Americana — Searching for a Visual Unity
This series called Americana is a body of work I started in 2014 while visiting a friend in California. I am a French/ Russian photographer and most of my childhood has been strongly influenced by Russian culture and imagery. It was my first time visiting the United States after more than two decades dreaming about it. Though my visual references were Russian, my interest as a teenager was turned towards the great west and American commercials and movies were imposing themselves in my visual dictionary creating an aesthetic dichotomy between East and West. At this point, I was living in France, symbolically almost right in the middle between Russia and America.
Visa in hand I spent a couple of weeks traveling through California but it was too great of a shock. I decided to spend more time there in order to document my version of the United States. I threw away my return flight and have been there on and off ever since. I’ve traveled through more than 35 states so far, sometimes taking my time, coming back, sometimes just passing by — depending on how much I loved the place.
It is an incredible experience to finally wander through these images we think we know so well, and have a look behind the curtains of the American dream. I’ve spent years watching movies in which Russia symbolized the evil, the bad, the enemy standing in the way of freedom, happiness, and the glory of capitalism. Now I was finally at the core of all this and it became soon very striking what the distance can do to our conception.
Far from the joyful American dream, especially this past year, I was witnessing great distress, open racism, extreme poverty in some places, cultural void in most states, and global misconception of the world. I like the idea of documenting this quest through really contemplative images, very immobile, using soft colors as if I was completely disconnected from the reality around me.
As if the idea of dichotomy was supposed to stick to me, I started to develop a love/hate relationship with the country. In one hand, everything was disappointing, fake, sad and quite terrifying. One the other hand, everything was entertaining, excessive, gorgeous, and fascinating.
I am constantly amazed to see the empire such a young country was able to build. An empire that is obviously declining right now. We are witnessing loud and clear the fall of the American empire. With Trump elected I believe the country is moving backwards and the idea of the poor immigrant coming to the United States with one buck in his hand, making it on this amazing land, is no longer a reality. It’s not impossible, but things are harder now for a large part of society. Regarding human rights it’s moving backwards, abortion rights are challenged, the equality of chances is more than ever a joke. Most Americans are neck deep in debt and struggle to survive. Education is quite hectic compared to Europe, manufacturers are closing (Detroit’s bankruptcy is a striking example for instance and after spending quite some time there and the area, I think it’s a bit pushing to say there is a rebirth right now– it’s still very timid). Relationships with the rest of the world are not great, and basically closing with Asia. Asia, the continent which is in the meantime becoming stronger and more powerful. The minimum wage is ridiculous, rent is out of control in most major cities, in which gentrification is extremely aggressive. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think the country started to decline on Nov 9th or January 20th, but Trump is I think a pretty clear image for a current social distress. The country was hit hard in 2008 with the Subprime crisis and seems to be still struggling to get back on its feet. What was once admired is now mocked overseas and the country is more often criticized than envied.
Through my work, and far from ubiquitous road trip stories I wanted to create, to feed, a global imagery, very abstract and far from all these concerns, almost like a series of still lives or old paintings. I concentrate on textures, colors and shapes, and have numerous elements that are coming back from one state to another. Whether it is colors, angles or subjects I try to weave a coherent visual lexicon of my United States. Trying to gather the similarities and differences between states, I am in a way trying to find familiar elements in unfamiliar places. Nature is to me the most incredible thing to experience in the USA, and this is why I rapidly decided to focus on this aspect. The natural landscape. Far from all the ephemeral, the constructed, the simulated, nature remains the oldest part of this continent and brings back to a part of history very neglected: the native Americans. Getting lost in these settings definitely gives you a glance at what this country was before the invasion and how beautiful and glorious it must have been. I have always been close to nature but clearly, after these years spent in America my relationship to nature has changed a lot and it became a necessity more than a treat. Having easy access to such landscapes is truly life changing.
Though my work completely steers clear of political and social issues I thought it was very interesting to travel across so many states at such an intense time. From last summer until now I was traveling during the end and climax of the presidential campaigns, the election, and now the current situation under Trump. Sometimes you could see a lot of support for one candidate, sometimes a lot of support for the other, or, some other time, no display of support whatsoever. It was a very intense time to travel I think, and being a foreigner I was on the receiving end of Americans explaining to me what was so wrong in their country, according to them. Some were very hopeful, some others not at all. It was striking that I met few people who were really for Hillary or for Trump. Most of them were just disappointed by the choice they had and because of that very sad either way. It was incredibly interesting to go from one town to another, one state to another and discuss with a diverse set of Americans the state that their country is in at the moment. Many things became all of the sudden very clear and I found answers to many questions, though I did not like or agreed with most of the answers.
Especially the answers I got in Texas and Alabama regarding gun control. For instance, I was trying to understand a mother who was telling me she taught her teenager to shoot every weekend. When I questioned her motives it seemed irrational to me. Her answer was that someone with a gun might harm them. When I talked about the idea of having no guns at all, she told me it was ridiculous and that “the bad guys” would always have guns. Obviously, for me this is crazy talk, it makes absolutely no sense, and when looking at gun injury studies it’s alarming to see the number of people injured or shot by their own gun. But it’s a free country and we can agree to disagree.
Another example were Mexicans or Muslins voting for Trump. I heard things as “there are good Mexicans and bad Mexicans “, from a Mexican. Also, I realized that a quite large number of the Muslim male population would vote for Trump to avoid a Female president. Despite all the comments or threats made to the Muslim community, they still thought it was a better choice. That left me speechless.
Between 2014–2015 I’ve visited the northern states and between 2016–2017 the middle and southern states. I believe that at some point, I was searching for a visual unity in my images in order to replace the one I could maybe not find in the states. I was answering the question: Are the United States united? Obviously, the answer is yes and no. There are countless major differences between all the states, but they unite around one idea, being part of the greatest nation on earth. The American nationalism seems to have no limits. I’m really interested in that, and what gathers nations in general, what unites and divides individuals.
I feel like I worked on this project with great pressure, as if I knew that I would not have the opportunity to come back, or at least, not anytime soon. Therefore, the whole experience has been kind of tainted by the fact that I was living behind my camera, shooting as much as I could and constantly trying to capture instants, leaving little time to actually live them.
I have always been involved in creative fields since childhood as all my family members are artists. Photography came to me quite naturally and quickly became my main tool, I feel very comfortable with the process and enjoy playing with its limits as well as constantly discovering new tricks, new strength to build my images. The only downside to this practice is, as I mentioned above, being quite physically removed from the scene, being behind the camera is like putting a wall between you and the action. It can be nice, but it can also exclude you from moments you could have lived fully.
Obviously, the flash is my big love. It’s tied to the process of making an image for me. Mostly because I really like the artificial look an image gets when flash light is used– especially on natural elements such as plants and skin. Flash is usually used for fashion shoots or packshots to create a really still, perfect image with very specific textures. Therefore I think it’s interesting to use it on something very far from that: nature.I like how it reveals parts of the image that were not really visible before.
My visual education has been strongly influenced by Martin Parr, a light genius, who in my opinion remains one of the most important artists in photography. Not only did he really make the switch from documentary photography to art photography, but the use of flash was truly innovative when he started using it. He shook things up through his sassy and satirical pictures, especially when he finally joined Magnum.
He also introduced a sort of democratization in photography, whether through his subjects (the UK’s middle class) or his angles. Since he’s one of my strongest influences I guess I was prone to be obsessed with the use of flash light as well.
For the past two or three years, I haven’t really had a normal work day. Usually, I’m on the road or if I’m somewhere for a few days I try to see as much as possible in the area so it’s usually long busy days. The only constant factor is that I shoot every single day and at the end of every day I upload everything I shot and put it on my laptop and on a couple of external hard drives. At least once a week I try to sit down and do an editing session of a couple of hours to get rid of photos because I shoot a lot and become easily overwhelmed.
The editing is very difficult because I have to go through a lot of images and I’m never in the best conditions to work, between hotels and Airbnbs. It’s always kind of hard to work properly on the laptop with such instability.
Other than Martin Parr, my main influences are hard to define as I think it comes more from movements, impressions or general trends than actual people. Russian folk imagery would be number one, Soviet cinema, vintage American postcards absolutely and maybe David Lynch I guess. Cinema influences me more than photography.
When looking at other photographer’s work I hope to be surprised. That’s the main element I’m looking for from an artist, being stunned by the surprise of discovering the work, whatever the reason is. But also, I am always looking at the practice and if I like an image, I try to understand why I like it and study its composition, its strengths and what makes it work.