Nottingham Contemporary’s ‘States of America’ sweeps across the shifting social and political landscape of the USA between the 1960s and early 1990s, capturing the rise of popular culture and suburbia, declining city centres, the Civil Rights Movement, wealth disparity, urban life and the fading American Dream. Viewed through the lens of seventeen different photographers, we are offered a necessarily prismatic picture of American culture that is particularly compelling given current events.
Predominantly taken from the Wilson Centre for Photography’s holdings of post-war American photography, the collection also shows significant changes that occurred within documentary style photography. Distancing themselves from the prescriptive tone of political advocacy, photographers were experimenting with a more neutral or casual approach, recording the commonplace with an aura of authenticity via a ‘snapshot aesthetic’ that suggested a lack of artifice or presumption about the subject. An expanded ‘social landscape’, as defined by the photographer Lee Friedlander in 1963, was presented to the viewer, whether they were embedded within counter cultures like Danny Lyon and the Chicago Motorcycle Club or juxtaposing the tenants of welfare hotels with their upper-class counterparts as in Jim Goldberg’s poignant series ‘Rich and Poor’ (1979). The curator Thomas Garver described this new style as showing ‘how things are rather than as they should be, could be or are thought to be’.
Mark Cohen, whose impulsive style, shooting from the hip or at arm’s length, fittingly opens the exhibition as the most extreme example of the snapshot. His intrusive street closeups taken with a wide-angle lens snatch curious eye-hook moments; facial fragments, flashed torsos, travelling hands and momentary gestures that produce a gritty, visceral impression of poverty in a declining coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. In comparison to this volatile, almost accidental approach, Dawoud Bey’s photographs of Harlem are far more deliberate and thoughtful. Bey, who recently won the McArthur Genius Grant, is an important addition to the exhibition alongside Ming Smith and Louis Draper, who founded of the influential Kamoinge workshop in 1963 to address an underrepresentation of Black photographers. Draper’s street photographs and portraits of influential African-American figures also exude an elegance borne of intention and exhibit a respect for the private complexity of his subjects.
Care and time taken, familiarity or distance, distinctly tone the various cross-sections of American life detailed in this exhibition. The clear, communicable empathy of Mary Ellen Mark, who spent thirty years documenting the difficult, dreaming life of ‘Tiny’ and her children is placed in contrast to Diane Arbus’ more voyeuristic gaze. Equally, that Nicholas Nixon asked permission to photograph communal life on front porches and street corners is evidenced in the self-conscious smiles, rambunctious familial chaos and stolen kisses he catches. And while Bill Owens makes a critical exploration of middle-class aspiration in suburbia, he nevertheless sympathetically reflects his subjects wish to represent themselves well.
Organised into four key threads, the general thematic richness of ‘States of America’ is sprawling. While the first room covers the ethical relationship between subject and object, this could easily be applied elsewhere, as could the tension between documenting and intentional image-making, which feels like a constant undercurrent. Revelling in the era’s love of the vernacular, for example, William Eggleston illuminates banal scenes with a brightly coloured beauty – fizzing coca cola, drive-thrus and arcades, painted signs and stalls and ketchup bottles – as does Stephen Shore in his filmic series ‘Uncommon Places’ (1973–1977). These new topographies present artifacts and landscapes with a stylistic uneventfulness and lack of comment that plays in part against the intention to uncover or understand. The number of lenses through which we might look at these arresting traces of time and place is as multiple as the contributors.
Writing extensively on photography in the late twentieth century and exhibiting photographers included in ‘States of America’, John Szarkoski advised that “we must understand that we are looking at different truths rather than the truth”; that photographs offer a perceived reality up to interpretation. Sometimes we even glimpse the photographer: Lee Friedlander reflected in windows or casting a shadow on the street, or, more subtly, Milton Rogovin held in the familiar gaze of his subjects. They are ever-present in the image. This is a ‘subjective realism’, a term Otto Steinbart used to describe a style that produces a deeply humanised, affecting form of photography. What we get is perhaps the result of Gary Winogrand’s express aim: “to see what the world looks like in photographs” and thereby an invaluable insight into what was seen and is seen, recorded and reviewed, and by whom; the many, diverse and divergent states of America told through different stories in photography.