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I was researching a Raymond Chandler quote about Los Angeles on the internet (to the extent that running Google and clicking on various links qualifies as that), when I came across a page entitled The 10 Sickest Burns About Los Angeles. This had me learn a couple of things. First, the Chandler quote I had been looking for exists in such a large variety of versions online that it really is more of an idea than an actual quote. One of the variants might be the original (maybe the one quoted in the piece: A big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.”).

The second thing I learned is that a large variety of truly gifted artists have already expressed their disdain of Los Angeles in beautiful ways. My own feelings are quite close to John Lennon’s, thinking of Los Angeles as essentially “a big parking lot.” Thing is, I couldn’t care less about cars, and I’m really not fond of driving. So a place that is centered on just that, driving, can’t be very high on my list of places I’d like to go to.

Gregory Halpern photographed ZZYZX in and around Los Angeles. I had a bit of an inkling of that looking at the pictures, until a brief text at the end confirmed it. I’m not sure this matters much, to me anyway. While the photographs do look and especially feel Southern Californian, their essence isn’t necessarily that. Every photograph per se is a visual description of something first. But especially when assembled together in book form, good photographs can easily become a lot more: their descriptiveness falls away, to open up a new space to be explored. So let’s forget about Los Angeles.

(As an aside, I don’t know why that new space here had to be entitled ZZYZX. I’m not smart enough to figure this out. I’m too busy looking at and enjoying the pictures. Still, do things always have to be so damn clever, especially in the house of MACK? As much as I enjoy the books produced by this particular publisher, I often find myself being driven to the point of exasperation by the attempts at showcasing someone’s visual and conceptual wit. In this case, it’s the title. And if you read the following, maybe you’ll agree that a different title — and a less abstract cover — might have been a good idea.)

The photographs are sequenced as going from the desert to the sea, and there indeed there is a trek present in the book. That trek has people who have nowhere to go trying to get somewhere regardless. It’s not the sea that’s preventing them from getting anywhere, it’s simply that the world simply doesn’t provide any opportunities to do it. The Pacific Ocean for sure provided the natural border for how far the big American trek out West would be able to go. But this is not the 1800’s any longer, and it’s not about the physical trek, the move out West in search of opportunities. The land has been fully explored, and whatever opportunities there once were, they now appear to have disappeared.

The other day, I came across an article asking Where is today’s Dorothea Lange? Well, here she is, albeit in an obviously very different form, employing very different means. I’m not sure what Halpern would make of this comparison. Undoubtedly, I’m reading a lot into the work.

But still, where Lange photographed many of those suffering from a lack of opportunities, people aged prematurely to look a lot older, trekking out West, Halpern puts their contemporaries who already are there into his pictures. That West, Halpern’s West, is devoid of opportunities. While not being without beauty, it’s a relentless place, a brutal place. Even a blue tarp stretched over what might be a construction site looks like a grimacing monster as the light shines through four holes that happen to be in just the right place.

So there’s that brutality, the depriving of people of what they were (and still are) being promised. And there are the people dealing with it, in whatever ways they can. That includes a tenderness that provides a counter point to what otherwise would be just a completely depressing experience. The tenderness is included both in how many of the photographs were treated, how they were made, but also in many of the gestures on display. Even where people are depicted as being openly defiant, they cannot help but also be a bit tender, as if to say, hey, I’m not going to let this beat me down, and I’m also not going to become that mean, brutal person this place wants me to be.

Inevitably, we read things into pictures and collections of pictures based on where we are coming from, based on our ideologies and the times we find ourselves in. Who knows what you will be seeing in these pictures. Then again, this book is being published at a specific time, a time that is presenting us with a flurry of challenges. How will we react to them? What will we say when in the future, we are being asked about this particular point in time?

However metaphorical you might want to treat ZZYZX, it is not just a book of pretty pictures. It does have a specificity to it that builds as you make your way from its beginning to its end, a specificity that grows with each repeated viewing. This is a book dealing with our times, with our predicament.

I believe that for art to mean anything, there has to be something at stake both for those who make art and for those who engage with it. In both cases, there always is a choice, though: am I going to face what might make me uncomfortable? Halpern made his decision, and now the onus is on us, the viewers. Are we willing to face and deal with this view of the world, of our world? Are we then willing to maybe do something about it?

Do we want to live in a world devoid of opportunities, being fed empty promises left and right, while trying to remain as human as possible? Or do we want to aspire to something more?

Really, the choice is ours.

ZZYZX; photographs by Gregory Halpern; 128 pages; MACK; 2016

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.2

Update (24 Aug 2016): In my original version of this review, I had the title wrong, ZZYXZ instead of ZZYZX.

Ratings explained here.