Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX – California dreamin’ in the 21st century

The photographer’s new work, named after a village in the Mojave desert, exploits the golden state’s unique light to create mysterious, surreal images

• Gregory Halpern’s ZZYXZ – in pictures

‘Los Angeles is so massive, confusing, beautiful, harsh and strange that it almost defies you to make work about it,” says the photographer Gregory Halpern. “It is an impossible project in a way.” In his intriguingly titled new book, ZZYZX – named after a village on the edge of the Mojave desert in Saint Bernardino County – Halpern has created a California of the mind, a place both real and metaphorical, familiar yet alien. The photographs hold all kinds of resonances from the dark, surreal films of David Lynch to the anxious urban neighbourhoods evoked in the early essays of Joan Didion.

“My work begins with the notion of documentary, but I want it to be more than that,” says Halpern, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, and now lives further upstate in Rochester. “It is grounded in reality, but it occupies an inbetween space between documentary and a certain sense of mystery. I want to always leave room in the pictures for the viewer’s thoughts and projections.”

Born in 1977, Halpern studied history and literature at Harvard, before completing a postgraduate degree in fine art at the California College of Arts. His previous books have included Omaha Sketchbook, another less heightened journey into the American landscape, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a collaboration with the photographer Ahndraya Parlato, comprising of images taken on the solstice or equinox.

Couple pulling along possessions in carts and prams in Los Angeles
‘I just came upon this couple and it turned out they were moving into a friend’s house ... the image of them walking and pulling their possessions seemed mysterious and timeless. Plus, nobody walks in Los Angeles.’ Photograph: Gregory Halpern / Webber Gallery Space

Halpern spent five years on ZZYZX, often travelling to locations in California he picked at random from Google maps. It took him another year to edit the results, trawling though an estimated thousand rolls of film, about half of which were shot in the final year after a Guggenheim grant enabled him to live in California for a time. “I was struck constantly by the beauty and the harshness of the environment, by the sunshine and the smog, the vast space of the desert and the choking traffic of the cities,” says Halpern. “Even the light in Los Angeles seems compromised: there’s a beautiful haziness to it caused by the pollution in the air.”

That unreal light is one of the defining aspects of Halpern’s Californian photographs, falling on landscapes and faces, heightening the sense of unreality outsiders often detect in LA. The British documentary photographer Chris Killip, who taught Halpern at Harvard, says he has broken away from “the sanctified cliched reverence” of traditional American landscape photography and “seems able to connect with this massive subject in ways that others cannot”. In one striking image, Halpern frames a black-stemmed Joshua tree, scorched by a forest fire, against earth and sky, its spiky golden leaves insisting on life even amid this deathly environment. In another, a raised hand, its open palm tattooed with seven stars, shades an unseen face from the unforgiving glare of the Californian sun. The stars, Halpern adds, could refer to a biblical quotation from Revelation 1:16.

Earlier working titles for the book included Babylon and Kingdom, but Halpern’s publisher, Michael Mack, advised against them, thinking rightly that they were too symbolic. Many of Halpern’s images, though, would be apocalyptic if they weren’t so formally beautiful. That beauty is troubling in a different way, when it is applied to the portraits of the homeless and the struggling that punctuate the book.

Man holding his palm up with seven stars tattooed on to it
‘The guy reached up like this and I instinctively photographed it. There’s a reference to the American flag there, I guess.’ Photograph: Gregory Halpern / Webber Gallery Space

“Most of the portraits are of people I encountered on the streets as I was photographing,” says Halpern. “I am not trying to make a statement about their situation in the way that a concerned documentary photographer might do. Again, it is about the reality and the mystery of the images, and, to a degree, about the questions they raise. There’s a picture of a homeless guy lying on the grass laughing, but is it a happy image or a sad one? Then, there’s the viewer’s reaction to it – is it mean? Is it exploitative?”

Halpern, one senses, is still grappling with the meaning of his work. ZZYZX is certainly a departure from the quieter observational style of his earlier work. “I see ZZYZX as part of a continuum but edging a little closer towards fiction,” he says. “I’m not saying it is fiction, but it has that element of being more somehow than the real – more beautiful, more ugly, more complicated and contradictory. Like LA itself, in fact.”

In a recent talk given at his London gallery, Webber, where images from ZZYZX are currently on show, Halpern discussed his often obsessive working methods. Once he was on a flight from Buffalo to Los Angeles, he recalled, when the pilot announced they were flying over a forest fire that was visible below. From his middle-aisle seat, Halpern couldn’t see it, but when he landed in Los Angeles, he immediately hired a car and drove 90 miles back to where it was raging in order to photograph it.

blackened joshua tree in the desert
‘In California, there is an element of dread that makes you feel the whole place could be on the edge of extinction. That’s there in the city but in the natural world, too. The constant threat of fire and the attendant lack of water is another example of the strange extremity of the place.’ Photograph: Gregory Halpern / Webber Gallery Space

Images of fires and their aftermath are scattered throughout the book, another metaphor for the dread that haunts the Californian dream. The book’s title, though, comes from a village built on the promise of California’s scarcest commodity – water. The village Zzyzx, pronounced zye-zix, was formerly called Soda Springs after a natural spring there, but was rechristened by a mineral water pioneer, Curtis Howe Springer, in 1944. The eccentric Springer named it after what he claimed to be the last word that could be spelt in the English language.

“The word has a dystopian, futuristic aspect,” says Halpern, “even though it came out of a utopian dream that Springer had while squatting the land for three years. He somehow willed the word and the place into being. That notion of manifest destiny is there still in California, but also the sense that it’s the end of the dream. You get there and you can go no further. You are faced with yourself and your life, but just in a more beautiful setting.”

ZZYZX is published by Mack (£35). The work is on show at Webber Gallery Space, London W1, until 29 Oct.


Sean O'Hagan, captions by Gregory Halpern

The GuardianTramp

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