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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Of The Week Omaha Sketchbook Photographs by Gregory Halpern Reviewed by Blake Andrews Omaha Sketchbook is a collection of photographs made by Gregory Halpern in Omaha, Nebraska between 2005 and 2019. Driven by his interest in, and ambivalence to, the modes of masculinity he found there, Halpern presents a lyrical, if equivocal, response to the American Heartland.
Omaha Sketchbook. By Gregory Halpern.
Omaha Sketchbook  
Photographs by Gregory Halpern

Mack, London, England, 2019. In English. 144 pp., 9x11½".

The reproduction of reality, and all the strange wonderful twists that process involves, is right in photography’s wheelhouse. Some might say it is the wheelhouse itself. But photographers do not have a monopoly on mimicry. It turns out publishers too can try their hand.

Take Omaha Sketchbook, for example, the recent Gregory Halpern monograph from Mack. At first glance, it appears to be a bound sheaf of plain construction paper. The surface sheet is discolored from too much time in the sun, and some of the inner pages are stained or blemished. Heck, they even smell like construction paper. On these pages, someone has carefully glued small photo frames, apparently clipped like coupons from color contact sheets. The pictures have the gloss, dogears, and idiosyncratic palette of actual C-prints. You can even see their shadows on the page!

Omaha Sketchbook. By Gregory Halpern.
Obviously, this is an illusion. Omaha Sketchbook is a mass-produced item, not an actual scrapbook (a limited edition does exist, with actual tipped-in C-prints, but let’s not go there just yet). Yet the book’s fidelity to reality is uncanny. I can’t recall a photobook that nails this feat so effectively. The Mack team—in particular, Trevor Clement and Morgan Crowcroft-Brown—has pulled out all the stops here, to great effect.

If Mack was able to hit the ground running, it’s in part because Omaha Sketchbook predates the publisher’s existence. J & L Books published the first version in 2009. It was a thin 44-page prototype, comprised of laser prints, spiral bound. Compared to the Mack version, it was smaller (8 x 10) with larger pictures. Only 30 copies were produced, but it still managed to make a splash, landing a spot in photo-eye’s Best Books of 2009.

Regardless of edition, Omaha Sketchbook depicts Halpern’s impressions of the titular city. After landing there by chance in 2003 for an art residency, Halpern became intrigued by his surroundings. He wound up staying on another half year to teach and take photos. This was during the initial phases of the Iraq war, a politically fraught time in which small-town nationalism was fanned into bloodlust by the folksy smarm of blue blood oligarchy. Halpern found himself in the heartland, at ground-zero amid the post-Clinton culture wars, an intriguing prospect for a curious photographer. Halpern “was fascinated by Omaha, attracted to and repelled by its brand of masculinity,” as he described the scene to Matthew Leifheit.

Omaha Sketchbook. By Gregory Halpern.
His photos of Omaha showed prize fights, demo derbies, taxidermists, scouts, football games, revivals, army recruits, sex acts, statues…all the checklist items one might expect to find in the post-industrial breadbasket. But there were other scenes too. Strange bursts of color, birds in flight, barns in the fall breeze, evenings of reverie, silos, alleys, flowers. Using 6 x 7 color film, complete with light leaks and mis-exposures, Halpern imbued Omaha with a delicate, wistful character. It was the type of simple, nostalgic place one might associate with medium format contact sheets.

Omaha Sketchbook. By Gregory Halpern.
In the ensuing ten years since the J & L version, Halpern’s star has risen considerably. He’s earned a Guggenheim, entered Magnum, and published two critically acclaimed monographs. Through it all, Omaha Sketchbook has remained in his thoughts, as he has returned to Omaha regularly to make more work. The first edition had been a start, but not quite right. When the opportunity to publish a revised version with Mack, he seized the moment.

Before the digital age, he’d created mockups pasting photos onto construction paper, a practice that continues to the present. This became the model for the Mack edition. The blank pages were scanned from construction paper he’d found in an abandoned Omaha school. He shrank the photos to actual size (6 x 7 inches), and then sprinkled them artfully across the spreads, their colors roughly complementing the pages.

Omaha Sketchbook. By Gregory Halpern.
The photos in the Mack edition range back to 2003. Since there are no captions or explanatory text, it’s impossible to assign dates to any particular photos. With no accompanying information, we’re just left with the photographs, which convey the general tone of Halpern’s wanderings. Most of his subjects are men. Most of the frames are vertical (as with 2016’s Zzyzx). Most subjects are shot directly, centered, without trickery or fuss. In the tradition of Atget or Evans, Halpern lets the photos do the heavy lifting, not the photographer. In the end, what results is a commanding sketch, not just of Halpern, but of Omaha.

Halpern’s photos alone would be enough to establish Omaha Sketchbook as one of the year’s best. They are consistently strong. Yet the photos don’t seem to be the main point. At the size they are reproduced, most are hard to make out in much detail. Instead, they take a backseat here to the book as object, a stirring experiment of scrapbooking, amateurism, and the limits of simulacrum. In some ways it’s a direct peek into the Halpern id, into his raw gush of process.

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Omaha Sketchbook. By Gregory Halpern.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at