Photographs from the extremes of US culture

Mark Laita's pictures reveal the truth that Americans live their lives in completely individual ways. A Mormon polygamist stands next to a pimp, Amish next to punks

America is extreme. That's why people adore it – and hate it. From afar the extremes become caricatures of Christian fundamentalists, gun owners, and fast-food guzzlers that nurture hostility. But up close, in soaring cities and vast landscapes, the many faces of America take your breath away and seduce you in a second from anti-American to true believer in the American dream. On the plane home, of course, the prejudices for many outsiders start to set in again, as distance kills truth.

Mark Laita's photographs mock the idea that anyone can identify a single or typical "America". As the land of the free heads into election year, his pictures show exactly how free it is. Americans live their lives in completely individual ways. They are not a uniform nation of bigoted clones as some Europeans contrive to believe. In Laita's pictures there is no normal. A Mormon polygamist stands next to a pimp, Amish teenagers next to punk teenagers. More disturbingly, a white supremacist stands next to a Baptist churchgoer. Who represents the American mainstream? There is no mainstream. There are just individuals pursuing different roads to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

There is another layer of meaning. As you look at Laita's pictures it becomes gradually harder to believe everyone is who he or she seems to be. They look like models or actors playing a part. The photographs are theatrical, artful, posed like rentaRembrandts. This adds to the sense that identity – in America and everywhere – is a costume we put on. Americans are "born equal", as the title of the series points out, and become different by choice. The naked infant might end up as a biker or a choirboy. Americans nurture their differences and, these days, conflicts. But it is all a grandiose pageant. Under the skin, a ballerina might have the heart of a boxer.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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