Jimmy DeSana’s Suburban photobook


Fig.1. Jimmy DeSana Suburban

I first came across Jimmy DeSana’s work at the Performing for the Camera exhibition held at the Tate Modern 2016 (see here) and whilst it quite was a vast exhibition I was immediately attracted to the large-scale images taken from what I later discovered was Jimmy DeSana’s Suburban series.
Jimmy DeSana was an influential artist photographer who made his name in the punk art scene which grew out of the East Village district of New York in the 1970s and 1980s and as such his work was an important part of the aesthetic look of that New Wave period and DeSana worked closely with major bands such Talking Heads and Blondie during this period.

What immediately drew me into DeSana’s images was the use of striking colour combined with artificial lighting creating a sense of moving us to a different place; I felt a familiarity and affinity with this look as having grown up during this period I was very aware and sympathetic to that music scene and the aesthetic image that it portrayed.

Whilst DeSana was central to the music scene in New York his greatest contribution was his surreal-like constructed photographic images many of which took American suburbia as his inspiration.

Originally born in Detroit DeSana was brought up in Atlanta, Georgia and his close friend Laurie Simmons describes the childhood experience of DeSana’s father leaving his mother to move in with one of their female neighbours and describes their shared interest in Suburbia. “Jimmy and his brother Johnny would ride their bikes past their father’s new house but never visited and rarely spoke to their dad. I just assumed Jimmy’s obsession with both the beauty and the dark side of post-World War II suburbia had to do with these memories of the strange disruptions that could occur behind closed doors in pristine houses. We shared an obsession with the contradiction between the images of American suburbia that has been spoon-fed to us in magazines and on early television and what we were coming to understand might be the real, more emotionally lethal story.” (Simmons, 2015 :93)

Jimmy DeSana summed up his own thoughts on the suburbs with, “The suburbs are people in cars driving privately to their houses. There’s not a lot of contact between people in the suburbs.”
To follow up on my interest I purchased a copy of the book to look more closely at the work. The images in Suburban are largely of exposed, semi-naked or restricted body parts and limbs objectified in absurdly constructed poses decorated with everyday domestic objects (lamps, sports bags, coat hangers, chest of drawers) which act as metaphors for what appears to be the important priority for the suburbanites.

This reference to the mass-produced consumer culture is juxtaposed with a dark and disturbing sense of emotional detachment and isolation within the human relationships. The images are not sexual or erotic as DeSana effectively objectifies the body in an absurd and disturbing manner. DeSana is quoted by his close friend (Simmons, 2015:99) ”I don’t really think of this work as erotic. I think of the body almost as an object. I attempted to use the body but without the eroticism that some photographers use frequently. I think I de-eroticised a lot of it. Particularly in that period, but that is the way the suburbs are in a sense.” Jimmy DeSana.

Elizabeth Sussman (2015:87) believes that DeSana was in part inspired by William Eggleston whose contribution as an early pioneer of colour photography and photographer of Suburban America as there are references and links which we can probably see. For instance, as mentioned by Simmons (2015:87), Eggleston’s The Red Ceiling (1973) and a similar image again from Eggleston’s famous Guide this time of a semi-naked man looking lost in a low budget motel room bathed in red light; traces of both works can be seen in DeSana’s Suburban but DeSana’s suburbia is streets away from Eggleston’s suburbs which are all shopping malls, garages and barbeques.

Suburbia is very playful but also complex and deep with meaning. The work is highly original and Sussman (2015:87) is struck by “the lack of clichés” (2015:87).

The depiction of the contradiction and conflict between the image and reality of conventional middle class life is what really drew me deeply to Jimmy DeSana and his work has certainly influenced some of the themes that I have tried to embed in my forthcoming assignment 3.

Most importantly I also felt inspired to push my own boundaries and make more interesting images that offer more in terms of their meaning and visual impact. Whilst it will be a long journey to reach the standards of Suburbia I am genuinely pleased and grateful to have come across Jimmy DeSana.

One final point to make is that DeSana is obviously using film in his camera in the pre-digital era and the images as authentic photographs look artistically fantastic.


Doran, A. (2013) ‘Jimmy DeSana New York’ In Art in America 10.10.13 (online) AT http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/reviews/jimmy-desana/ (Accessed 19 August 2016)

Simmons, L. Sussman, E. (2015) Jimmy DeSana Suburban New York: Aperture Foundation.

List of images 

Fig.1. Jimmy DeSana Suburban


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