In 1993, photographer Sandy Carson relocated from his native homeland of Scotland to the United States, where he has spent over half of his life. The ongoing projects featured here, I’m New Here, followed by Still New Here, are Sandy’s way of processing what is a (still) an unfamiliar continent, from what – in his words – is the ‘naïve’ perspective of road trip culture.
What he composes, however, is a ‘personal slice of America,’ consciously subjective, but never prejudiced, that uses a complex mix of ‘irony, scrutiny, absurdity and empathy’ to address the gaps between the clarity of American life (or the American imaginary) and its imperfections.
Carson states that he aims to transform banal elements of the social landscape into nostalgic connections to himself and his background. These transformations are totally personal, autobiographical, which makes that the work documentary in a loose, diaristic sense.
Carson’s final edit, however, leaves no trace of the associative triggers that draw him to any given scene. What’s clear is that, like Stephen Shore on the first trip that produced American Surfaces in 1972, Carson journeys outward and inward at once, his eye attentive to the state of transit, travel, and dislocation.
He is attentive, too, to the place of the road trip in American culture. It was as American Prosperity gathered pace in the late forties and early fifties, after twenty years of depression, drought and war, that Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank struck out west. Jack Kerouac too, and Vladimir Nabokov, in the voice of Humbert Humbert.
Both Cartier-Bresson and Frank, in the images they made ‘on the road,’ saw through the ‘great’ American road trip, the strike beyond frontiers, to depict gamblers, venal politicians, monumental American flags, and mighty crosses that proclaim the coming of Jesus.
As Shore says, these trips were made or written about by outsiders who all see and expose a dissonance between the zeal of the American Dream and its uncertain realities. Even Kerouac, whose first tongue was French, arguably counts in this number.
Like them, Carson, or at least his eye, is forever on America’s outside – as the titles of his two series joke. If photography is about the resonance that comes with accumulation over time – of facts, of images – then Carson’s work lays out a tender, ironic and incremental autobiography that offers no particular sense of what exactly he’s done in his life; it’s about how he travels through, looking at things. It’s a search – perhaps without end – for place through looking.
For the critic Michael Fried, Shore’s work is remarkable because his relationship to the material he photographs 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 piercing clarity of Cartier-Bresson, or the ideological weight of Frank, to something more ambiguous – a knowing, familiar love for these ordinary scenes of the road.
But being ironic about your subject does not, necessarily, mean being superior to it. Shore’s work is, in places, subtly funny – the Stanley Lust Drive-In, for example, or the billboard of a snow-capped mountain placed by the road on a vast flat plain. These images are no less tender (or ambiguous) for their irony.
Carson’s mode is similar. A Prada store (in fact an art installation) stands alone by 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 instead of photographing a billboard – a technicolour, ersatz scene – stranded on a plain, Carson shoots an outdoor movie screen, a flat white blank, 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 – and loving, even – by the way he (like Shore) is at once funny and reverent about his subjects.
By reverent, I mean that both Carson and Shore treat their landscapes formally, often creating a density, rather than an isolation, of detail that contains minutes of visual attention in a single frame. Like Shore, Carson’s photographs reject the now, the ‘capturing’ of things in the ‘moment’ in favour of observing things in the ‘meanwhile,’ a state of time that is (like Carson’s own foreign state) indistinct, without end.
Walker Evans said once that he wanted to ‘photograph the present as it would be seen in the past.’ But as viewers began remarking ‘I love your pictures! I love those old Model T’s,’ he was troubled, irritated, even, because he saw his photographs as absolutely modern and contemporary. He did not want to see them pass into a retro kitsch vernacular. Shore, by contrast, introduced cars and signage in order to create time perspective, deliberately marking his work as ‘of its era’.
Carson uses these markers differently. In seeking out bright gas stations, candy coloured signage, and the now ‘classic’ cars that were banal in Shore’s time, Carson effectively removes these objects from time, engaging openly in a nostalgia that is both intentional and naïve. With an outsider’s fascination with these subjects, he shows us that they – and the American vision of life they stand for – persist in the present, albeit dislocated within successive economic, political and cultural shifts over the intervening decades, some seismic, others incremental.
In his instinct for the bizarre, Carson often departs from the mundane language of Shore, a language that deflates and exalts minutiae in equal measure. A white caravan incorporated into a perfectly crafted wooden fence; a monumental close-trimmed hedge rising into the sky, and around power lines, like a speared beast of the sea; a real NASA rocket sits on a trailer in someone’s back yard.
Sometimes Carson’s America seems more hallucinated than photographed. Shore eschews images like these. Without the programmatic vision of, say, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Shore looks for the quintessential, not the exceptional, because he believes that it takes more use of mind and heart to photograph the ordinary successfully. He, like Eggleston, is ‘at war with the obvious.’
In photographing the rocket, Carson says ‘Look at this,’ directing the viewer within the vast space of this (almost) square format in a way Shore avoids. Yet this picture still feels natural, like seeing, from an empathetic distance, like happening – alongside Carson – on a thing that (to an outsider’s eye) romanticises both the American Dream’s obsolescence and the vaulting hope it stirs. That is, until Carson tells you the rocket has, in fact, been converted into a barbecue grill.
It is Carson’s deliberate naivety – and his sense of fun – that draws him to the full register of American life, the exceptional and eccentric, as well as the essential, within the ordinary. Carson’s work is formally aware, but it is not choreographed. It is the by-product of a personal exploration, all mind and heart, a road trip that continues, indefinitely, the longer he spends as a Scot in America.
See more: Sandy Carson’s website