For many, America has always been an epic icon of freedom and discovery — and the road trip an “enduring symbol”, as David Campany put it in his book The Open Road.
This seems to be especially true of photographers, with the road trip being a seminal experience for or the subject of (often both) many notable American photographers: Robert Frank, Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Walker Evans, Ed Ruscha…
Despite the perpetual storm of visuals through films, books, the media, countless photographic works or friends’ holiday photographs… today we still unendingly seek our own experience of the myth of America, wanting to discover the truth for ourselves.
British photographer Alexander Missen did just that in his project Q&A, influenced and inspired by the great familiarity many, including himself, feel with America, yet have never been there. A connection informed by all those mentioned above: the films, books, photographs (cliches, tropes and stereotypes) we see throughout our lives. Which is the real America?
Q&A is currently on show at Francesca Maffeo Gallery in Leigh-On-Sea in the UK, until October 28 2017.
Read about Missen’s project in our interview below:
First things first, tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m originally from a small town on the Suffolk coast called Felixstowe, I moved to London about ten years ago and studied photography there. Ever since, I’ve been working on personal photographic projects and also work at a university as a photography technician.
I wouldn’t say I’m interested in a specific genre of style of photography but for me it has to be something thought-provoking. We are surrounded by alluring imagery more so now than at any other time in history, and I feel like making a ‘good picture’ simply isn’t enough any more.
I admire art that employs some kind of system of aesthetics or measured approach to the work, where there is intent and an expression of that intent. I have a huge respect for artists like Agnes Martin and Donald Judd who were really singular in their pursuit of concise visual communication.
What’s your story?
I first became interested in photography when I was at school. I loved art but always struggled to paint or draw anything to a decent standard. I left school when I was 16 and worked for a few years before going back to college and doing an art foundation. That was hugely formative for me and made me realise that art wasn’t just something I enjoyed but something I actually felt really driven to do. Up to that point, I don’t think I had realised that it was possible to communicate visually with already existent language and symbols through mediums like photography and graphic design.
Let’s talk about your featured project ‘Q & A’. What was your motivation behind it?
In truth, it started from an idea that was somewhat naive. I had just finished university and wanted to start a big, serious project. I suppose because a lot of my favourite photographers had made significant bodies of work traveling around the United States, I decided that that was what I wanted to do too.
Looking back, it wasn’t the smartest idea but I was excited and wanted to go. When I got there I remember feeling really overwhelmed and unsure if I’d done the right thing. During that trip the idea for Q & A took shape in my head; it was that experience and being forced to re-evaluate how I’d imagined the U.S. would look that started it all.
Many of us are attracted by the ‘roadtrip’ and find it to be a seminal experience, especially across America. How was the experience for you, and did it affect your work?
I think it certainly had an impact on how the work was made; there are lots of parts of the U.S. that simply aren’t accessible by any means other than car, so carrying out the work on the road made a certain amount of logical sense.
Aside from that, it also gave me a certain amount of mental space to think about what I was trying to do and reflect on what I felt the project was missing. For me personally, that thinking time — being able to reflect on my ideas — was so important. So although the traveling was very time consuming, it was also a huge benefit.
At one point you talked about photographing “well-worn tropes”; do you think there’s any negative effect from making work that could be seen as perpetuating the myth?
That’s a fair point and it has sometimes been quite difficult in terms of explaining the project.
The project does perpetuate the myth of America, but I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. In this context, I think it’s important to consider the word ‘myth’ under its definition as something akin to lore, rather than something false.
In the pictures that contain imagery that is repeatedly used in photography and cinema, I’m trying to show the viewer something, in literal terms, that is somewhere that they haven’t experienced; a place they haven’t been to or seen photographs of, that still causes familiarity due to a visual motif that they’re likely very aware of.
It’s that relationship between the two that I find really fascinating.
You spent over four years on this project, how did things change for you from the first time you were there to the last time?
The biggest difference was that on the first trip I had absolutely no idea what I was really trying to do! It was mostly spent photographing things out of curiosity and formulating the idea for the project in my head.
By the time I came back from that initial trip and had made contact sheets, I’d more or less figured out what I wanted this body of work to be about. I realised then that I really needed to do a lot more research before I went back to the U.S.
I spent about a year reading, watching films, looking at pictures and thinking about what I wanted to shape the project into. In retrospect, I’m so glad that I took the time to do that and didn’t rush into going back.
By the time I did the last trip for the project in late 2015, I’d found a way of working that suited me and it was only through going all of those stages and evaluating everything — what worked, what didn’t, what felt like it could be improved — that I arrived at that.
One of the things that we always hear about America is how much friendlier and talkative Americans are with each other and strangers; how did you find this as a photographer? Have you stayed in touch with anyone you photographed or met?
The U.S.A is effectively a country of countries; each region has it’s own traits and tendencies and so I think the notion that people are friendlier there is a little bit of a generalisation. I’ve met some people who were really incredibly kind and hospitable, and some people who were less so. I think that is probably the case in most places.
In terms of keeping in touch, not really. Mostly when I photographed someone for this project it was a fleeting encounter. We’d talk a little bit before and after I take their picture and then go our separate ways. That probably sounds a bit cold, but I think for the people I photograph I’m more of a temporary novelty than new best friend material. I prefer photographing strangers because it makes the encounter feel a bit more charged. I enjoy that tension. For me, it helps when taking a portrait.
Are there any moments you had during your time in the US which stick out?
There is a photograph in the series of two coyotes on a very long, straight road in Death Valley.
I imagine that for some people that would have been a relatively normal experience — but for me, it was incredible to see them in the wild like that.
I wasn’t quite sure if I’d managed to get the picture or not because I had to dash out of the car, grab the camera, guess the metering and shoot it handheld. I was elated when I got the negatives back and they were okay.
What are you up to next?
I’m working on a new body of work called Common Futures, which looks at the idea of a collective visual understanding of ‘The Future’. It follows on from Q&A in that it aims to analyse why there are some motifs in visual imagery that tend to recur repeatedly. Things that we deem ‘futuristic-looking’ tend to share common aesthetic traits and this extends beyond that object’s intended use or purpose.
I started the project by photographing at a German Aerospace facility which oversees the operation of the Columbus module of the International Space Station. It was amazing to be in a place where the practical realities of space operations and all of the presumptions I had about what that should look like based on science fiction imagery could blend, be dispelled or be confirmed.
What’s on your recommended reading/watching/listening list?
Read: Lewis Baltz’s Texts which is a compendium of his writing up until 2007. It’s brilliant — it makes you realise the breadth of knowledge he had on so many topics.
Watch: Pierrot le Fou by Jean Luc Goddard. A truly wonderful movie that plays with cinematic conventions but doesn’t take itself entirely seriously. It’s hard to think of a movie that is so clever in approach and at the same time purely pleasurable to watch.
Listen: Otis Redding’s ‘Otis Blue’ album. Perfect from start to finish.