/ Are We Still New Here? Graham Macindoe, Stephen McLaren and Sandy Carson – Scots in America
I did not become someone different
I did not want to be
But I’m new here
Will you show me around?
– Bill Callahan
These lyrics, from blues writer Bill Callahan’s title track for Gil Scott-Heron’s last album I’m New Here (2010), come courtesy of Scots documentary photographer Sandy Carson. Carson left the UK as a young man. Settling in the USA in the early nineteen-nineties, he now lives in Texas. Graham Macindoe, also a Scots documentarist, made a similar journey at around the same time. He is now based in New York, while Stephen McLaren, of the collective Document Scotland, left for San Francisco not long after.
It was in writing, separately, about Carson’s work, and McLaren’s, that I realised all three of these photographers share, by necessity, an outsider’s eye for the USA, its icons and symbols, its founding mythologies and their changing manifestations in the present. Living in the nation’s east, west and south, each records a distinct part of America’s social terrain, in personal, diaristic ways, always in dialogue – sometimes accidental – with image makers who now define American photography: Nan Goldin, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld et al.
Looking at their work together, cumulatively, is sometimes like seeing an America more more dreamed than real, because each evokes – despite differing subject matter – an odd balance of banality and intense intimacy, verging, at points, on painful tenderness. At times, the dream seems a bad one. Or at least it’s not all good. Its lows are also writ, inevitably, into its perfect highs, as Graham Macindoe’s series of self-portraits, selected from a large accumulation of images taken on cheap cameras over almost a decade of addiction to heroin, attest.
A few of these images appear alongside personal ephemera in a dual memoir with his partner, Susan Stellin, published by Random House this year. Rough-hewn, sometimes grainy, often yellowish and strip-lit in tone, they are so candid as to lay down a challenge: ‘So you wanted to see? Here it all is.’ (Susan Stellin, NYMag, 24th February 2014)
Like Larry Clark or Nan Goldin in her Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Macindoe is always participant, the work absolutely contingent on his life, yet he observes too, as a witness to his own marginalisation. For Goldin’s people, as she says, ‘It was as if we’d all escaped from America.’ (I’ll be Your Mirror) Macindoe, in his self-portraits, does not ‘escape’ America. He goes missing there.
Goldin’s Ballad, something like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, aims at a lyrical erasure of distance to create ‘a moment of clarity and emotional connection.’ She records what it is to belong, on America’s outside, underground, in all its ‘purposeful bleakness’ (Luc Sante in Goldin, 1996, 97).
Goldin first showed the Ballad in slide shows staged in clubs for her self-chosen ‘family,’ the people it featured. This was an exercise in community, raw and fluid. By contrast, Macindoe – who lost his home – later rediscovered much of the surviving work in a storage space he kept or with acquaintances and drug buddies who managed to hold onto some rolls of film, prints and memory cards for him. He had isolated himself so much from his family and close friends that they suspected he was dead.
So Macindoe had a network of friends and fellow users. But for him, finding and editing his self-portraits was a gradual excavation, a private salvage operation, not – as for Goldin – a live, social process of accumulating personal fragments of a Real America, of communal creation that put her at the centre of a circle (however imperfect).
When Goldin’s Ballad was published in book form, it became a fixed thing, no longer fluid. Drug use (along with drag) was put to the periphery. If anything was framed as addictive, it was the pain and joy of straight love and sex. The book tamed – even denatured – life underground. In this way, the Ballad becomes an almost knowing document of what (a consumable) ‘Bohemia’ should look like.
Macindoe’s work does not. He had taken some pictures of those he spent time with as a user. But he decided to turn the camera on himself, partly because these individuals could not consent. He was torn about this, feeling, as he says, ‘that I was exploiting them when I was going through the same thing, so it only seemed natural and fair to turn the camera on me.’ This concentrates the work on Macindoe’s own habit, its relentlessness matched only by his relentlessness in photographing it. There is intimacy, but with himself, his own image, arm, needle, spoon, score.
When he made these images, Macindoe did not have an end in mind – a concept, an aim, an exhibition. Unlike Goldin, he had no idea if they’d ever be seen. He simply needed to take them, to the point that sometimes, he feels, he took heroin in order to make his self-portraits, one need pushing the other, so that at these moments, his creative drive was almost fuelling his drug use.
Distance, in these images, is erased by a lack of variation in subject or environment, and the overall effect is claustrophobic, as if Macindoe has slipped through America, not into an alternative culture (like Goldin’s or Clark’s), but into an isolate void over which the nation is built. Yet even here, at least one of America’s founding pillars, the free market, holds, linked symbiotically to its subjects by the human compulsions that consume them.
Speaking about the experience of returning to his self-portraits, Macindoe mentions Susan Meiselas, who identifies with the participative approach of Larry Clark and Danny Lyons. Her documentary work begins without ‘a concept,’ which becomes ‘self-evident at a certain moment in the process.’ Macindoe seems to work in a similarly reflexive way.
For Derrida, the question of archiving is ‘a question of the future…of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.’ Macindoe came back to a personal archive, but an incomplete one, and is haunted by the loss of some images he knows he took but no longer has. He has to live, now, without them.
But archival documentary often suffers an element of ‘erosion,’ and the self-portraits Macindoe has (which still form a substantial body of work) offer him, it seems, an opportunity for wider retrospection, for Macindoe to see himself in time, using personal objects he kept alongside photographs. In this way, his salvage work opens his experience to reveal both his intimate moments of engagement and – at greater distance – their wider context and socio-cultural implications.
Indeed, in going through his old things, Macindoe found many of the baggies he had bought and kept. Fascinated by the typeface and design of the brands stamped on these glassine envelopes, he photographed them individually against a white background: Twilight, Crooklyn, Undertaker, Toxic. The result is All In (2014), a crisp typology of a market at work, as clinical as its fall-out is chaotic.
As a project, All In is separate from Macindoe’s self-portraits – its aesthetic is tight, clean, methodical –far from their haphazard look. Yet both are repetitive; and that’s the point; that’s the link; the cumulative rhythms of these series, aesthetically opposed, but both extracted from the same personal archive, are those of supply and demand, of maker and consumer, locked – yet humanly disconnected – in an exemplary cycle of consumption.
As Macindoe says of his visceral journey into the dreams peddled and broken by the free market: ‘It’s just capitalism in the end.’ (Guardian, Sunday 5th October, 2014) With a similarly instinctive grasp of narrative and metaphor, Carson and McLaren address, too, the vaulting dreams peddled – and broken – by American consumerism, albeit in less visceral ways.
Over his years in the US, Stephen McLaren has often, with a quiet eye for American oddity, gravitated to the arterial roads out of San Francisco and LA, letting them guide him from the city heart to the edgelands, liminal zones that are neither urban nor rural, spaces of transit, often themselves in transition.
In SF SXSE, McLaren travels under San Francisco’s freeways, tracing the changes to once impoverished areas in the city’s south, which were once marshlands occupied by Native Americans, before the arrival of Spanish, and other western settlers. In Drive Lincoln, he follows the iconic Route 1 as it passes through LA County. As he writes, ‘Cars give it a reason to exist.’
Wherever the endless flow of transit goes on, McLaren slows, stops even, orientating himself to the strange social terrain either side of the tarmac, a terrain of garages, used car lots, stores and scrub land. This practice of slow looking in fast places (through car windows, on sidewalks, across fences) is central to the practice of American great Henry Wessel, for whom California, and Californian light, are as close as he gets to a concept.
McLaren works only in colour (and deep colour at that). But like Wessel, who first arrived in LA in 1971 from a particularly bad New York winter, he is compelled by the soft, fierce light of the West, which makes edges melt and tarmac resonate. But McLaren’s work is not romantic. It owes much to the formal rigour of Wessel, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and even Stephen Shore.
McLaren’s images are, like Shore’s, strung with telegraph wires that transit the frame in straight lines, much as McLaren travels the terrain he photographs. Some – like a white limo parked in front of a small slab of white frontage – recall the stark office walls that drew Lewis Baltz. Like Wessel in his colour real estate work, Baltz examined suburban creep, his detached style a deflation of the classical, expansive vision of regional – wild – America crafted by Ansel Adams.
Their work, so dull and beautiful, is troubling. Consciously or not, it carries a political sense of unease about the advance of industrial development driven by (and driving) consumer appetite. McLaren’s work is similarly inclined, though he arrived in America long after the boom Baltz et al capture, and he documents the humanity, the odd social symptoms, as well as the banality, of American creep and sprawl.
In Quick Fix LA, he has collated the kind of makeshift signage pinned by opportune marketeers to telegraph poles, trees and traffic lights on the city’s roads. ‘I Buy Houses for Cash!’ ‘Eviction in One Day!’ ‘Fix Your Credit.’ ‘Jail Weddings!’ ‘Get Money Now!’ On the corner of Stoner Avenue, one sign promises: ‘Stop the Pain! Sell Your Home. Mobile Homes OK!’ On North Venice Boulevard, ForeignSpeakers.Com offers ‘Accent Elimination!’ Neon signs shout for you to attend either the ‘GUN SHOW!’ or the ‘CAT SHOW!’ Or you can call (424) 200-1511 for a psychic ‘Soul Mate Specialist’ who will ‘Reunite lovers, even if taken by another.’
To take these pictures, McLaren has trod the same tarmac as capitalism’s ‘bottom feeders,’ people who, perhaps, exist as much on America’s brink as those they prey on. This typology is the America of Breaking Bad, or perhaps more accurately, Better Call Saul; every human tragedy is an economic prospect. It is an awful portrait, yet, delicately drawn with McLaren’s outsider eye for irony, it is humane and funny too.
Like Shore, McLaren is a quieter photographer than, say William Eggleston, and the social element of his work emerges cumulatively. He is a clever observer, with a quirky, ironic humour about him. The critic Michael Fried finds Shore’s work remarkable because it is ‘un-ironic’: ‘You don’t seem superior to the material. Nor are you seeing these places and things as a foreigner might.’ For Fried, the result is ‘imaginatively liberating,’ perhaps because it moves beyond the ideological weight of someone like Frank, to something more ambiguous.
But, as Sandy Carson’s work shows, being ironic doesn’t always mean being superior to your subject, or detached from it. Carson’s ongoing series I’m New Here and I’m Still New Here are his way of processing a continent that remains unfamiliar, though he has spent over half his life in the USA, from the naïve perspective of road trip culture.
He is as attentive as Shore to the road trip’s place in in American imaginary. As Shore points out, many of these trips took place as American Prosperity gathered pace in the late fifties, and were made or written about by outsiders: Cartier-Bresson, Vladimir Nabokov in the voice of Humbert Humbert. Even Kerouac, whose first language was French, counts among this number.
Like Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson saw through the ‘great’ American road trip, the strike beyond familiar frontiers, to photograph venal politicians, gamblers, monumental American flags and mighty crosses proclaiming the return of Jesus. Their work was about the dissonance between the American Dream, its proclamations and its uncertain realities.
Like other road-trippers before him, Carson’s eye is always on the outside. It lays out a tender, incremental autobiography that tells you nothing of what he’s done in his life; it’s about how he travels through (something like Wessel), looking at things. It’s a search – perhaps without end – for place through looking.
He and McLaren share a similar amazed love for the America they photograph. And they work subtly, tenderly, with the same eye as Shore for accidental irony – as in Shore’s Strange Drugs chemist, the Stanley Lust drive-in, the billboard of a snow-capped mountain placed by the roadside on a vast flat plain.
In Carson’s work, a Prada store, in fact an art installation, stands alone on a dusty road. A China Shipping container is marooned in an expanse of dry grass. A nun, appearing on a motel TV set, is caught picking her teeth. But in place of Shore’s billboard – a technicolour, ersatz scene – Carson shoots an outdoor movie screen, a flat white blank, stranded on a parched plain in mid-frame.
Carson did not know Shore’s work when he began photographing this way, while travelling in Australia, but the dialogue he has with this American giant is now a direct one. Like Shore, Carson’s visual jokes are an exploration of culture, made attentive – loving, even – by his technical reverence for his subjects.
By reverence, I mean that Carson and Shore treat the landscape with formal craft, creating a density of detail that holds minutes of attention in a single frame. Like McLaren’s LA images, Carson’s shots of gas stations and stores are often taut with the entry and exit of telegraph poles, wires and sidewalks. But where McLaren – who previously worked as a documentary producer – captures America’s ‘now,’ as it emerges from history, Carson observes things in the ‘meanwhile.’
He seeks out bright gas stations, candy coloured movie theatres and ‘classic’ cars that were banal in Shore’s time, but which Shore included as as markers of an era. Carson takes these things out of time, showing us that they persist, in the present, albeit dislocated within successive economic, political and cultural shifts over the intervening decades, some seismic, others incremental.
This sense of dislocation manifests in Carson’s instinct for the bizarre, a departure from Shore’s belief that to photograph the mundane well requires the greatest heart and mind. A white caravan is incorporated into a perfectly crafted wooden fence. A real NASA rocket sits on a trailer in someone’s yard. Carson points to the rocket, within the vast space of his (almost) square frame, saying ‘Look at this!’ in a way Shore avoids. But it still feels like happening on a thing that romanticises both the American Dream’s obsolescence and the vaulting hope it still stirs.
Especially when Carson tells you the rocket has, in fact, been converted into a barbecue grill. It’s the kind of deflation that occurs when you find out that Joel Sternfeld’s fireman shopping for a pumpkin as a house burns is on a break from an exercise, or Alec Soth’s beatific redhead drew a cross on her forehead for a joke, and it wasn’t Ash Wednesday at all. The joke is on us – and on our notions of the America they photograph.
In taking on America as outsiders, Macindoe, McLaren and Carson are intelligent, concentrated and incisive. But given their close dialogues with the photographic ‘outsiders’ who came from within America to document its joy, pain and banality in the seventies – Goldin, Shore, Wessel et al – does their work surprise or intrigue? Does it show us new things about America?
The question is unfair. If everything has been photographed already, a photographer can only see it their own way, do it their own way. And that’s enough. As a visceral product of his personal life, Macindoe’s vision must be let to stand alone. McLaren’s and Carson’s work too, as their own explorations, all heart and mind, of the frontiers they have struck across.
That said, McLaren and Carson, fed by the social and visual terrain of America, produce some of their most surprising work when they return to Scotland. Carson, bringing his girlfriend here for a tour of the Highlands, eyes his homeland with the same tender – funny – distance as he does Texas. In place of tough, sweeping landscapes is a knitted and kilted doll in a hotel room, his bagpipes sagging, and a stilted plaster model, more Frankenstein than Angus McAskill.
In Scotia Nova, McLaren taps into similar fault lines that still, as he puts it, ‘be-devil and impinge on the nation’s sense of self.’ A wreath commemorating Bannockburn, shrivels, past its best. A snow-covered stegosaurus stands high in Clydebank, confined by hedge and fence. And, most delightfully, a group clad – for no reason McLaren elucidates – in bright jumpsuits, sunglasses, and dashing hats, processes past a pub on Orkney, a scene far from Paul Strand’s Hebridean vernacular.
Even in Scotland, these photographers are now Scots in – or from – America. They look on the idea of homeland, be it originary or adoptive, with an outsider’s eye, and whether here or there, with a camera in their hands all three possess, as Burns’ well-worn words put it, the gift to ‘see oursels as ithers see us.’
– text by Katherine Parhar for Photomonitor
For for further reading:
Graham Macindoe and Susan Stellin’s dual memoir Chancers published by Penguin Random House
Sandy Carson’s new monograph We Were There, published by Cardinal Books