Gregory Halpern’s latest photobook, ZZYZX, provides a by turns gritty and fantastical journey through Los Angeles and the Mojave desert. From the bone-dry Eastern boundaries of the desert to the metropolis’s Western terminus at the Pacific, the City of Angels, in Halpern’s vision, is a chimera of magical realism and a repository of landscape oddities and colorful personalities.
The monograph begins with an iconic image of a tattooed hand blocking the sun–a fruitless effort at shielding the persistent light that gives the city both its metallic glisten and strident heat. An apt metaphor for the persistence of a city and its people struggling with conditions they cannot control, the image sets the tone for the book and introduces you to Halpern’s extreme microfocus. Few sweeping panoramas here. Instead you get a pile up of edgy images of non-standard beauties, both human and landscape.
Named after a town on the edge of the Mojave desert, ZZYZX is the culmination of the last five years of Halpern’s wandering the Golden State, photographing people he met in chance encounters and another year editing the thousands of rolls of film. Reminiscent of the work of Alec Soth, Halpern’s aesthetic is documentary on the surface yet nuanced and hardly an attempt at description. He accomplishes this to a large degree through the use of natural light, sometimes blinding, sometimes mellow, and always slightly surreal.
While not traditionally “narrative” in its layout, the book’s sequencing helps tell a story of a rich city worth a close reading. Hardbound and 128 pages with 77 color images, the sequencing and pairing of the photographs blend manmade and natural seamlessly–a sandy rock formation opposite a concrete front yard, both the same pale hue. The photographs are almost full bleed and printed on matte paper, which allows them to be immersive and direct.
Faces and façades
Faces and façades are the focus of many of his compositions. These show the weathering of time and their environments most visibly, in the wrinkles on elderly skin or the cracks in a concrete divider. The cliche of the California dream, a playground of chromed out cars and smiling 20-somethings, couldn’t be farther from Halpern’s California.
LA is full of oddities, inevitable in a sprawl so expansive and diverse–Halpern’s eye has the ability to make the native seem alien and vice-versa. An image of a smoldering brush fire on a rocky slope, for example, seems pedestrian. Elsewhere, a woman outfitted stylishly in white fur, with jarring, raccoon-eyed makeup seems dropped to earth from space. But, captured in Halpern’s close-up style, she is as believable as the next person on the street.
Animals play a role in the book as well. A resting bird or horse receive the same treatment as their human counterparts. They fit in with one another by the degree to which they set themselves apart from normality, and Halpern’s framing and dexterous use of natural light to imbue his scenes with just a touch of fantasy accentuates this.
The photographs are gorgeous, the printing by MACK publishing house crisp and complementary. Gregory Halpern is making forays into the fringes of what documentary and landscape photography can accomplish. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons that ZZYZX has received such massive praise, including being awarded Photobook of the Year at 2016 Paris Photo. It’s rare that a project devoted to a single place describes it both so precisely and with such a sense of mystery.
ZZYZX by Gregory Halpern published by MACK. 128 pages, 77 colour plates, 24 cm x 29 cm. Silkscreen printed hardcover. Publication date: November 2016. ISBN 9781910164655-X.