California Über Alles - Steven Nestor

California Über Alles
Text and Photography by Steven Nestor
Originally published in prism #13

As with most people throughout the world - and maybe especially Anglophonic Europeans - the United States has been a continual, largely one-way, cultural and linguistic presence in our lives. Similar, I imagine, to that of the inhabitants of the known world in the time of the Roman Empire. When I was a teen Levi’s or Wrangler jeans were de rigueur. Hit music and especially films were almost exclusively American in origin. Later at university I took American history as a module every year. Whether it was to be loathed or loved I wanted to understand this country that had come to dominate our lives so completely.

California Über Alles © Steven Nestor

Finally in 2012 I got the chance to go to the United States on an 18 day vacation. Of course we were not visiting the whole country: it was just one part of one state. But it was California; one of the biggest and wealthiest of the states and the engine room behind the greatest projector of Americana.

This body of work came out of this journey and could be broadly defined as ‘travel photography’. However, it is not travel photography with the typical sole purpose of honouring or promoting key places, characters and rituals in the same way that a postcard might “sum up” a location. I suppose the core question surrounding travel photography is whether its superficiality allows for the revelation of anything insightful. By being so potentially “shallow” and literal, it often appears to offer no more than an exact reflection of a world we expect and desire: a globe squared and rationalized away while at the same time we are invited to “explore” and “adventure”. But how do you explore the explored? It seems to me that it can only be a profoundly personal experience and deep inner reaction to new surfaces, topographies, smells and sounds. In global travel today we are most likely only following the cartographer’s precision or the previous photographers’ multitude of findings.

California Über Alles © Steven Nestor

California Über Alles © Steven Nestor

Speaking about Heartland photographer Thomas Hoepker recalled being asked by his editor-in-chief Horst Mahnke if he wanted “to discover America?” ‘Sure’, we said. ‘But what exactly do you want us to do there?’ – ‘I think’, replied the editor, ‘you’ll fly to New York and then you rent a car and you drive westward until you meet the Pacific, and then you drive back on another route and you take pictures and write about what you see. No time limit.’ We liked the brief briefing and nodded. The year was 1963 and I was 27.”

Adding to this Mahnke spoke about Hoepker seeing “far beyond the skyscrapers of Manhattan, whose spectacular silhouette is still considered by many Europeans to be typical of America. And once beyond the America of the picture postcard, they discovered some truths of which I think we need to be aware. I believe there are some shocking truths amongst them and in the light of these truths the legendary American way of life no longer looks quite so triumphantly brilliant as people generally imagine.” (Café Lehmitz Photobooks, March 2013)

California Über Alles © Steven Nestor

So in considering this notion of revelation through travel and discovery, I turned to the three fundamental questions Gauguin posed in his 1897 D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (Where are we from? What are we? Where are we going?). Had he been a photographer, his exoticism and idealism of Tahitian life might have fallen somewhere between travel and documentary photography. Nonetheless, as immersed, familiar and sympathetic to the Tahitians as he was, he was at the same time always an outsider, and lost. Maybe they knew more about France from him than he was able to see in them. The outsider
only treads the surface, remembering pieces of it. And in editing their work, a travel photographer is forced to think in terms of the “here” and “there” for images intended to be read by all.

As California loomed larger on my horizon I wondered just what photography is able to reveal about other lands and their people. The departure time approached and I asked the question, “Where or when does travel photography end and documentary start?” The acidulous response was, “Well before the airport”. So are, therefore, Steve McCurry’s iconic images windows into other worlds or the imposition of a gauguinesque idyllic onto the ‘other’? I began to sense that the aim of travel photography was more about distracting us from those three fundamental questions than allowing ourselves fret over life’s inescapable single journey. To travel is to leave a routine and familiar order. Not that this is negative, for there is necessary relief in escapism, exoticism and the illusion of simpler two-dimensional existences. Does not the omnipresence and allure of a flat packaged United States (TV, photos, CDs) to some measure also distract us from focusing more clearly on our own daily insurmountable existences before we have even booked our tickets?

California Über Alles © Steven Nestor

After years of absorbing and digesting the United States’ projected culture I was going to the source and somewhat unexpectedly too. I was momentarily overwhelmed with practical questions regarding my photography and was also concerned with the tools I would or should bring. In the end I couldn’t decide. There were too many ‘ifs’. Despite having viewed countless thousands of images of the United States I was paralyzed as to how I should approach the country we are all allegedly so familiar with. Was I going to try to emulate Robert Frank or Robert Adams? Or was it better to consider Winogrand or Maier? I had even considered trying to “unlearn” and record like a snap shooter. There was, however, one certainty: originality was futile. Above all, this was primarily a vacation and not some long-term commissioned project. So I decided on bring a choice of cameras: my iPhone, an antique Kodak 126 instamatic (the last four rolls) and my 35mm camera. There was nothing I could do in terms of meaningful or beneficial research, so I would just shoot and hope that one or more of the three tools would offer a way in to record California with some meaning.

Photographing a land as impressive as California from a compromised and indecisive start was actually liberating. What did it matter if I was unsuccessful in the end? 18 days is just that: 18 days. It was better at times not to have the distraction of a camera in the way of a seeing and judging eye than to be blinded by the viewfinder. The result was that much of what I saw was simply never photographed. But not everything can or should be photographed. Gaps in the visual record can be filled with words and text. What remains outside the narrative are those photographic memories you never think of share.

California Über Alles © Steven Nestor

In trying to find an approach to this (for me) new subject and genre one photobook concerning travel stood out. Gotthard Schuh’s Insel der Götter (1956) is a journey through Java, Sumatra and Bali. True, these places had long been under European influence and dominance, but this world remained hopelessly and wonderfully alien and a spectacular monochromatic visual delight. I’m sure Schuh was following an editorial brief, but in many respects there was no need for his end product to have delved any deeper than the surface. As Oscar Wilde observed, “the true mystery of the world is the visible not the invisible”.

It was as soon as we got to passport control at LAX that the imposed and idealized image of California and America I had received through popular media - no matter how “ground breaking” - immediately evaporated. All but two of the dozens of immigration officers were white. What were the likes of Rob Lowe, Arnold Schwarenegger and Jay Leno trying to push in their 'California Calling' ad of 2009? Oh, wait, they did allow Cesar Millan in. But this new visual contradiction was good. I would be able to record just what I came across, whether it agreed or not with the projected official image. Later I would find that there was partial accuracy in California’s official self-projection, but there was equally a great deal of down-playing, if not denial, of the specter and reality of the state’s racial diversity. In this regard I wondered whether I was witnessing a retreat or inversion of Manifest Destiny. At any rate, Americans had long since withdrawn into the impermeable sphere of their automobiles.

California Über Alles © Steven Nestor
Feeling nonetheless under an obligation to shoot I used all three modes of image capture in the first 5 days or so. Then my Hipstamatic crashed and my iPhone camera took its place. It was at first annoying and then a relief to now ditch the faux and to have to shoot with my iPhone’s camera, which I had not considered before. In fact, I started to care less about what I was using and was, as a result, more at ease shooting only when I felt that it was necessary. It mattered less what I was recording on or how. I just needed to record in the right moment, and not to try and venture an instant understanding. The imposition of any script was thus crushed. And so I entered “the zone”. My most overriding aim was to produce good work and not to be preoccupied with a “positive” or “negative” image of California with the result – I hope – that this work is homage free. Its place is loosely under the umbrella of travel photography, but is also more of a diaristic leaning within a docu-travel genre.

California, like the United States, is a fantastic distraction. There are all of those palm trees several storeys high. But do Californian’s notice them like a new and transitory arrival? The pristine nature of the national parks was often impossible to impart photographically in the time given. Then there was the emptiness of Los Angeles, which kept us on the move: we didn’t know how to read it. Then there is the dominant presence of Latinos and Asians in a state whose entertainment industry still largely defines race in terms of white, and then black. I did make some attempt at recording this, but it was either too vague or overreaching. And the homeless? What would they get out of being photographed? I photographed one. Documentary photography is for those who live and work below a surface I could for the most part only brush off. My work from California is a rough guide, a record firstly for me and then for whoever wants to engage with it.

California caught my eye.

“... California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom.”
Don DeLillo, White Noise

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