Gregory Halpern's Stories from the Rust Belt

Although the lives and situations Gregory recorded were bleak, his pictures exude a glow of emotion that leave you feeling like things will be OK.

Gregory Halpern and I met for the first time about five years ago. He’d brought an 8x10 black clamshell case to my apartment in Brooklyn, filled to the brim with full-bleed, dark and muddy prints. He’d made the photographs while traveling through some rough neighborhoods in Buffalo and Omaha. The lives and situations he recorded were bleak, but his pictures exuded a glow of emotion that somehow left you feeling like things were going to be OK. Nothing came of the meeting at the time, but his pictures stuck with me.

Three years later, Gregory and I met for the second time and put together what became a limited edition, spiral-bound book of his Omaha pictures. We sold it through J & L and at various art book fairs that year, and then decided to work on a more substantial project together. That summer, Gregory took off from upstate New York, hauling a pop-up camper behind his car. He traveled through Buffalo, Rochester, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Memphis, Detroit, and other small cities in between. His new book, A, is the result of that trip.

VICE: Is this book fiction or non-fiction?
Gregory Halpern: If the images are examined individually, they are in a literal sense closest to non-fiction. The people, places, and animals in the book really did exist—in the singular ways that I experienced them when I photographed them. As for how it all adds up—the book’s particular and subjective edit—the work is closer to fiction. The book was intended to come from the American Rust Belt without being about it. 

The cities you photographed all share a similar history with your hometown, Buffalo, New York. Can you describe what draws you to these places?
I like the contradictions of these places. Old neighborhoods in old cities are unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and chaotic. Cultures and histories coexist; the beautiful sits next to the ugly, the hopeful and redemptive next to the despairing. I find that inspiring.

Are you an optimist?
I think so. And at first it might not look it, but I think the book is ultimately optimistic as well. Many of the images in the book reference death. At the same time, I wanted to punctuate that inevitability with images that are, at least to me, very hopeful. Ultimately we all fail, but there is beauty in the effort to avoid it. Hope and despair are intimately related. Hope is the envisioning of that which is not present. At times I think the creation of a photograph can function that way.

As we worked together on the edit of this book, we discovered that the overall message or meaning of the pictures would change with each edit. What was it about the final edit that made it the final edit?
It finally felt right, in the sense that you could get swept up in the sequence, and that you would still feel surprised at various moments without losing the momentum. I think we wanted to create a place that was at once grounded, as well as the source of possibly wondrous moments. Since there are no words in the book, the edit became even more important. We wanted to lead the viewer, while remaining open enough to allow the viewer the pleasure of a meandering route and an occasional detour. Initially, we conceived of the book as seven or eight chapters, each separated by distinct breaks, but in practice, we found the breaks too jarring. Ultimately, we kept the basic structure of the chapters but eliminated the breaks. This allows the reader to have the experience of being sucked into an uninterrupted stream.

For me, the portraits are the anchor points of your work. How do you choose your subjects?
It’s hard to say. But something that comes to mind is a suggestion made to me by the photographer Larry Sultan: to simply photograph, on instinct, what I was attracted to. One of the reasons that suggestion has continued to fascinate me is because attraction itself is so irrational. That said, I am generally more interested in photographing people who reveal complexity or contradiction—strength and vulnerability, for example. Photography has a tendency to simplify. But people are, of course, the furthest thing from simple. It seems both honest and beautiful to let a portrait contain tension in the mixture of traits.

You've been teaching now, at the university level, for several years. How has that experience affected your work?
I occasionally get really excited about a student’s work. Maybe there is one student a year. But to be honest, I am bored by the vast majority of photographs in general (not just those taken by students). There are a lot of photographs made to look like someone else’s. There are a lot of projects where the first few pictures (and the statement) tell you what all the remaining images will look like. The consistency serves to create the brand. 

Who do you think is the culprit behind the lack of creativity?
In part, teachers are to blame. In school, there is the sense that one must complete a succinctly explainable “project” that explores a subject with rational boundaries, art-historical context, and theoretical backing—if we’re talking about graduate school. These projects are intended to be original, but not so original that they cannot be validated by the similar creations of previously successful artists. 

So, what's missing?
Simply put, art school should be more fun for all involved. I want the spirit to be less one of attempting to please authority figures, and more one of trying to surprise oneself. I like the rebellious students. I find the combination of rebelliousness and hard work seems to make for the best artists (and students).

The flip side of exposure to a system designed to rationalize and quantify creative success is that it reminds me that the rational intellect pushes my unconscious to be more interesting, but the unconscious should still drive my work.

What do you look for in the photography that you like?
It is often said that photography is uniquely suited to portray or reflect the world around us. And yet our surroundings are complex, in my opinion, to the point of being visually or verbally indescribable. I want my photographs to reflect that impossibility, to respond to that complexity and to create an equally complex, perhaps impenetrable, thing.

How do you approach another photographer's work?
I have to assess how active to be as a reader. This is part of the joy of experiencing and unpacking someone else’s work. Leaving certain things open is a way of respecting the complexity of the content, as well as the intelligence of the viewer. If an artist tries to spell everything out too clearly for me, I feel like they are being condescending. I feel manipulated. Photographers can sometimes be the most conservative and least ambitious of visual artists. We should have more faith in our audiences to read between the lines. People are more visually literate than we think.