Jeff Brouws’ road journeys through the US form a crucial role in his “mapping” of a changing American landscape. Bouws captures the glow of headlamps and neon, the illuminated attractions and distractions of the American roadside, which combine to produce a troubling picture of commercial encroachment and reshaping of the landscape. His work features alongside that of contemporary American photographers Will Steacy and Todd Hido as part of And Now It’s Dark, a strand of Diffusion, Cardiff International Festival of Photography 2015, which runs from 1-31 October. We speak with Brouws about his practice.
A: In what ways do you think your work interacts with and redefines the common spaces that you depict, particularly in abandoned spaces such as motels and strip malls?
JB: Many of the motels I’ve chosen to photograph—older building stock representing the remnants of 1950s two-lane road culture—have seen better days. Instead of being overnight housing for a vacationing family as they once were, they are now sites of prostitution, drug dealing, or temporary shelter for society’s marginalized: the near-homeless, single mothers with children on government aid, or disabled veterans who are under-employed. This scenario is far from the road-trip ideal depicted in those happy road movies from the 1950s and 60s. These images, made in the late 1980s / early 1990s, don’t reflect the optimism of that prior era, but rather speak more about the failure of expectations, and the slow demise of “the dream”—where something has gone awry (see Motel Drive, Fresno, 1992; Highway 395, Inyokern, California 1989; Moab, Utah 1992). Another motel image in the exhibition (Incursion V, Green River, Wyoming, 2014) deals with an entirely different issue: corporate America’s subjugation of the landscape and disregard for natural beauty. In this case a Hampton Inn gets built adjacent to historic landforms that once guided 19th century pioneering Americans traveling along the Oregon Trail. An aesthetic despoiling of the countryside that is troubling to me.
In Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone he states that…”Despite the aspirations of some developers, mall culture is not about overcoming isolation and connecting with others, but about privately surfing from one store to the next—in the presence of others, but not in their company.” This quote summarises many of the public commercial spaces (like strip malls) we find in America these days. Instead of being sites of community, which the original developers hailed them as, we find alienated shoppers seeking solace by buying more “stuff” amidst a backdrop of stultifying, homogenous architecture, fluorescent lights, and garish display (see Franchised Landscapes #10, #20, #26, and Wal-Mart At Night). Hopefully my photographs highlight the discrepancies between diaphanous myth and concrete reality.
A: Your series And Now It’s Dark, and much of the work in this year’s Diffusion Festival is devoid of human figures, and yet contains a psychological element. How do you create this atmosphere in your photography?
JB: First off: unlike Todd Hido or Will Steacy’s projects on display, which are cohesive series, it’s important to note my images included in the Diffusion exhibit are an array of disparate night photographs (not a series) that span my career. They should be regarded as stand alone images and not necessarily read as a group. That being said: most of the photographs could either be considered earlier Highway Landscape or later Franchise Landscape material. My photographic interests over the past 25 years deal with cultural abandonment, economic decline, consumer culture, and the alienation these attributes cause in the United States. Therefore all of this work has tangential connections to those notions vis-a-vis the American Dream.
Now to answer your question about a “psychological element” lurking within my photos: I don’t think it’s anything I’m doing intentionally, but it is a quality I often recognise as being there (see Exit 24 off I-90, Erie, Pennsylvania 2004; Route 199 and 9G, Red Hook, New York, 2005). It’s something ineffable. Despite the lack of actual people in the images I do believe the photos are very populated. Cars, buildings, signage, and a certain quality of light (or the complete absence of it) stand in for a palpable human presence (Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, 1999). Psychologically speaking, living in America and being an American is to experience a profound sense of alienation. Feelings of isolation colour my photographs —that’s what you’re sensing. It’s fascinating: what’s in your mind, heart and soul gets telegraphed onto the film plane and embedded in the photograph. It can’t be avoided.
A: Diffusion Festival seeks to take the theme of decline in America and make it relevant to Wales today. How do you feel your work can be applied to different geographical contexts?
JB: Regardless of one’s country of origin, we all face similar socio-economic problems as world citizens. The Earth is now one big linked social experiment. Economic conditions in Wales are probably not all that different from what we experience in the United States. Wealth across the globe continues to concentrate into the hands of a smaller and smaller minority. Poverty, racism, declining literacy rates, escalating costs for higher education, stagnant (or declining) wages for the average working man, labour struggles, are all social conditions that transcend borders. In so much as the American Dream has been co-opted and adapted globally as an aspirational value that most world citizens want to emulate, the downside of people embracing that ideal is this: they eventually see it as a fabrication, a constructed myth—a marketing ploy if you will.
A: Was there a specific experience which inspired these haunting images of America?
JB: These isn’t any one specific experience but rather a wave of cultural and personal influences. Let me explain. A quote from Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward Angel affected me deeply early on: He said: “There’s a terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts Americans and makes us exiles at home and strangers where ever we go.” That feeling of dislocation and alienation is something I’ve tried to imbue in this work. Edward Hopper captured that American characteristic in his paintings, and writers like Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver expressed it in their writings. Bruce Springteen’s album Nebraska from 1980—with its many road references symbolising escape, freedom, or loneliness was also a touchstone for this earlier imagery.
On the personal level, as an adolescent, an album of black and white photographs documenting a trip West, made by my grandparents from North Dakota to California in 1927, fell into my hands. It contained 2” x 3” images of mud and plank roads, lone stretches of desolate prairie and mountainous landscapes, or the occasional small town main street. I was hooked on the notion of the journey. Becoming a photographer then, coupled with the allure of travel and a sense of wanderlust, came naturally through this familial genetic inheritance.
Apart from the personal history, as I delved into this highway subject, I began musing about the cultural ramifications of what I was looking at, i.e., the history that fostered roadside development as well as the myths American society tells itself about the road. Concurrent with the photography through the late 1980s and early 90s, (as per my above comments) I immersed myself in music, film, literature, history, architecture and cultural geography to broaden my understanding of the roadside milieu. I was drawn to what cultural geographers call TOADS—temporary, obsolete, abandoned or derelict sites. These not only proved to be photographically provocative, but as I got further into the project, these buildings also posed sociological questions about culture, economics, politics, consumerism and human geography. Subsequently, I started doing more night photography, which better captured the melancholic, alienated environment that I was experiencing. In short I began to personally question the validity of the cultural values I had been taught; you might say a level of critique had entered my consciousness.
A: You are now an established artist, having worked in photography since the age of 13. How do you think festivals such as Diffusion can further the careers of young and emerging artists?
JB: In the contemporary field of fine-art photography networking and “getting your work out there” (and seen) is very important. There are no better avenues of opportunity for establishing a foothold within the community than at art festivals like Diffusion, where perhaps tens of thousands of people get to see and experience your photography up close. And the festival goers, the viewers, get access to images from around the world, showing diverse styles and aesthetic approaches that they previously might not have been exposed to. It’s a win-win for everyone. I’m very grateful to have been included.
Diffusion (Cardiff International Festival of Photography) runs from 1-31 October at Ffotogallery, Cardiff. For more information, visit diffusionfestival.org.
Discover Jeff Brouws’ work at www.jeffbrouws.com.
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1. Jeff Brouws, Coffee Shop, Battle Mountain, Nevada, 1993. Courtesy of the artist and Diffusion Festival.