Melbourne-based photographer Paul Hermes has spent a considerable amount of time driving around looking for people mowing their lawns. What started as a half-baked idea for a photo essay soon developed into a surprisingly interesting look at suburban Australia. Through his lens, Paul transforms a mundane piece of Australiana into a statement on conformity. Or at least that's what I assumed his project Mowing the Dream was all about. I called Paul to learn more.
VICE: So why did you take photos of guys mowing their lawns?
Paul Hermes: I grew up in the suburbs and never really paid attention to the daily humdrum until I lived in the city for a while. Then, over ten years later, the quintessential weekend chore of mowing the lawn seemed so foreign and interesting to me. I wanted to explore and understand the motivations behind it. The idea first came to me a few years back when I was out in the 'burbs and saw this guy in a plume of two-stroke fumes mowing his nature strip. He just looked vacant and beaten. Like he'd submitted to something.
Isn't that kind of a bleak view?
Well, in some of the images the people almost look like slaves to their houses. Like the mower is a ball and chain. For me there's a dark comedic value to it. It's funny that so much effort can go into grooming the idyllic life. People work 60-hour weeks then mow. The Australian Dream isn't real, yet people yearn for home ownership and chase the ideal. Sometimes, though, I think they find a nightmare.
What do you think that says about us?
It shows we're mostly a proud bunch. Even if we loathe chores, we get them done. One guy I spoke to treated it like a hobby. His mower was a prized possession he'd had for 14 years. He talked about maintaining it with a real fondness. But ask the next bloke and he'll roll his eyes and say, Gotta keep the missus happy.
Did you discover anything unexpected while shooting the series?
Yeah, the smell of fresh-cut grass is really strong. When I found someone mowing their lawns I would sometimes find another a few streets away, as if the smell inspired or guilted them into mowing their own. It actually helped me find my subjects because I'd drive the streets with my windows down sniffing for my next shot.
How did you start taking pictures?
I started with a typological approach with very narrow subjects, like retired taxis still on the roads, small kiosk businesses, car covers, and discarded Christmas trees. I find it really interesting that once you notice something and focus on it you begin to see it everywhere. Now photography is a way of getting my head around things and trying to understand what's going on around me a little more.
Is that how Mowing the Dream started?
Yeah, once something captures my attention it sticks in my brain, kind of like a decent movie. If I find it lingering I'll give it some space, work out the concept and a loose narrative, then try to put some structure around it. While it's all marinating I'll go and do some test shots to decide if I want to commit or not. Once the series is underway the concept can sometimes shift but mostly it'll crystallize and I'll continue shooting until I'm happy with the results. And I'm happy with these.
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