At a cursory glance these highways and motels could be lifted from an Edward Hopper canvas: one of those sad but comforting scenes, where the vastness of the American landscape is glimpsed in negative via a homely all-night diner, or a column of gas pumps lined up against a pine forest, or a fragment of big night sky through the angle of a porch. We think we know this world because of our journeys there in film and song. The lighting feels familiar; we can almost hear the radio jingling nearby. Indeed, even when the lighting disappoints our fantasy – as it almost always does in this stark and beautiful sequence by Jack Latham – the temptation might be to supply it anyway, in our imaginations, like excitable set designers on a newly commissioned Mad Men of the interstate.
Hopper’s paintings celebrate mastery of the American continent. In his twilight scenes, that great intractable land mass – so dangerous and unfathomable to generations of pioneers – is relegated to a distant third place behind people and their built environment. A domestication has taken place. Within these strip-lit interiors, you can nurse a coffee and share in a lovelorn conversation, little fearing that a Blackfoot tribe might lie in ambush, or that snows will come and bury your wagons for the winter. His work is definitively a product of the mid-twentieth century, in particular those decades immediately following the Second World War when America thrived on a diet of cheap beef, labour-saving technology and interest payments from stricken Europe. Prosperity, after all, invites leisure – the leisure to be melancholy and stay up way too late, as much as to rock around the clock.
This is where Latham’s photography peels away from the iconography at its source. The Americana we know and love, and which we find abundantly in Hopper’s art, depends for its vibrancy on a nation’s economic health, which in turn relies on somebody’s original labour. Not many people seem to work in Hopper’s paintings, but countless striving European settlers – and the land and people they exploited on arrival – are implied in his vision of a country now able to wallow in convenience and plenitude.
The photos in A Pink Flamingo take us frequently to places of work. They do so, however, only to draw attention to a culture where work is now precarious and sporadic. We find dump trucks digging up a road, for little apparent reason; a gas station attendant in slack cargo pants, staring at the camera listlessly from the forecourt; a dishevelled timber yard vested of its employees. They portray an America throttled by recession, where mass employment has shuffled off, perhaps forever, to the financial districts and tech hubs of California and New York. In this they recall not so much Hopper as the documentary photography of Dorothea Lange, who so brilliantly chronicled the migration of farm workers from the Oklahoma dust bowl to California during the Great Depression. The difference is that Latham’s work picks out signs of neglected prosperity: the Chevys, picnic tables and clapboard suburbia of Hopper’s America; of a time when it must have seemed like the poverty of the 1930s had been left behind for good.
In the absence of prosperity, real leisure becomes impossible. You might say that a person needs a job to understand the value of a holiday. At the heart of A Pink Flamingo lies indolence – albeit a reluctant, uncomfortable sort, as of proud people who don’t really know what to do with themselves anymore. This book provides images of the young, fractured twenty-first century, just as Hopper’s paintings depict the peacetime satisfaction and sadness of the mid-twentieth. Latham’s masterstroke is to link present-day depression with the Oregon Trail, the route travelled by thousands of migrants from the 1830s to 1860s in search of wealth and freedom on the west coast. Often settling in the inclement prairie and desert states they found along the way, these pioneers helped to chart the continent that rose to global prominence some hundred years after their deaths. By following Latham on his version of the Trail, it’s as though we circumvent the long twentieth century of American affluence altogether. We glimpse with fresh eyes the need and desire that impelled people westward in the first place – and we suffer the consequences with their descendents, now that the world has moved on, and there’s nowhere else for them to go.
It would be wrong in all this to suggest that Latham is a frontiersman himself. The diminishment of the first world’s working class is a gradual process, dating back far beyond the start of the 2008 credit crunch, and Latham isn’t the first artist to note the decay of the American dream in its Midwestern provinces. Flicking through the photos in A Pink Flamingo, I feel like I’m prying into a modern re-enactment of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982). Less an album than a sequence of short stories, Nebraska forces us to look at America from the perspective of its losers, across those painful years between the assassination of Kennedy and withdrawal from Vietnam. The characters range from a beleaguered highway patrolman just trying to do the right thing, to a small-time crook driven into the arms of the mob by debts, to a mass-murdering psychopath contemplating execution with a plaintive sigh and a wheeze on the harmonica. Some stand barely on the right side of the law while others have crashed disastrously on the other side; all are marginalised and desperate, the victims of economic circumstance beyond their control, as well as bad judgement or fate.
Interestingly – or not, given Springsteen’s background and preoccupations – these characters are as likely to come from New Jersey as the state that lends the record its title. But in Springsteen’s imagination ‘Nebraska’ isn’t just a setting; it’s a condition of the soul, a metaphor signifying anyplace inhospitable enough to drive those who live there to desperate measures. Nebraska was one of the first states on the old Oregon Trail. The Platte River guided the settlers west, even though its waters were too shallow and silted to travel by boat, and had to be mixed thoroughly with cornmeal before you could drink from them. I look at the landscapes in A Pink Flamingo and wonder which of them might be Nebraskan. I suppose all of them are, at least in Springsteen’s sense of the word.
Another great artwork these photos conjure is ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ by Richard Hugo. At one point I was asked to write a poem in response to the sequence, but I soon shelved the idea, knowing that the best poem had already been written. Here’s Hugo’s first stanza:
You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.
Montana – the best bet for the location of Hugo’s Philipsburg – may lie just that fraction north of the Oregon Trail, but it hardly matters: the insane streets, the faded town, ‘the tortured try / of local drivers to accelerate their lives’ is everywhere in A Pink Flamingo. Even Hugo’s observation about faith holds true. Two images from the sequence demonstrate how churches, in Hugo’s poignant phrasing, ‘are kept up’ – a meaning that covers both the material sense of cleaning and repairs, and the moral one of a worthwhile habit being practiced with due diligence. The first image is from the Wheatland Bible Church, a billboard proclaiming the Good News in defiance of its bleak surroundings:
ARE NOT NECESSARILY
I read this as a found poem. Certainly the sentiment is complex and doubtful enough to qualify as poetry: here is a God of delays and denials (though the two are not necessarily the same) far removed from the Giver of crystal-clear divine justice that the Bible Belt would have you believe. The second image takes us into more conventional territory. A single-floor building marked ‘Assembly of God’ juts into a murky wall of cloud. There are electrical pylons, metal fences and fields of tussocky grass. The church itself is by far the most handsome thing around – well ‘kept up’, indeed – and its billboard advertises Bible classes, divided into Tuesday’s ‘KIDS N TE’ (the ‘I’ in ‘NITE’ AWOL) and sessions for men and women on a Thursday.
Easy to sneer at all this, of course. Many of us will feel contempt for what Middle America represents nowadays, even as we indulge in an enduring romance with diners, doo-wop and vanilla shakes, those quaint emblems of Middle America gone by. Rednecks, fundamentalism, guns, and stifling small-town conservatism: these are the kneejerk stereotypes that will likely pop into your head, at least on this side of the Atlantic, when someone says ‘Idaho’. Scorn is an ever-present danger in Hugo’s poem, as it evokes a ‘defeat / so accurate, the church bell simply seems / a pure announcement’. And who could resist its vision of escape, to ‘towns / of towering blondes, good jazz and booze / the world will never let you have / until the town you come from dies inside’? It seems we’re being asked to kill Philipsburg, and every other crappy Podunk town it stands for. What would we stand to lose?
After reading ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ over and again, I have my own answer to that. The last stanza starts with an exhortation to ‘say no to yourself’ – which I take to mean, roughly, ‘say no to despair’ – and it builds to a last-ditch series of images that prove life can be sweet and purposeful wherever you are: that ‘the money you buy lunch with, / no matter where it’s mined, is silver’. It’s a great stanza. You should read it sometime. Only recently did I realise how much ‘Degrees of Gray…’ must have been playing on my mind as I wrote the title poem to my first collection, The Claims Office. Like Montana or any of the states on the Oregon Trail, the south Wales valleys have suffered decades of disempowerment and decline. In Hugo’s Philipsburg the ‘principal supporting business now / is rage’; hear the echo in my Rhondda everytown, where the ‘principal industries / depend now on the intimate / administrations you can’t outsource, / those of tans or care or vinegar’.
Maybe that’s why I feel such pangs of recognition when I come up against the photos in A Pink Flamingo. It might be a newspaper-covered window, a nondescript concrete overpass, or the swaggering, black-eyed mug of a boy with his top off, flaunting his tattooed torso to a world that doesn’t care. (Go to Treorchy one day and tick the same things off on your recession scavenger hunt.) Quite apart from social correspondences, Latham succeeds in capturing every imaginable degree of gray in his wintry Midwestern cloudscapes, with subtleties only a Welsh person could fully appreciate. We are not looking at distant hicks under distant skies.
But beware the correspondence. The people and places Latham portrays speak adequately for themselves, not asking for our comprehension or concern. Whenever poets and wordsmiths get involved, our first instinct is to reach for the analogy that explains it all: to generalise, to link, to drag in our host of value judgements. Alas, that’s what language does. No sooner do we choose our words than we betray a prejudice, a preference for one worldview ahead of another. Latham’s camera has no such romantic or moral attachments. While it prompts us to political questions – how could a clutch of rifles laid out on a bench beside a kiddie’s slide do anything else? – it doesn’t claim to have any answers. Without bluster or judgement, it sees the town, it recognises the people, and it gestures to the trail ahead.
- Dai George