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photo-eye Book Reviews: A

A, Photographs by Gregory Halpern.
Published by J&L, 2011.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
Gregory Halpern A
Photographs by Gregory Halpern. Edited by Jason Fulford
J&L Books, 2011. 96 pp., 56 color illustrations, 9-1/2x11-3/4".

These days America's Rust Belt seems to be growing – the long collapsed centers of American industry have metastasized and are merging with the larger landscape of economic woes plaguing the United States. Most often evoked by politicians to decry the stagnant state of the American economy or to celebrate past greatness, it is a landscape often heralded, but rarely visited or known. On the surface, Greg Halpern's new book A is a journey through numerous Rust Belt cities (Detroit, his home town of Buffalo, Baltimore and others), but it is also a metaphoric journey through the American landscape and an examination of its hopes and failures. As we navigate this landscape, solitary figures, dilapidated homes and skittish, frenzied animals all blend to evoke a state of stubborn survival, resilience and beauty.
A, by Gregory Halpern. Published by J&L Books, 2011.
We begin with a hiss. "Stay away! Get back! Go home!" screeches a cat as he walks past. Although a kitten, he has clearly learned how to survive and offers us a warning before we continue. From the cat, we move through a broken gate to a series of world-weary men and women, tattered old houses, sad trees and litter-strewn lots. Each tired face and collapsing house suggests a hidden or painful story. Each grim smile and patchwork repair reveals a quiet dignity and stubborn resilience in the face of harsh circumstances. The wooden struts holding a teetering house together echo the scars, tattoos and threadbare clothes of the people in the book. Everyone, and everything, seems to be holding on. Even the images of a skeletal teepee and improvised wigwam hint at survival on the fringes, starting over or a return to the land.

Although the work has a veneer of hope, there is a disquieting darkness underneath it. Animals run wild and houses burn. Raccoons gnaw on discarded hot wings in dark alleys and feral cats pace in steel cages. Twisted and contorted, trees stand abandoned and dismembered in the purple glow of the evening or forlornly host a murder of crows. Skyscrapers, ominous and cold, loom vertiginously in the frame -- alien monuments far removed from the humble structures that dominate the book. Solitary graves also mark the landscape. One, a makeshift pile of stones, is repeated twice. First, appearing bare and lonesome in a field, then later with a patch of weeds blowing in the wind. The second grave, recently excavated, grimly discloses a pile of white bones resting at the bottom.

A, by Gregory Halpern. Published by J&L Books, 2011.
A, by Gregory Halpern. Published by J&L Books, 2011.
The book, cleanly designed and tightly edited by Jason Fulford, is Halpern's third and second with J&L. It is also his best. Tipped-in the cover of the book is a photograph of an x-ray (perhaps the author's head and neck) that suggests not only the probing vision offered by the book, but also the subjective nature of Halpern's journey. The book contains no text or statement. Instead, the viewer is left to puzzle the meaning on their own. Among my favorite details are the first and last page, which both contain overlaid street maps from various cities. Chaotic and indecipherable, the map's tangled and overlapping streets simultaneously suggest all the cities visited by Halpern and none. The title also remains enigmatic. Most obviously it references the 'A' tattooed on the chest of a young man towards the end of the book, but it could also refer more broadly to 'America,' or to the hope and promise offered by new beginnings.

A, by Gregory Halpern. Published by J&L Books, 2011.
Working in the tradition of Walker Evans, Paul Graham and Jacob Holdt, Halpern's work is raw, political and compassionate. In many ways, the work represents the best of what Walker Evans called 'lyric documentary.' Filled with beauty and a keen eye for poetic details, A is a sobering journey through the back roads of America's forgotten cities.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department.