington and his desire to make sense of the US as a whole thus made him an obvious choice for the commission. With a wide-angle tilt-shift lens provided by MPB from their selection of photo and video equipment, he was able to navigate his native state with a new lens. “It was interesting to suddenly have the floodgates opened and be able to use anything” he says about MPB. “It was great. I took a lot of pictures of structures so for me, it helped throw off some of the skews or make it more skewed depending on what felt right.” 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.
Despite finding the trip “pretty complicated and emotional”, Grove will continue to photograph his native country, and plans another road trip through the interior parts of Washington, Oregon, California and Mexico in the near future. It seems his fascination with the country and his untrammeled search for greater understanding is not yet over.
Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.