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Q&A – The Visual Motifs of America

I’ve been working on this body of work – Q&A, for a little more than four years now. I usually describe it as an investigation into the visual mores applied when photographing the U.S.A, and an inquiry into the relationship between a place and its own mythos. I’m really excited by the idea that for a significant proportion of people, ‘America’ exists visually as a somewhat abstract concept. The history of the last 60 years of popular culture is, with the odd deviation, the history of American popular culture. As a result, there is this enormous mess of visual tropes which all point to various notions of what the U.S.A. look like; flags, mountains, cars, guns, roads etc. This is at its most effective I think when you realise that this strange quirk of culture has the power to provoke a familiarity for a place without the need to have actually visited it. There is no doubt other places in the world that prompt a similar reaction but none in quite the same way or on the same scale as the visual motifs of America do.

Going in search of things to photograph for this project has lead me into some wonderful, strange and daunting situations. I took this picture outside of a coal mine deep in one of the many valleys of the Appalachian mountains. Earlier on that day, someone had threatened me with violence over the taking of a picture for the first time. This had already made me feel a little uneasy. When the pickup truck that you can see in the image hurtled down the driveway of the facility kicking up dust behind it, I very nearly stopped taking pictures and left immediately. In retrospect, I was perhaps a little paranoid about being confronted again. Fortunately, for whatever reason (probably similar to when an animal freezes out of panic) I stuck it out and the chance inclusion of the truck ended up making the picture.

Q&A began when I traveled to the U.S. for the first time after finishing university. After landing in Memphis and driving west on the I-40 I was astonished to find that the America that I had expected simply wasn’t there. Instead, I found a parade of supermarkets, motel chains and retail parks. I felt as if I had been mis-sold; the America I was seeking (or at least the idea of it I’d had up to that point) felt either out of my reach or didn’t exist. After a week or so, I had changed my approach to traveling. Staying off the interstates and sticking to the smaller roads had proved more successful in yielding the kind of scenes I thought I should be photographing, but caused a different kind of mental dissonance. Why was I photographing these things to confirm my own assumed ideas? What I ultimately came to realise was that the America I expected did exist – but only in isolated pockets. It had to be sought out and curated into a kind of simulacrum and in turn became an analogy for the act of photographing itself; an odd exercise in choosing what to point the camera at, what to exclude or ignore and what to embrace. A project in which I actively try to indulge the familiar visual language of photographing America turned out to be more liberating. It allowed me to revel in the myth of the country and at the same time scrutinize and parody the repetitive use of its cultural symbols.

I’d really fond of this picture because of how much of an undertaking it was. I saw this isolated gas station the first time I went to Death Valley, in the daytime. I didn’t really think too much of it at the time and carried on driving. It was only on the flight home when I came across it while I flipping through pictures I had taken on my phone that I realised how different it would have looked at night. I spent the rest of the journey home beating myself up for the oversight. Fortunately, a year later I did manage to go back to the gas station and made this picture. That night I think I shot around seven rolls of film from every conceivable angle to make sure I had it and could lay what felt like a missed opportunity to rest.

I made the work over a number of trips to the U.S. (I am based in London, UK) and traveled to 40 states in total. I’m hoping to get the last 10 ticked off at some point. Each journey started with a lot of research and a map plotted with places that I wanted to go to or where I thought there might be a good picture. It was very rare that I stuck to the route for more than a couple of days because I’d lose interest or get frustrated that I hadn’t found anything that I wanted to photograph. In that respect, I have an unusual relationship with the act of making a picture. I don’t particularly enjoy the process; I tend to feel a little queasy and have to fight against my urge to overthink my decisions about what is in front of the camera. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to keep a physical shot list of things that you are looking out for to photograph. Usually, this list isn’t too specific but helps me keep the topics or themes that I want to address at the forefront of my mind.

The winters in the upper peninsula of Michigan are cold, long and harsh. This image shows the Mackinac bridge almost entirely obscured during a snowstorm. The bridge crosses the straights of Mackinac; a body of water between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and joins the two land masses that comprise the state. When traveling across the frozen water the ice below looked like marble; cracked and refrozen with enormous veins of black ice running through it. The upper peninsula’s low population density (roughly 19 square miles per person) lends it a strong regional identity and a peaceful remoteness.

In this body of work, there are a number of images that are relatively simple head and shoulders portraits of people with little affectation. Photographic portraiture is unique in providing the viewer with a life-like representation of a person and actively encouraging them to scrutinise it far beyond acceptable societal norms. I feel that the wider tendency to believe that a two-dimensional image of someone can reveal some kind of deeper truth about the sitter is inaccurate. To my mind, the best portraits usually hinge on the ability of the photographer (and subject) to consider and arrange the array of denotative and connotative signs that the picture will contain and also understand the context in which they are presented. In Q&A most of the portraits are intended to be somewhat archetypal – fundamentally an exercise in casting with each person playing a role. As with all of the images, the portraits are given very little context and no anecdotal information, my intent being to provide the viewer with enough space to apply their own speculations and narratives.

The thing I often find hardest to convey when talking to people about this body of work is the slightly dualistic relationship I have with all of these fragments of Americana. On the one hand, I am aware that a lot of what I’m photographing is a mythologised and often romanticized untruth. Simultaneously, I can’t help but feel a sense of excitement when I find a place or thing or even a person who conforms to my deep rooted assumptions about what America should look like.

Alexander Missen

Alexander Missen is a British photographer who lives and works in London. His work seeks to examine the relationship between photographic aesthetics and our understanding of it.

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