American Landscapes

Written by Troy Patterson - 27 Februry 2018

The New Yorker's Troy Patterson embarks on a journey through the American suburban landscape

Photographing Charleston, South Carolina, and its environs, James Harvey-Kelly produces a study of ease and order in American suburbia. There is an air of careful idealisation to the portfolio. The visual noise of suburban sprawl is reduced to the happy clamour of a used-car lot, for instance, and signs of both the city’s siege in the American Revolution and its role in the eruption of the American Civil War remain out of frame. And yet this is not a simple indulgent fantasy of Americana. Though the viewer is sure to detect a certain nostalgia in its eye for the everyday grandeur of architecture and for the art of folksy mailboxes alike, it is a nostalgia in the service of a contemporary vision. In one image, a proud Colonial house, its front columns solid with solemn dignity, stands under a sky intersected by black overhead wires and white vapor trails. The scene, capturing an unmistakable sense of place in an understated way, conveys a lovely weight of local humidity.

Human faces are few and far between in these photographs, and this shortage of portraiture somehow makes the portfolio feel more personal. The choice makes the pictures feel more universal—but in a way that heightens the specific personality of the locale. The facelessness intensifies the intimacy such that a photograph of an unoccupied rocking chair under a portico invites you, the viewer, to sit for a spell. In much the same way, Harvey-Kelly’s mealtime still lifes satisfy an idea of hospitality. Consider a cup of coffee in a chrome-lined diner, steaming with emotional warmth. Drink in the image of a tall glass of iced tea; radiant with daylight, it seems at once to stimulate and to quench the viewer’s thirst.

A striking number of these images celebrate the space of the country and engage with tropes of daily travel, themes of spatial freedom, and the myth of leaving home to hit the open road. The images assemble a fleet of vehicles including bright cruiser bikes, purposeful passenger cars, pretty pick-up trucks, unpretentious watercraft, and a church bus left idle so long that the lawn on which it is parked, otherwise immaculately tidy, has grown up through the rim of a rear wheel to sprout through its hubcaps. The ladders stowed on stout trucks crossing an elegant bridge make a visual rhyme with the bridge towers and suspension cables; things move upward and onward. Elsewhere, the photographer trains an eye on country roads as they snake out of view, on rail tracks as they stretch to the horizon, on a street sign marking a thoroughfare named Liberty Street.

Liberty Street! As a Briton, Harvey-Kelly approaches America with an outsider’s eye for its Americanness. He shoots a baseball diamond, with the rich dirt on its infield and grand tree shading its wooden bleachers, as an open-air temple of leisure. He treats the U.S. flag—a starry emblem of ideals rippling on a nautical flagpole at a gentle sunset—with a mixture of respect and fascination. The images add up to a work of fond archaeology.