Richard Ansett

‘Hertz Rentacar, LookOut Crest Scenic Views Gated Community, Chattanooga, Tennessee USA 2017’  © Richard Ansett and ‘Matanuska Glacier, Matanuska Valley, Alaska, July 1984’ © Joel Sternfeld (courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, NY)

In conversation with Stephen Mclaren

Why shoot projects on an American Road-Trip? Haven’t countless self-indulgent photographers taken on the road trip out for lack of better ideas on photographing America?

An invitation to travel across the US was the catalyst to explore that very idea. A journalist friend asked me if I would like to drive from Cincinnati through to Atlanta, passing through Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia to illustrate some stories. It felt like an opportunity to explore the most overworked of genres.

I have issues with the use of nostalgia in contemporary photography of which Americana is very much an example; I see it as a lazy arbiter in defining the present. The desire to frame one’s experience only through the definitions set out by others is overpowering in America, many of the cultural references are so ingrained that the source can be lost. Without vigilance it is easy to slip into the lowest common denominators of aesthetic expression that feel ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ but they are in fact only markers that aid our safe engagement with any new space and can be a block to seeing the world clearly as it is now. The first step in the pre-trip research was to engage with this vast artistic history that has defined the landscape for me. The first stop in this awareness is Edward Hopper and then perhaps Grant Wood.

To minimise the risk of my work becoming an accidental victim of any historic meme, I used David Campany’s essays from the wonderful ‘The Open Road’. The opening essay in particular sets out a concise evolving history of the road trip as a photographic genre. This research was both inspiring and intimidating as I became increasingly aware of the vastness of existing work and felt the path I could take to create anything that could contribute narrowing.

Did you travel from the UK with any specific imagery in mind or was your mind a blank?

I had found Campany’s essay so daunting that I made the decision to not overthink how I would respond. My experience of myself is that I am most driven to create on arrival in any new landscape. The result of over-planning can result in (what I feel is) a lack of genuineness in the final work and this genuineness is the vital component in whether a final work is ‘successful’. All the work that I consider my ‘best’ is very often evolved responding with the camera to both the specific experience in the moment and my research, (equally recording the presence of the observer as influence over any event). I am adrenalized by the fear of failure and trust that I will find a unique personal connection to or create an event as a response to that fear.

Although there is a continual vigilance for the source of my emotional response in any given moment, most of this complex analysis is only realised in hindsight. It feels paradoxical but to respond instinctively in any moment requires a huge amount of preparation in the form of personal development. I feel I can only see and work in a new way through the continual evolution of self through life experience and education.

On arrival the pressure is at its most intense to succeed and my mind is flooded with all the research that acts as a checklist of what I cannot do and the landscape I am faced with is stripped bare as I delete each cultural reference from my viewfinder.

How did your project ideas form once you had arrived and were mobile?

My first observation was to be reminded that if one strips away any romanticised notion of travel as set out by the great art and photography of the past, it is mostly utterly tedious. There are huge swathes of featureless, banal landscape, wide stretches of road for many hours and I soon make the connection that the American road trip genre is mainly defined by what occurs when one pulls over.

During the early days of the trip my memory is of stripping the landscape of all these previous references. I would see something, which had some initial aesthetic interest and quickly realise the artist or photographic reference that I am becoming confluent with and then have to discount it. I am bombarded with imagery inspired by movies, art and writing; step by step I strip these references away and then consider what is left to work with. There is a point where all cultural sources (I am aware of) has been identified and I am faced with a rather bleak objective reality of concrete and metal, I start to see compositions of chaos passing through the frame and am excited by this developing critique of the post-consumerist palette and then I realise I am channeling the work of Lee Freelander. I have progressed to a post-modern aesthetic and then despaired at the realisation that this too has been done and done again. But perhaps in knocking away the crutches that make this experience conventionally palatable and I am left with a blank canvas to build on.

I realise as I drive that it is not a competition with the great art that has gone before; these defining work are less to be feared but now as much part of my journey as the drunk journalist slumped on the back seat of my Hertz rental car. New work is possible only through the acceptance and understanding of influence and allowing myself to be positively inspired rather than in competition with it.

The self-consciousness of my lighting and composition are a dogma evolved over many years and gives me a foundation in negotiating my own unique relationship to this new landscape.

You arrived in the States during a very turbulent political period with right wing riots in the headlines. Could you sense any of that as you met people along the way?

I was conscious of America’s lurch to the right ‘obviously’ and my expectation was that the Southern States would be a hive of Trumpian resentment towards a liberal, fag, elitist such as myself. Apart from a single threat of being stabbed in the heart in Kentucky, my prejudice was unrealised.

I was entirely oblivious to the overflow of racial tensions nearby in Charlottesville, as at the time I had driven to a small town in Georgia and was immersed in a project documentation based on the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Community Remembrance Project ‘Lynching in America’. This project could not have been farther removed from the violence, anger and hate expressed in front of the world’s media nearby.

I had invited the descendants of a lynching victim to collect soil from the site of his murder for a jar that would be added to the EJI memorial planned for 2018 in Montgomery, AL. As the torches burned and facists marched, I was standing in a peaceful clearing in woodland outside of Lagrange, Georgia, a town that recently made the headlines for officially apologising to the black community for being complicit in the circumstances that led to his death. Whilst the unresolved historic attitudes still provoked such visceral conflict elsewhere, I was exposed to an attempt at healing, through a model of truth and reconciliation.

All those white picket fences must have dredged up some recollections of famous images. Did you find yourself “channelling” any famous photographers while you were working? 

There is an existential realisation cited by Herzog, that if you turn up with a camera something extraordinary will happen and this is substantiated by an almost spiritual experience of Joel Sternfeld in experiencing events so extraordinary that they seem to him to be somehow synchronistic to his needs. I have experienced something similar in my development of previous projects notably ‘Ron and Roger’ and all the work I created in Ukraine, where the perfect imagined scenarios of people, locations and events fall effortlessly, mysteriously and unfathomably into view.

In accepting influence as inevitable, my research both limits my choices but occasionally can lead to pastiche and an opportunity to celebrate William Eggleston arose when I met an old boy selling tricycles at a road junction outside Albany, KY.

Ed Ruscha imagined himself on assignment, similarly challenged to bring back something no-one else had seen. Ruscha strips away the ‘dramatic and sentimental’ (1) and in ‘Twenty Six Gasoline Stations’ the focus is on an objective reality in geographic order. I am more than excited by the courage of Ruscha to produce work so free of aesthetic reference that it is seen as baffling in 1963. He explains that there is a form of truth in the inexplicable, which I empathise with and have always tried to bring in my own approach. The difference now is the photographic element, which he regarded as “irrelevant”, is now a defined genre in its own right.

At the time of my research, this unknowingly was the key that led to my breakthrough development of the typology ‘Waffle House Index’ created hours before my flight back to the UK.

(1) The Open Road – David Campany

Road-side restaurants are an essential part of rural America’s iconography and almost demand to be photographed. Were you attracted to the Waffle Houses as a typology because they seemed quaint for a Brit who has never sampled their delights?

“No architectural form better expresses the socio-economic development of America at that time” (2) and my interest in the Waffle House is partly in the overworked tradition of the prefabricated rest stop as Warholian critique of consumerism. The metaphor is as relevant today as then and I have observed the genetic blueprint of globalised business in my travels in previous images of a Macdonalds restaurant in St Tropez and a Macdonalds flower garden kit in Ukraine (where the flowers are genetically created in the exact color of the logo). This concept alone is both mere nostalgic echo and pastiche of Ruscha but there is a further contemporary narrative acting as hidden glue that transcends any of the lazy cliché on show.

The Waffle House Index is an informal device used to determine the effect of a storm and the likely scale of assistance required for disaster recovery by

FEMA is an agency of the United States Department of Homeland created for the primary purpose of coordinating the response to a natural disaster.

FEMA uses the operating conditions of this resilient southern restaurant chain as a barometer for how well an area will recover from a hurricane, tornado or other hazard.

The Waffle House USP is that it is open 24/7, the menus are identical as are the prefabricated brightly coloured yellow, red buildings. The compact spread of restaurant locations across the southern states (sometimes literally only a mile from each other) offers a relatively accurate barometer of the destructive power of any major natural event by recording the effect the storm has on the structure, opening times and menu available.

“If a Waffle House is closed because there’s a disaster, it’s bad. We call it red. If they’re open but have a limited menu, that’s yellow, if they’re green, we’re good, keep going”. – FEMA

This narrative implicitly lends itself to an inevitable typology and all outlets were recorded within the space of 2 hours and within a few miles of each other. This project as an epiphany literally hours before my flight home perfectly represented the contemporary view of the American Roadtrip genre acknowledging the great work that has gone before.

(2) David Campany  – The Open Road / Ed Ruscha’s ‘Twenty Six Gasoline Stations’

I see your trip started in the mid-west where the locals are well-known for being hospitable and polite to strangers. Did you meet and photograph anyone who enjoyed your approach?

Passing through these states I engaged with many people selling junk on the roadside, I had little interest in this as narrative per se but I used it as an excuse to approach and explore their lives in a way that would have been impossible otherwise. Mostly people were welcoming and fascinated; I often remind myself that a subject is as interested in me as I am in them and this is especially true when travelling in a country that is not our own. I photographed the teenager ‘Briana’ with her kitten and the camera records her innocence and how important it is for her to be seen. I look at this as a meeting of two very different worlds and the space between Briana and me reminds me of what life can do to us in the journey to adulthood.

When you looked into this history of lynching in the South were you concerned about you being a white Englishman getting involved in a troubling racial legacy?

In tackling such a huge subject with such historic roots it would be deeply naive to consider myself worthy of representing the subject. Somethings feel so visceral that perhaps an outsider has no right to comment but we do perhaps have the right to ‘observe’ and an outside eye may sometimes offer a new or alternative perspective that may throw new light. Although my adopted psychology brings a certain detachment, even I cannot escape the subconscious investment in anything I do, of being ‘white’.

Regardless of these arguments, my interest is not to represent a conventional exploration of the history of Lynching in America and certainly not from a black perspective. I was drawn to the Equal Justice Initiative’s remarkable Community Remembrance Project as an opportunity to explore the different legacies of damage on everyone. As ‘whites’ we must consider the possibility of a form of emotional retardation from something akin to inherited bystander guilt. I am exploring ideas in my broader practice of the effect on our persona of previously unchallenged events where the source of anxiety from our generational past has been lost. The EJI’s soil collection project is shining a light on a previously ignored horrific time in American history in a process similar to the truth and reconciliation in South Africa that could lead to change in acknowledging a shared damage.

The word recidivism comes to mind in the sense that there are inherent and inherited cultural behaviors associated with identities that are inevitably shaped by past events. These are the crutches that assist in our engagement with reality but are equally responsible for conflict; they are not natural or set in stone, they are continually evolving and shifting and can change.

Tell me about the soil pictures, what was going through your mind when you took those?

The sequence of soil images was taken at the Equal Justice Initiative offices in Montgomery, AL. where the jars from the community remembrance project ‘Lynching in America’ are being temporarily stored. I had access to this room during my initial research and discussions with the EJI and I photographed the different textures and colors of earth at that time. Each soil has the name of the victim with the date and location associated to it as a caption and I feel broadens the thought process from the intimate moment in the woods to a bigger picture and the horror of mass killings.

I am at the same time exploring the connection of place and identity, I am interested in the notion of ‘Heimat’ most infamously appropriated by the Nazi’s. Recently the phrase best associated with it echoed in the chants of the mob in the streets of Charlottesville “blood and soil”. But Heimat (like any cultural mis-appropriation for political purposes) has been corrupted from its original meaning as a valid and decent notion of belonging. It is however a basic right of all of us to feel self-assured in our connection to our homeland and it is in stark contrast to any sense of social alienation. Blood and soil; I feel the relatives of Austin Callaway have a literal right to that concept.

The soil itself as an image and the descents’ interaction with the soil represents a form of political and personal reclamation.