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Higley – Globalization and Progress Running out of Control

The Higley project was the result of several events converging at one time and place. I grew up in the east valley of Phoenix. My sisters moved out to the new housing subdivisions far east of Phoenix, Arizona in 2005, at the height of the housing boom. There is nothing special about this, it was and is happening on the edge of almost every major city in the western world. What interested me was the fact that my grandparents used to be dairy farmers out in this same area and when I visited my sisters in their new house for the first time, I was struck by the contrast of what used to be a farming paradise had become the “bedroom community” for a booming Phoenix.

As Phoenix grew at an alarming rate, due to many tech companies relocating to the area and the ever growing demographic called “senior citizens” who are drawn to the area because of the weather, the valley needed affordable suburban homes. The farming industry at the edge of town simply saw a crop of track homes to be more prosperous than another crop of alfalfa or corn. As my sisters, also made this move into the suburbs, a move many American strive for, I was shocked to see how quickly the “American Dream” had shifted from the time of my grandparents, when it was the search for a sustainable lifestyle working the land, to one now of cheap, homogenous housing, commuter traffic and a safe address within a gated community.

This was also the time when my first daughter was born and my initial intention was to simply document this place to show it to her someday. As I was working on the project (8 visits of 1 month each in 4 years) I realized that a lot of the issues I was thinking about, progress, globalization, family and history were topics which applied to the general political and social stance of the US at the time. Higley was at the heart of the housing collapse of 2008, for example.

I think the heart of this work lies in the search for identity. I don’t live in the US anymore and I have now spent more than half of my life in Europe, so you start to ask yourself questions about identity, family history, belonging and trying to preserve your own history a bit. I can’t say I am influenced by the place where I grew up, it doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t go back there. If anything I am influenced by a memory of the place. I am interested in seeing how it became not only my story but a perfect example of globalization and progress running out of control.

I never had any expectations of anyone finding my family story interesting; I was doing it initially for me and my daughters, but as it progressed, people constantly told me their stories about how the places they were from are also disappearing or changing and expanding and redefining themselves. I think the best work you can be doing is addressing auto-biographical elements which address bigger, global issues.

My family’s story in Higley, interestingly enough, begins during World War 2. My grandfather was an airplane mechanic and was stationed at Higley Field, a small airfield in the area which eventually became the town of Higley. This airfield was used for training Airforce fighter pilots. The conditions were perfect; almost always sunny weather and clear visibility and a flat open terrain that was forgiving to crash landings. After the war, my grandparents decided to stay and raise a family. Along with the other side of the family, who were dairy farmers in the area, both of my parents, and thus myself, grew up in this very rural, flat, pre-fabricated community which sprung out of the ground during the war.

Outside of the pictures, and outside of my story, Higley (Arizona) is a very boring place. It is the perfect example of middle class America, dependent on cars and strip malls and a place marked by rampant growth with no concern for community structures or intelligent urban planning. It’s shift, the swing from agricultural haven to track-home monster, is what I was interested in. I was very motivated to let the narratives of these people and the changing places lead me along, but beyond this story of urban sprawl there is very little I find interesting about the place.

Over the course of 8 visits in 4 years I would get up early, pack my equipment in a borrowed SUV and simply head out. I would never know in the morning where I would be a noon, and end the evening telling some story I never could have planned or scripted. It’s a way of working in which the only thing I really concentrate on is paying attention to subtleties and letting one thing lead to the next. When in doubt, I would start by making portraits, asking questions and listening to someone tell their story inevitably leads to the next step. I was working on film at the time, both large and medium format, so I felt that after about 1 month I needed time to process the film and get an idea about what I was doing. By leaving for a few months and then returning, it was easier to follow the changes as they would seem very abrupt after being away for only a few months.

I have always been interested in combining portraits, landscapes and still lives to suggest narratives.

I say “suggest” because of course this is a very subjective process, disguised in a style of photography that is read as being objective, but we all know that there are too many decisions that go into making images for them to be considered objective documents. At the end of the day I was only interested in this four year period where the new and the old Higley came together and butted heads. I tried to find ways to bring the people and the places together in constellations that tell the stories I found interesting.

I was first attracted to the science of photography. As a teenager I used to love to feel the weight of that big F2 dangling from my hand, strolling the desert, looking for motifs that I had seen before and come to recognise as ‘good’ photographs. If I looked through the viewfinder and saw something that I thought I had seen before, on a calendar, in a magazine, on a poster, then I knew it had to be good and worthy of photographing. Growing up in the Southwest, the landscape was such a powerful force yet loaded with preconceptions of what it should look like. I was constantly chasing these preconceptions and the satisfaction came from finding the right solution to the problem; making the picture what was ‘expected’. It wasn’t until my time at ASU, studying with people like Bill Jay, Bill Jenkins and Tamarra Kaida that everything changed, and in such a monumental way that I still, 25 years on, am content with the struggle of trying to get my mind around what I spend my time doing. I started the photo program so sure of myself because I had all the gear and a nice picture or two to show, but nothing can prepare you for the moment you see the works of Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and co., and have someone like Bill Jenkins tell you, in one simple sentence, almost as if in passing, that there is a monumental difference between “subject matter” and “content”.  The “subject” being the physical thing which is being photographed, whereas the “content” is the much deeper interpretation of the image; metaphoric, symbolic, the indescribable. In other words, a photograph can be a lot of things but it is never, ever the thing in front of the camera. This is a tough leap to make, but if I could break it down to one essential moment, it would be this realisation that a photograph is not a documentation of reality. So, to answer the question, I was using my camera for years before I was motivated to start taking photographs. I got into it because I liked the safety in knowing that it was pure science – a technical craft that could be controlled and defined by the laws of physics. I have stayed interested because I still can’t tell you why a photograph is successful.

I’m involved and engaged with photography on lots of different levels and layers. I curate an artist-run-gallery space with friends in Salzburg called Fotohof, I teach a few hours per week at the university, I write and review books about photography, I teach a master class of photography at the Anzenberger Gallery in Vienna as well as do commissioned work a very select list of architects and building companies, so needless to say my days are very multi-faceted. I have a beautiful studio and have a great team around me, usually one assistant on board at a time, and spend my days bouncing between my own work, (which right now finds me in the Alps a lot) and commissioned work. On top  of it all, I show and sell my artistic work through my galleries (Robert Morat, Stefan Brunnhofer, Jo Van De Loo)

The most difficult part of my daily practice is trying to stay focussed. I think it is a curse or our times that I feel like I have to constantly multi-task to get anything done. This often leads to days of spreading myself too thin, on both the creative level and the business level.

My main influences are definitely the New Topographics photographers. I found them at a time when, as mentioned, I was very skeptical about the images of the landscape. Suddenly Adams and Baltz were showing me the landscape I could really identify with, suburbs and industrial parks which I grew up in on the outskirts of Phoenix. It was pivotal for me that such images were given an artistic and intellectual authority. I had never seen anything like that at the time; I was still looking for those wild-flower calendar images.

Now, on a day to day basis, I am inspired by books and people that feel authentic.I have grown skeptical of defining work as ‘good’ because it seems so subjective, but ‘authentic’ carries more weight with me. I often see work which I wouldn’t initially call ‘good’ but if it has an authentic power to it, it keeps my attention for a long time. The list of my favorite books changes from week to week! But here are 4 good ones: Larry Sultan ‘Pictures from Home’, Alec Soth ‘A Broken Manual’, Shane Lavalette ‘One Sun, One Shadow’, Karoliina Paatos ‘American Cowboy’

You can buy Andrew’s book ‘Higley’ (KEHRER Publishing) here.

Andrew Phelps

Andrew Phelps is an American photographer who has been living in Europe since 1990. His work is influenced by the cross-cultural lifestyle he now leads, dividing his time between the deserts of Arizona and the Alps of Austria. Alongside his own photographic work he curates at the 'Galerie Fotohof' in Salzburg and is a member of the POC collective

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