Review by Dan Thompson
A Ramsgate photographer’s quest for some kind of photographic truth is captured in his latest photo book.
When In The Lone Star State by Edward Thompson records his journeys through an America that is familiar from films, music videos and adverts. Taken in 2006 and 2007, the photos are full of things we recognise, that act as a shorthand for the USA we think we know – battered pick up trucks, old men in baseball caps and cops in cowboy hats, blue jeans and Budweiser, broad main streets and roads that stretch out straight to the horizon.
But despite the familiarity, it isn’t the comfortable, glossy America that Thompson has captured, but a dark, damaged, and dangerous country.
There are the corpses of dead animals strung from trees, ripped and tattered American flags, a freshly-shot water buffalo, and the hand holding the Budweiser is covered in blood. An old couple have smiles that don’t feel quite honest, hands like claws, and ash crosses on their foreheads. Schoolboys practicing American Football look like the young men in a Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film.
Something always seems to have just happened, which we’re not a witness to. It always feels like Thompson is capturing the aftermath, not the action.
That makes for a visual essay that is unsettling. This is a land at once familiar, half-known, but also awkwardly different.
And underneath it all is that sense of what we’ve missed, of death, loss, and absence. There is an empty playground, the grave of a young soldier killed in Afghanistan, an abandoned farmhouse, a closed department store, and a burning cedar bush.
Threaded through those images are Thompson’s own loss: he travelled there on Air Miles his recently-deceased father had left unused, and remembers a previous visit to photograph a wedding when he returned with a blank, empty film.
Overall, it creates a tense, disturbing photographic essay, and already – just over 15 years since they were taken – they capture a time that feels as distant as Great Depression of the 1930s. Photos now are harder to trust, their making (and their faking) easier than ever.
But in When In The Lone Star State, Thompson has captured the truth that a hard, violent country lies just beneath the one we are familiar with from Friends, The West Wing, and a thousand other TV dramas.
You can order When In The Lone Star State, and Thompson’s previous collection In-A-Gadda-Da-England which features many images shot in Thanet, from his website edwardthompson.co.uk
It all sounds a bit negative to me, and certainly not unique to the USA: you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find a grave of a young soldier, an abandoned farmhouse, a closed department store and a destroyed tree in Thanet! I have nothing but fond memories of the time I spent travelling throughout Tennessee and Mississippi, and if anything, I found it more welcoming than around here.
Peter Checksfield (author and music historian)
An interesting project and a worthwhile book. Well done Edward Thompson.