An excellent essay by Tamarra Kaida from Andrew Phelps book, Higley.
Higley/ Losing Ground
All photographs, no matter what their maker’s intent, possess the presence of absence.
It is this barely sensed awareness of absence, of people and things already receded into an irretrievable past that makes viewing family snap shots both a sentimental and poignant experience.
Photography is the most appropriate medium to express the sense of loss that time and change foist upon us. These photographs are more than a documentary record of farmland turning into a housing subdivision. It is a personal testament to the loss of a ‘sense of place’ as the photographer knew it while growing up. But more than mere nostalgia, Andrew Phelps is exposing a greater loss which many of us are feeling as homogenized global culture continues to swallow our uniqueness.
We sense it as a loss of soul and we don’t know what to do about it.
There is something intuitively unnatural and thus psychically disturbing as we witness the transformation of food producing earth into manicured lawns and block walls designating private yards. Space itself seems to be vanishing. In the contemporary American West, ‘Manifest Destiny” has merged with corporate capitalism and nature is getting trampled in the stampede for fast real estate bucks. Mans’ dominance over the land is relentless and seemingly unstoppable.
And, there is always a good reason.
People need housing. The land is worth more as sellable property than as citrus groves or alfalfa fields. Property taxes have escalated. Farming isn’t profitable. Circumstances have conspired to produce what feels inevitable.
The grandsons of Higley dairy farmers are now computer technicians hacking out a living in air-conditioned offices developing computer programs, video games and satellite tracking systems. The information age is everywhere. Cows, crows and coyotes are anachronistic in the day-to-day lives of most people who live in the greater Phoenix area today. No one, not even the maker of these photographs, wants to live in the past. We are innately adaptable and forward-looking creatures.
Still, there is a nagging ‘something’ to be reckoned with.
At one time or another, we all face a personal and collective psychic loss that casts us out of childhood’s paradise into the pragmatic present. I think this allusive loss is an especially American phenomenon as the American West is still the last mythical frontier. It is a collective unconscious space cluttered with tales of heroism and folly. It remains a symbol of freedom and individuality and has been milked for movie and television dramas that draw millions of viewers worldwide.
Today’s West is a contemporary convenience store offering us fast, action-packed video games and hundreds of channels of information and entertainment at the push of a button. We have come to prefer simulacrum to the real thing. What is the real thing? Count the number of times paintings of nature appear in the photographs. They are all idealized, comforting or exotic landscapes void of human presence.
The photograph that stays in my mind is the one that shows a painting of a fresh mountain stream running through a pristine winter landscape. The picture falls into visual alignment with the screened doorframe through which the bland out-doors waits.
In our contemporary urban and suburban life styles we tend to not think of what is just outside as nature. The image succeeds in getting us to consider it’s meaning precisely because it is a photograph. It relies on photography’s casual, quick, mundane attitude to help us re-see what is always there and yet is invisible to our everyday consciousness.
These photographs don’t preach. They present the invisible.
Imagine this book as a series of paintings. It feels ludicrous,
Who would make a painting of a bedroom wall with a stuffed antelope head perched above a tilted lamp shade which competes for night table space with a package of over-the-counter medications, a discarded black elastic pony tail band and a tall glass of ice tea next to four plastic bottles of drinking water? Objects speak silently but convey meaning never the less. We read the photograph for clues. The evidence points to a very thirsty inhabitant residing in a hot part of an overdeveloped Western country where fields and animals get out of the way of bulldozers. Somehow, the over sized mirror propped against the newly painted white wall and stuck next to a disassembled wooden table base pushed into the corner, attests to the not yet fully moved in status of the present resident. All the signs point to a space in flux, a room already in use but still not settledinto, an undecided condition waiting for the next thing to happen.
It is in a state of becoming… What?
A bedroom in a newly constructed 2 or 3-bed room house in a subdivision that is conveniently located within 30 minutes of work and shopping. On a primal level the modern subdivision house is still shelter. But somewhere in the post Second World War years home as shelter morphed into real estate, an investment, a possible source of future monetary gain that often will exceed the homeowners actual job earning capacity.
Subdivisions have become bedroom communities for the busy, “first time home owner” who will sell in 3.5 years and move to another site as the breadwinners’ financial status improves. This is acceptable, even desirable. There is something wrong with a world in which places change so much that they cease to resemble themselves. It feels like a crime against nature and yet we all accept it. It can’t be stopped. It has a force all its own. Progress.
We come into the world in medias res, ‘the Play’ has been going on before we joined in and we know it will go on after we exit the stage. Some of us get to make a big difference. Most of us get by as best we can and are grateful to be able to exert some influence on others who may wield enough power to create a better future. Photographers, artists of all kinds and teachers fall into this category.
This is a true story.
When I moved to Arizona in the 1980’s. My family and I rented a three-bedroom tract house in a subdivision called ‘Park Place’. The house had one car garage, three bathrooms and an automatic sprinkler system that watered the back yard everyday precisely at five p.m. Two white plastic lawn chairs sat side by side on the cement pad called ‘the patio’ and stared at a six-foot high gray cinderblock wall, which enclosed our yard.
During the day I could see the words ‘ Dry Cleaners’ peeping over the wall several backyards away. At night a traffic light blinked red, yellow, green through our bedroom drapes. The kitchen had polished generic wood cabinetry and the desert sand colored tile floor was easy to clean. The living room looked like all the other living rooms in our cul-de-sac, brown and beige.
It was in the mornings that this nice carefree house bothered me the most. As I brushed my teeth in the hotel style master bedroom with his and her sinks situated discretely outside the toilet stall, I couldn’t help feeling that everyone else in Park Place were also brushing their teeth at the same sink and looking into the same wall to wall mirror. The only thing that distinguished me from the other brushers was our individual brand of toothpaste.
Admittedly, this is not a big deal in itself. But coupled with all the other erosions on our individuality that we all willingly endure on a daily basis, this numbing sense of anonymity slowly damages our souls and makes us angry. We have been told that each and every one of us is a unique person, a rare one of a kind entity. If we are so unique, so
creative, so special why do all of our cities, cars, clothes, tattoos, and even our desires look pretty much all the same? How has this endless sameness come to dominate the urban landscape? Why does this sameness make us lonely?
These photographs have goaded me into asking these questions.
Something in us rails against this destruction of the past. So much so that we have constructed institutions to preserve the past. But when the place is small, unimpressive, and politically powerless like Higley, then it is bought up, sold off, bulldozed over and replanted with a cash crop far heartier than alfalfa or citrus groves.
Irrationally, we insist that our childhood homes should hold their place on earth as they do in our memories. The past needs to remain in the background barely visible, unobtrusive, and yet available for visits like pink cheeked grandparents in Norman Rockwell illustrations.
This is one reading.
Another version might perceive the antelope’shead intruding through the wall of the bedroom like a symbol in a dream demanding the dreamer’s attention. The in-flux state of the bedroom and the large mirror take on powerful personal connotations. Is the mirror a symbolic reference to the notion of reflection on transition itself? Is this image a waking dream of the photographer, who states that he is interested in the Higley, which is rapidly losing ground to an undifferentiated sense of progress’?
Human beings are symbol-making creatures who are in transition from our animal state to our civilized technologically driven future selves.
Evolution is an on-going process with no guarantee of success.
Our capacity to observe our own consciousness urges us to create, to try and make sense of things. Photographers work with signs and symbols that are part and parcel of our daily environment. They construct meaning from the split seconds of our daily lives. The cozy paintings of idealized nature and the peculiar presence of wild animals either screwed to walls, painted into corners or propped up next to hamster cages makes me wonder, why do humans do this?
Taxidermy and photography have more in common then meets the unsuspecting eye. Consider how both ‘capture’ a specific slice of life and freeze it solid. The antelope’s gaze, the brown bear’s stare preserve the moment of attention in the forest when there was a noise in the bushes or a sudden scent in the air. That attentive look of life is captured, chopped off at the neck and displayed among the paraphernalia of middle class domesticity. Beautiful and dead. Life is a ceaseless flow of change. We find this constant change, this knowledge of certain death unbearable. We deny it, forget about it. Photography and taxidermymake time hold still. They are good at preserving the illusion of permanence.
Irony is a sophisticated form of humor. We often use it to buffer ourselves from an over whelming sense of helplessness about the state of the world. In these photographs, irony is used as a visual trope that encourages the viewer to be on the side of the photographer. We are all in cahoots with the absurd. We live in the Age of Irony, skeptical of any belief system and weary of all myths and heroes of all kinds. Irony allows us to keep a certain emotional distance. It borders on cynicism but holds back just enough punch to allow hope to remain within reach. While writers employ it to make points too awkward or dangerous spoken plainly, these photographs use it as a way to portray the homogenizing effects of globalization and growth.
Though once a citrus-growers empire, there are no citrus trees in the new backyards of Higley. With modern efficiency, quantity overcomes character. Irony wields a double-edged sword.
There is something disarming about these photographs. They are sly, smart, and political as hell and endearing all at the same time. Love and bewilderment haunt these pages. Is it possible to not notice that photographs represent the sense of family? At the beginning of the book we see an old bulletin board filled with tattered family photographs. The board is propped against a wall in an empty room waiting to be discarded. The snap shots and studio portraits depict a history of family weddings, anniversaries, first and second babies, and the missing pictures retain their presence, making us ask, “ Who is missing?”
Time has her fingerprints all over that plain brown board. It is a tired thing, worn out by memories but still insisting on being recognized. This has to be an important image for the photographer even if it is presented as a mere fact. Who were these people we ask ourselves? It doesn’t matter they are history now. Even that word is ironic and ambiguous in current usage, as it has come to mean done, finished over, dead.
The last photograph in the book is also of a family photograph only it isn’t a photograph. It resembles a pixilated, digitized computer enhanced photograph. But it is a hand-made quilted, stitched jigsaw configuration of scraps of cloth of varied colors arranged to depict an elderly couple in a traditional portrait pose. Grandparents.
It seems to be a craft project picture incorporating photography and quilting. A merging of the domestic handwork of the past and a referential bow to technological picture making of today. Something old and something new carried over to make a new family. The adjoining image shows us a potential room with a lone baby in a portable baby carrier left on the floor not far from a discarded empty plastic gallon sized water bottle. Both images create a sense of apprehension. Where are the parents of the baby? Who are the people in the portrait? Everything is so generic it is hard to find individuality or identity and yet, hope and ingenuity are also present in these closing images. The grand parents and the baby are figuratively in the new home which once was family homestead.
Life goes on.
We know that real people find a way to make these generic houses into homes. The creative impulse embedded in the quilted portrait reminds us that people adapt and re-invent their lives. The questions in this book are about the quality of life we are currently creating and what we are losing in the process. Andrew Phelps suggests that in the New West we have lost soul and that this loss is experienced as the presence of absence.
– Tamarra Kaida.