looking for america in south wales
A month-long photography festival in Cardiff investigates the American dream.
Photography Clementine Schneidermann
The second edition of the Cardiff International Festival of Photography opens up for the month of October, taking over the city's galleries, bus stops and bowling alleys with imagery that grapples with the American landscape, culture and spirit. This year's Looking for America theme sees more than 30 renowned photographers looking at wilderness and community, cars and bars, suburbanites and outlaws. As well as celebrations of American life, there are inevitably questioning and dystopian images in the mix too. Jeff Brouws, Todd Hido, Will Steacy, Stacy Kranitz and David Magnusson are some of the big names chosen Festival Director David Drake, whose Welsh mother and Detroit father put him in an ideal place to assess the USA from Wales's cultural centre.
Why did you choose America as this year's theme?
I was quite interested in the idea of America because it's culturally such a strong reference point for so many things: movies, advertising, music, photography. You don't have to go to America to buy into that. There's something about the endless highway and the endless opportunity and the allure of Americana.
I see that you try and connect some of the work to Europe, more specifically Wales.
I thought it would be interesting to foreground what was actually happening in America and get the perspective from within, which is why Todd Hido, Will Steacy and Stacy Kranitz are involved. But I also want to present the view of America from Europe, so am showing Clémentine Schneidermann's work, which was photographed in South Wales and Memphis; both places there were people who weren't materially that well-off, or that happy, but were embracing the Elvis dream, helping them transcend their everyday existence.
If you're "Looking for America", what have you found?
Some of the work is very dystopian, and America is a very scary place in a lot of the pictures. Todd Hido has a David Lynch, Blue Velvet side to it. I also got introduced to Arthur Tress and the San Francisco '64 series of his seemed pertinent as well. That was called "the last year of innocence" in America. Martin Luther King had just won an award for his work for the civil rights movement, Kennedy had been assassinated, the Vietnam War was kicking off and The Beatles made their first trip to America. It captured one of those moments when American values, as they had been in the 1950s, were being challenged in the 60s. When I choose a historical show like that, it's because I want it to have a contemporary resonance.
You're showing the images in shopping malls, bus stations, bowling alleys and a customs house, as well as galleries. How come?
People like to encounter contemporary photography and art in unusual spaces. They like the dialogue between the work and the space it's shown in.
Which photographer really stands out for you this year?
Stacy Kranitz's project that we're showing, As It was Give(n) to Me, is really interesting. She's from Kentucky, so she's been making this work about a former mining community in trouble. There's a crystal meth problem, lap-dancing, people spiralling out control, but she also combines that with historical maps, documents, dolls and artefacts. It's beautifully installed. Those same problems of alcoholism and substance abuse are also quite prevalent in the old mining communities in Wales. There are some pretty punchy images in there.
How do you avoid covering the more obvious style of American photography and portrayal?
Sometimes it gets to the point when if you see another sub-Ansel Adams American landscape or desert road with tumbleweed, it makes me want to reach for my gun. A lot of people are trying to remake those classic photographs. They might well sell them in Santa Fe or wherever, but it's a pretty pointless thing to be doing. Whereas Matt Wilson working with expired film, coming up with these very poetic images that hint at a narrative, but don't spell it out in a literal way, is much more exciting. There is an issue with documentary photography - a lot of stuff looks quite similar, whether you're in Helsinki, Amsterdam, New York. There is a language of documentary photography. Some of the artists I've featured, might not be the greatest photographers in their genre, but they have something more interesting to say. It's whether the idea and the execution of the idea all comes together.
Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography, Looking for America, 1st - 31st October 2015.
Text Stuart Brumfitt