From 1867 to 1869, Timothy O’Sullivan was commissioned as the official photographer for the Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel, a government funded survey of uncharted territories in the American West, to investigate the region’s mining prospects and attract settlers westward. His exacting documentation of unspoilt landscapes set a powerful precedent for how America, both country and concept, would and should be photographed. The American West has of course been thoroughly settled, its natural resources fully exploited, and its topography entirely transformed since then. Yet to this day, countless photographers traverse this strange landscape, mining it not for minerals or prophecies of a utopian future, but for open narratives and suggestive moods.
“Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the US is a paradise,” wrote Jean Baudrillard, “Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is a paradise.” At the recent Format Festival, much of the work centred around explorations of Baudrillard’s “paradise”. The secret of this shared fascination lay in the festival’s theme, Photocinema. As one of the country’s most influential exports, American cinema has followed O’Sullivan’s example and, perhaps more so than photography, served to define the country’s mythology and perpetuate its cultural ideologies throughout the 20th century. Perceptions of America are now principally defined by filmic fictions rather than fundamental facts.
Among the most successful investigations into this “unreal reality” – or “real unreality” – of contemporary America was Stranger Than Fiction by British photographer, Kate Peters. Although Peters’ photographs are as exacting as O’Sullivan’s – in that they are unconstructed, “direct” responses to the American landscapes she encountered – they also play upon the century and a half’s worth of photographic and cinematic templates embedded within visual culture. A lone police car traversing a winding road through an idyllic mountainscape addresses traditional themes of natural grandeur and expansionism into the “Wild West”, but also triggers comparisons with Ansel Adams’ Snake River twisting towards the Grand Tetons or Joel Sternfeld’s Exhausted Renegade Elephant being cooled by the local sheriff in American Prospects. A view of a bear stalking the otherwise generic Mountain Motel recalls the sign-infested works of Lee Friedlander, or Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, whilst also inferring the foreboding of Hitchcock’s Psycho or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Viewed through Peters’ lens, these anonymous places become transformed into loaded locations – film sets awaiting the arrival of the crew, or establishing shots, setting the stage for a climactic scene. Furthermore, as both the images and the series title suggests, Peters sees this country as one where stories are now firmly rooted within the landscape, often obscuring if not entirely superseding its reality. It is within such fabrications that the truth of America can be found.