Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX: photo-book and exhibition held at the Webber Gallery, London

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Figure 1: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

I first came across this work through reading Sean O’Hagen’s Guardian article California Dreamin’ in the 21st Century and as a student who appreciates the work of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston I was immediately interested in this contemporary view of the modern America landscape.

Sean O’Hagen sums up the work well when he says, “Halpern has created a California of the mind, a place both real and metaphorical”. Halpern himself says, “My work begins with the notion of documentary but I want it to be more than that…..It is grounded in reality, but it occupies an inbetween space between documentary and a certain sense of mystery. I want to leave room in the pictures for the viewer’s thoughts and projections.” Halpern spent five years on the project travelling from the east of Los Angeles westward until reaching the Pacific Ocean although half of the estimated 1,000 rolls of film were shot in the last year once the artist had obtained a Guggenheim grant allowing him to reside in California.

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Figure 2: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

The images are striking, colourful, a mixture of a mystical past and a dystopian future that happens to be set in the present. The entire book makes a huge visual impact through the originality of the images and striking vibrant colours, contrasts and compositions and not a petrol station in sight! O’Hagen described the work as both real and metaphorical which I certainly agree with but how the artist seems to achieve both simultaneously is the real art.

Halpern’s first title of the work was ‘Babylon and Kingdom’ and this working label perhaps gives up the artist’s personal motives that become more obscured by the final title ZZYZX. This name pronounced Zye-Zix is the name which Curtis Howe Springer the mineral water entrepreneur gave to a small Californian settlement formerly known as Soda Springs in 1944. Springer in his eccentricity renamed the settlement after what he claimed to be the last word in the English dictionary. “The word has a dystopian, futuristic aspect, says Halpern, “even though it came out of a utopian dream Springer had whilst squatting the land for three years….that notion of manifest destiny is still there still in California, but also the sense that it’s the end of the dream.”

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Figure 3: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX 

The work isn’t so much as documentary as it is hinting at a fiction but as the artist himself says, “I’m not saying it is fiction, but it has that element of being more beautiful, more ugly, more complicated and contradictory. Like L.A itself in fact.” How he combines such ugliness with such dramatic beauty is an interesting lesson in visual imagery and communication.

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Figure 4: by Allan O’Neill (2016)

I have previously been drawn to these types of photographic images where bright blue skies collide with the chaos of a constructed culture and society and it is certainly an aesthetic idea that I have previously taken inspiration from in my own work (see here) and as seen above. Also as I have progressed through this course I have begun to recognise the need and importance of balance a visual approach as oppose to endless reading and research resulting in a text led strategy and this work is a very good example to follow.

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Figure 5: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

The above image appears so original to the type of image that I have often seen in this sort of work other than the sense that it’s the sort of image that might be a still from a David Lynch movie.

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Figure 6: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

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Figure 7: (Untitled) William Eggleston (circa 1975)

The first image (figure 6) has a similarity to a famous image by William Eggleston (figure 7) right down to the shallow depth of field which draws the attention to the face of the female(s) lying down. The image is almost a modern adaptation of William Eggleston’s original work.

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Figure 8: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

There are lots of images depicting people living destitute existences but these images don’t necessarily conjure up any real sense of a social protest or even exploitation of the subjects; the work appears so other worldly and cinematic you get the sense that the people are almost acting out their parts in a film.

Excellent work and for myself a lesson that photography often works best when it looks good.

Bibliography

Gregory Halpern: ZZYZX appeared online Port Magazine AT:

http://www.port-magazine.com/art-photography/gregory-halpern-zzyzx-california/

Hagen, S. California Dreamin’ in the 21st Century, The Guardian (15/10/16) can be viewed online AT: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/15/gregory-halpern-zzyzx-photography-book-california-los-angeles

 

 

 

 

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