Book Review ZZYZX By Gregory Halpern Reviewed by Adam Bell Located on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert, approximately 100 miles southwest of Las Vegas, the town of Zzyzx is one of many oddly named towns that dot the California desert.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
Photographs by Gregory Halpern.
MACK, London, United Kingdom, 2016. In English. 128 pp., 77 color illustrations, 9½x11½".
Located on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert, approximately 100 miles southwest of Las Vegas, the town of Zzyzx is one of many oddly named towns that dot the California desert. So named by Curtis Howe Springer, an itinerant preacher and snake-oil salesman, Zzyzx was also the name he gave to a host of health products and a spa he created in the 30s and 40s. Springer hoped the invented name would be “the last word in health.” But miracle cures are usually a last resort — a Hail Mary when there is no hope. Instead, Springer sold carrot and parsley juice to the desperate and sick. Taking us on a dark journey from the desert, through the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, and finally to the Pacific Ocean, Greg Halpern’s Zzyzx is about the search for a cure and the aftermath of its failure. As clichéd as it may seem, California has long been seen by many as a last-resort — a place for new beginnings, a place one can be healed or reinvented. Halpern is not selling a cure or any false promises. Instead, his work seeks to expose the magical thinking that lies at the heart of American society. Unflinchingly honest and brutally poetic, Zzyzx does not provide any answers, instead it asks us pointed questions about the promises we make and fail to deliver, and the ultimate cost to us all for maintaining that illusion.
Zzyzx bears more than a passing resemblance to Halpern’s previous book A, which was published by J&L in 2011; it might be aptly seen as a sequel. The titles even have a fitting alphabetical symmetry. Both books are filled with casually composed vertical photographs of anonymous people and broken landscapes. Whereas A trawled the neglected cities of America’s Rust Belt, Zzyzx shifts focus to the urban sprawl of Southern California and Los Angeles. Halpern finds the same bleak despair, albeit tuned to a different register and scorched by the California sun. Heavy shadows occlude faces and bright light casts a haze across the landscape, clouding our view. For each face that turns and greets us is another that is shrouded by hair or a mask.
The book opens with an outstretched palm extended upwards. Tattooed with six roughly drawn stars, the palm appears to be reaching out for comfort, grasping for something, or extending to cast a protective spell. The book is full of such makeshift and ambiguous incantations. Our gaze is constantly directed to hands holding things — gathering trinkets in the dirt, clutching notebooks, or gently caressing birds. While the exact nature of these spells is unknown, their intended result slowly becomes apparent. Each crudely constructed mask, fistful of baubles or drawing in the sand seems intent on shielding the person from sorrow, in conjuring hope, or simply holding off despair and boredom. Danger seems to lurk around the corner, but Halpern’s bracing honesty does not foreclose hope but rather promotes it. In one tender image, the hands of an unseen person cradle the head of an older woman whose smiling gaze meets the camera. The unapologetic images of the homeless and destitute direct our gaze to a reality we often neglect, an inconvenient truth.
Tautly edited, the book is constructed to follow a simple but seemingly aleatory path. We wander with Halpern from the desert through the city, and finally to the beach and ocean. We peer through fences into backyard gardens, out over a valley to cars speeding along on the highway, and onto a drab cookie-cutter development in the distance. Although these places suggest an oasis or escape, they are always out of reach, hovering in the distance or locked behind fences and hedges. The book ends with a rough outline of our journey, a retracing of the compass points: a desert at dawn, burning hills at night, and the beach at dusk. The last image, hidden after the colophon and book’s only text, shows a flooded field dotted with discarded fruit. Not a soul is in sight.
The illusion of equality within American society is partially upheld by the belief that we can all uplift and better ourselves. Acknowledging the falsity of this myth can be deadly, leading one to despair and rail against a rigged system. Zzyzx is a pointed indictment of a broken social order. Halpern does not offer prescriptive solutions or even attempt to clearly describe the problem. Instead, he outlines the tragic yet still hope-inflected despair of a society coming apart at the seams — searching for a way forward, or out, in what should be a bucolic landscape, but only finding dead ends and closed doors. In crafting a new path forward, we all create our own spells to break through. We assemble our charms against injustice and misfortune. The last word is always out of reach, retreating, like a mirage, into the distance.—Adam Bell
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Afterimage, The Art Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, fototazo, Foam Magazine, Lay Flat, photo-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)