Michael Ormerod as critical regionalist

‘Drugs’ © Michael Ormerod

Some time ago I wrote a long (unpublished) essay on the work of Michael Ormerod for a number of exhibitions of his work in the UK and one in Omaha, Nebraska. I write about him in my book The Rhizomatic West (2008) alongside Nick Waplington and Andrew Cross as UK photographers whose works investigate and interrogate the American West.  Certainly in my earliest essays on Michael’s work I had no sense of critical regionalism as a method or approach to the kinds of interests his work articulates.  With hindsight it works very well to explore the local/global, rural/urban, inside/outside.  Some of this comes out in the 2008 book. But I publish here the raw original essay – full of ‘leaks’ and lines of flight.  One day I’d like to return to the artist and do something with all this.  For now I offer it as a tribute to Ormerod’s immense achievement as a photographer. 




  see http://www.milim.com/gallery.php

The freedom of conversation is being lost … It is as if one were trapped in a theatre and had to follow the events on the stage whether one wanted to or not, had to make them again and again, willingly or unwillingly, the subject of one’s thought and speech’ (Benjamin 1997:57)

‘It was so good travelling with Michael because he’d look at everything a different way.’ (Anne Stolworthy Interview 1998)

‘The place is palimpsest’  (De Certeau 1988:202)

Endings / Beginnings

This essay will examine the photographic works of Michael Ormerod (1947-1991) whose career was cut tragically short on August 7th 1991 on his last field trip to the USA where he was making pictures for his planned first book that he had toyed with calling States of America.  In a cruel, ironic twist for a man whose images had returned again and again to examine the American roadscape, Ormerod was killed on a road-side in Yuma, Arizona, on Interstate 8 travelling west, when his Volkswagen van was hit from behind by a diesel three axle petroleum delivery tractor carrying 35 tons of aviation fuel.  All that survived the crash were a few rolls of exposed film, some papers, and a notebook.

 Highways, cars, trucks, death, debris, aviation, America and photography.  Ormerod’s work had been fascinated by these elements and they had been there, ironically, intertwined in his own fate.

The ‘archive’ of Ormerod’s work is held at the Millennium Picture Library in London in a series of black boxes.  Working through these hundreds of prints, contact sheets and negatives, I was reminded of Walter Benjamin’s famous unfinished ‘Arcades’ project  (Passengen-Werk), left as fragments from which others would have to construct meanings and political purpose.  Benjamin died early at 48 by his own hand, leaving note-boxes full of jottings, essays, images, quotations – a ‘nonauthoritarian system of inheritance’ with no single line of thought, but rather like fairy-tales that ‘instruct without dominating’, inviting the reader to enter into the maze of possibility that he had placed before them (Buck-Morss 1993:336-7).  Michael Ormerod was no Walter Benjamin, but as I looked through the visual history contained in those boxes, I found myself within an uncertain dialogical relationship with the images I saw stretching across twenty years of a photographic life lived in contact with an ever-complex and changing world.  Benjamin wrote that the ‘wisest thing … is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits’ (Benjamin 1992:101) and there is no doubt that Ormerod’s vision was equally astute in its critical but un-cynical approach to the ‘myths’ that shaped the world he experienced.  Bringing into focus – literally through the photograph – the past, in its relevant relationships to the present (as in Benjamin), is uppermost in Ormerod’s work, and to do so with a keen eye for everything that exists, for the ‘everyday’ and the forgotten.  In words as true for Ormerod, Benjamin wrote, ‘What for others are deviations are, for me, the data which determine my course. – On the differential of time (which, for others, disturb the main lines of enquiry), I base my reckoning’ (ibid.:456).  In looking outside the ‘main lines’, following the ‘deviations’, Ormerod too rejected neat, continuous, linear history and the all-encompassing meta-narrative that spoke of inevitable ‘progress’ and observed instead discontinuities which he found in marginal spaces, ‘The places where tradition breaks off – hence its peaks and crags, which offer footing to one who would cross over them’ (Benjamin 1999:474).  For Ormerod these ‘places’ were American, for there he found a rich visual culture whose history was an elaborate interweaving of tradition, myth and oppression inscribed upon its social landscape.

The work he had completed up until 1991 forms a fascinating insight into a British photographer with very strong ties to specific European traditions such as those of Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Tony Ray-Jones, as well as to places like his adopted home in the beautiful hillside village of Alton, Staffordshire. Yet his major work endlessly probes American social landscape, popular culture, vernacular space, community rituals and people. In these powerful photographs of America, Ormerod’s work echoes and comments upon generations of other photographers who have made similar journeys into the landscapes of the USA, as immigrants and travellers, as well as native commentators – John Gutmann, Robert Frank, Wim Wenders, Walker Evans, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld[1]. Books in Ormerod’s collection included works by Stieglitz, Harry Callahan, Don McCullin, Ansel Adams (1978 San Francisco Portfolios), Frank Jay Haynes (inscribed ‘Helena, 1989’), Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Lewis Hine, Carleton Watkins, Fay Godwin, Robert Frank (a gift from his brother David in Boston, with locations noted and ticked off on a separate list), and Lewis Baltz’ Park City.  This essay will explore these multiple dimensions of Michael Ormerod’s work, both as a fine developing photographer in his own right, and as a ‘prism’ through which to articulate the complex ‘transatlantic’ relations between Europe and America, tracing the lines of influence and exchange between and across these rich territories.  The idea I will pursue in particular is that there is a highly productive dialogue created from these complex, contested relationships evidenced in the kind of pictures Ormerod made, through which both cultures are illuminated and commented upon.

Jean Baudrillard wrote in America (1986) that ‘the whole country is cinematic’ and he develops this idea in a number of ways to suit his particular arguments about simulation and postmodernity (Baudrillard 1991:56).  Although Ormerod’s work does not cohere with Baudrillard’s vision of America entirely, they do share a sense that to begin to comprehend the place one has to grapple with its representations as a ‘mediascape’ as much as a landscape.  For example, according to Baudrillard, to understand Monument Valley is to recognize its ‘geology’, its Indian history and the films of John Ford, since ‘[a]ll three are mingled in the vision we have of it’ (ibid.:70).  This multiple mapping of place is something embedded in Ormerod’s photography as he uses the limits of the frame to juxtapose visions of past and present, old and new, familiar and unfamiliar and other apparently oppositional forms.  Layers create a complex, evocative visualization of history represented in his intertextual images that echo with an eerily familiar America whilst jarring us into a second or third look, a re-vision (or re-stating) emerging between and within the image’s apparent surface. Baudrillard writes ‘I was here in my imagination long before I actually came here’ (ibid.:72) and as we look at Ormerod’s work one is struck by a similar sensation of dreamy recognition.  But this moment is followed by another sensation in which the imagined place is scrutinized and the dreaming interrupted by an awakening sense of other, more complex forces at work.  If Ormerod’s work is in any way ‘cinematic’, then what we have are akin to film ‘stills’ fragmented out of the flow of the total movie and offered to us with ‘additions’ acting as visual interruptions to challenge any comfortable notion of completion and closure (see Barthes 1993:55).  Take for example his photograph of a ‘Car in Levee – Road to Grand Isle, Louisiana, 1987’ (States of America p. 47) which despite its immediate filmic quality – a road at twilight, open space and an abandoned car – lacks a sense of drama, as if we are waiting for something to happen as the lights of another car approach.  The image suspends time, stops the film, if you like, and requires us to speculate and as we do, its contradictions emerge; the ordered lines of the picture (road, telephone poles, grass verges, levee) all cohere into the horizon and are at odds with the abandoned car whose open bonnet becomes a surreal technological beast growling at the on-coming ‘living’ car.  Nature and technology, order and disorder interweave across this ‘still’ image and although, of course, it remains a single photograph, its effect can be multiple and provocative, demanding the viewer to become engaged, in some way, with its elements.  In a ‘cinematic’ country like America where, as Roland Barthes put it, ‘everything is transformed into images’ (Barthes 1993:118), the photographer has to find ways to both show us this tendency and engage with it creatively and critically.  This dialogue is central to Michael Ormerod’s American work and yet emerges from his ‘still’ images in a way that once again relates back to Jean Baudrillard who once wrote that the ‘photographic image’ was ‘dramatic by virtue of its silence … of its immobility … intense immobility’ (Baudrillard 1997 :155).

Dialectic/Dialogic Images

It is the spirit of Walter Benjamin once again that helps at this point, for like Ormerod, he was fascinated by the wondrous surfaces of modernity that he located in nineteenth century Paris with its ‘phantasmagoria’ of commodification, its mythic, dream-like assertion of presence and unquestioned ‘progress’ built on a careful selectiveness about its past and a particular definition of ‘history’.  Benjamin writes of Paris as a dream-world of modernity in which utopian, positive human desires and energies have become buried under the glossy surface of the city and its immense consumer-driven, intoxicating culture that encourages a kind of collective ‘forgetting’, a living for the moment and a loss of historical perspective and context.  The ‘dream’, which can be a positive expression of human initiative and achievement, has been detached from the struggle and the work that gave it its impetus and meaning and superceded by a kind of magical enchantment in which modernity presents itself as constantly new, progressive and exciting – ‘a twilight zone of dream and myth’ (Buck-Morss 1993:220-1).  Benjamin argues, however, that modernity is, in truth, ‘always-the-same’ merely repeating and dressing up what has already been.  It is ‘myth’ which ‘dresses up’, screens and obscures any positive elements and relegates them to a minor, background role below the attractive, alluring surface.  Benjamin recognized his own response to modernity as a mixed one, an ‘unresolved tension’ (Gilloch 1998:2) between love and loathing, attraction and repulsion and sought to use this as a source for his critical writing.  Rather than ignore the duality of his feelings he made them the locus of his methodology as he sought to understand the paradoxical relationship with modernity that he saw both in himself and in the wider world. Ormerod felt similarly about America whose showy, dream-like surfaces have much in common with the ‘phantasmagoria’ of Benjamin’s Paris.  Both men shared what Gilloch terms an ‘ambivalent vision’ (ibid.:5) and their work attempts to articulate and explore aspects of this ambivalence.  The myths of America, central of which is its own deep-seated belief in the American Dream, form an elemental attraction for Ormerod, as for so many Europeans, a positive short-hand for the strength of character he admired in its resilient working people, and yet, like Benjamin, he could see that the values of the Dream had been usurped as slogans for a shallower world of consumerism, advertising and political manipulation.  A once useful mythic sensibility with its roots in a genuine history of achievement, struggle and utopianism had been corrupted and distorted for other purposes in which history had become falsified, mythicised and ‘hollowed out’.  Benjamin felt that when dreaming had taken this mythic form it was as if people were drugged and asleep and needed to be awoken from their slumbers and able to know what they were and what they could still become.  Awakening, therefore, becomes for Benjamin one of the central functions of his writing; awakening the dozing people from their reified, commodified, alienated existence, their unquestioning belief in progress and their comforting blanket of myth.  This critical awakening could take many different forms, but always at the heart of his thinking, was his recognition of the radical potential of the visual, and of photography in particular which had the capacity to literally focus attention upon a singularly complex image within which moved powerful, contradictory, dialectical forces. Benjamin’s ‘dialectics of seeing’, as Susan Buck-Morss has termed it, has a particular relationship to Ormerod’s photography which, in its own way, can be seen as engaging its ‘reader-viewers’ in a moment of simultaneity in which, very often, the past / present, subject / object, human / non-human, and the real and imagined are brought into view.

Benjamin’s work sought to redeem those positive aspects of the dream by retrieving and re-stating that which had been ‘lost’ or buried by mythic domination whose instinct was to place all the varied ‘voices’ of history into a ‘continuum’.  Thus the details and the over-looked, the fragments and detritus of life must be reinscribed to tell the missing stories, the marginal and excluded but highly significant elements that make up a genuine, fuller history.  As we will see later, Benjamin’s notion of ‘historical materialism’ is grounded in such lost details [materials] rediscovered and ‘blasted out of the continuum of historical succession’ (Benjamin 1999: 475) so that they become freed from their context and able to be rearranged in new and different patterns.  That which had been defined and ‘repressed’ by the smothering mythic context or unnoticed in the larger ‘frame’ of history is suddenly apparent again, back in the picture, and ready to be accounted for.  These visual metaphors are appropriate since Benjamin explained this breaking apart of historical flow / continuum by exploring a visual concept – the ‘dialectical image’.

The idea of montage interested Benjamin because it was based upon the premise of the smallest elements building into bigger ones, and therefore, under-pinned the possibility of the creative reconstruction of fragments (see Benjamin 1999:461). It also resisted ‘the reifying constraints of linear system-building’ by allowing impressionistic, metaphorical processes of making meaning, whilst its diversity and heterogeneity were a direct critique of ‘premature synthesis’ (Roberts 1998:33).  Montage implies freer associations of ideas, inter-relationships born out of contact and encounter governed by no single, authorizing voice, but created in the act of reading.  From the ‘refuse of history’ (ibid.) Benjamin wanted to retrieve and rearrange what already existed but was lost into a radical, new form of history, and for him, the most powerful means to achieve this was through the ‘dialectical image’. 

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.  In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill (ibid.:462). 

In the simultaneity of the image as it freezes within the frame the various elements that make up its whole, Benjamin saw all the forces that went to make that moment at a ‘standstill’.  In this, nothing is lost to history, all the layers can be traced in the ‘montage’, created within the image with the viewer included in the process of reading and in the production of meaning.  Montage insists upon active ‘reading’ and therefore that interpretation is a political act in which synthesis, that is the bringing together of thesis and anti-thesis into a ‘third’ element, may not be an outcome (Roberts 1998:33).

A photographic image can function in precisely this manner, as I believe Michael Ormerod’s do, bringing together moments broken away from the mythical flow of the American ‘story’, revealing the past and the present, frozen before us in all their complex layerings and juxtapositions so that we might participate in the creation of some ‘new’ meaning.  As Gilloch explains, echoing John Roberts’ notion of photography as the ‘art of interruption’, ‘the dialectical image is a pause, a moment of interruption and illumination, in which past and present recognize each other across the void that separates them’ (Gilloch 1998:113), like a flash of lightning that seems to hold for a second as it lights up the sky and then is gone.  The flash (again, a photographic image is very appropriate) must be preserved for it allows us to see both ‘[w]hat has been’ and the ‘now’ in the single moment (Benjamin 1999:473).  Simultaneity, collisions of past and present, montage, fragmentation and freeze frames are all terms relevant to the way Ormerod’s photography works upon its audience, sharing with Benjamin the emphatic belief in the power of the image as a ‘point of intersection’ and encounter in which the past returns dialectically into the present,  ‘the moment in which the forgotten is remembered’ (Gilloch 1998:114).  Gilloch’s description of Benjamin’s dialectical image is central to his redemption of loss and his desire to reclaim history from its mythic domination whilst salvaging ‘utopian impulses and stunted aspirations of dead generations, of the traces of those whom “historicism” has consigned to silence … to give voice to that which has gone unsaid and … to allow others to speak’ (ibid.:114-5).  These ‘voices’ can find expression through visual presence as their lives and actions are represented within the photographic image, recorded as active in the drama of the everyday, as part of the detail that constructs the larger world, stepping out from the cultural amnesia of official history.

Michael Ormerod’s photographs are ‘points of intersection’ literally and metaphorically and share much of the intent of Benjamin’s ‘dialectical image’, but the Marxist notion of dialectics with its determination to unravel the contradictions of capitalism and provide a device to express a redemptive vision of humanity, may diverge from the concept of ‘synthesis’ as the precise goal. Buck-Morss explains this by claiming that Benjamin

charts philosophical ideas visually within an unreconciled and transitory field of oppositions that can perhaps best be pictured in terms of coordinates of contradictory terms, the “synthesis” of which is not a movement toward resolution, but a point at which their axes intersect (Buck-Morss 1993:210 – my emphasis). 

This re-definition of Benjamin’s concept brings it much closer to the dialogical as opposed to the dialectical, emphasizing as it does the ‘unreconciled’ on-going nature of the image.  Benjamin writes of the ‘force field in which the confrontation between its fore-history and after-history is played out’ (Benjamin 1999:470) as a space of  interpenetration and creative tension, sounding just like Bakhtin’s definition of discourse as a ‘dialogically agitated  and tension-filled environment … [that] weaves in and out of complex relationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group’ (Bakhtin 1990a:276). Fundamental to Bakhtin’s work, and I would suggests, to Ormerod’s, is this concept of ‘dialogue’ which unlike the idea of dialectics, ‘insists on differences that cannot be overcome: separateness and simultaneity are basic conditions of existence’, with no single meaning being striven for since ‘the world is a vast congeries of contesting meanings, a heteroglossia so varied that no single term capable of unifying its diversifying energies is possible’ (Holquist 1991: 20, 24). Julia Kristeva helps to understand Bakhtin’s approach, and in so doing, explains the difference between dialectic and dialogic:

The notion of dialogism, that owes much to Hegel, must not be confused with Hegelian dialectics, based on a triad and thus on struggle and projection (a movement of transcendence) … Dialogism replaces these concepts by absorbing them within the concept of relation.   It does not strive towards transcendence but rather toward harmony, all the while implying an idea of rupture (of opposition and analogy) as a modality of transformation (Kristeva 1980:88 – my emphasis).

Kristeva’s rejection of ‘synthesis’ in Bakhtin is replaced by his awareness of ‘relation’ and ‘rupture’ as an unfinished process, a ‘system of intersecting planes … a living mix of varied and opposing voices … developing and renewing itself’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 49). It is this re-definition that allows Benjamin and Bakhtin’s work to be inter-related and used to interpret contemporary photographic practice in the images of Michael Ormerod.

Dialogical Photography

Outline the notion of dialogics/photography  (see Frank stuff and original essay)


John Roberts, who wrote an essay for Ormerod’s States of America, comments in his The Art of Interruption (1998) on dialogism in photographic practice, debating with Steve Edwards’ ‘The Machine Dialogues’ article of 1990.  Using Volosinov, a member of the Bakhtin ‘school’, Edwards begins with an important assertion:

Any true understanding is dialogic in nature, understanding is to utterance as one line of dialogue is to another.  Understanding seeks to match a speaker’s word with a counter word.  Only in trying to comprehend a foreign language do we try to match word with word (Edwards 1990:64).

 For Edwards, the studio is monologic, whilst

The flux of juxtaposition and opposition that goes on outside of the studio, on the other hand, remains recalcitrant to the photographic look.  Transitory and unpredictable, the spaces beyond the studio render the patternings of desire and power problematic; unlike the studio mannequin the subjects here answer back (Edwards 1990:64).

Using Volosinov’s theories (of the Bakhtin ‘school’) of reported speech applied to photographic interpretation or ‘reading’, he argues for ‘the sign’s reciprocal determination’, ‘active inter-relationships within discourse’ (ibid.: 63, 74) and for the ‘need to listen to the “voices” of the image’ (ibid.:75)  ‘to provide us with a way of considering the objects of the camera’s gaze as subjects’ (ibid.:74).  These arguments are taken up more recently in Joanna Lowry’s essay ‘Negotiating Power’ (Durden and Richardson 2000:15) in which she refers to Edwards’ paper and in so doing, argues that ‘Language was, in essence, the product of a collaboration, produced out of difference, always multiple and heterogeneous’, and that photography was similarly a ‘heterogeneous space in which … different voices … are intertwined’ in ‘struggles over power’ (ibid.:24).


Roland Barthes, writing on photography, argues that ‘all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a “floating chain” of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others’ (Barthes 1979:38-9).  Traditionally, as Barthes, Allan Sekula and others have argued, these ‘floating chains’ are ‘fixed’ in order to counter their potential impact and restrain their possibilities in the hands (or eyes) of the viewer/reader.  The control of meaning by fixture (or ‘anchorage’, as Barthes terms it) reduces the imaginative possibility of the image to a monologue, perhaps by claiming the picture as ‘evidence’ or ‘documentary’ or ‘high art’ or emotional ‘equivalence’, when photography is always more ambiguous and dialogical than such assumptions would suggest.  As Dick Hebdige writes, photographs are ‘on the one hand, quotations from an irrecoverable text … and on the other they are ghostly emanations from the real’ with the capacity  ‘simultaneously to disclose reality and to puncture our pretensions to know exactly what it is that’s been disclosed’ (Hebdige 1988:13).  These are the possibilities to be explored in dialogical photography, for it counters any single vision by engaging the audience with the ‘floating chains’ of meaning instead of closing these down.  Dialogical photography is ‘centrifugal’, as Bakhtin would put it (Bakhtin 1990a: 272) rather than ‘centripetal’, for it moves away from the center by the acceptance and encouragement of multiple voices: ‘overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in obscuring mist … It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents’ (ibid.:276).  The photograph read in this way is a ‘living utterance’ that will ‘brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness … [becoming] an active participant in social dialogue’ (ibid.).








Just as Bakhtin himself used writers like Dostoevsky, Rabelais and Goethe as points of departure for his interdisciplinary studies of cultural patterns and discourses, I wish to use Michael Ormerod as a prism, a term coined by Michael Holquist (in Bakhtin 1990a: xiv), through which to refract representations of the American ‘social’ landscape in the late twentieth century. By ‘social’ I mean landscapes which include human presence and, therefore, history, and are is not just concerned with a particular vision of nature devoid of culture, preserved in the myth of a pristine, Edenic wilderness that one finds in certain schools of American landscape art and photography.  As Bakhtin wrote, ‘Only the mythical Adam, who approached a virginal and as yet verbally unqualified world with the first word, could have really escaped from start to finish this dialogic inter-orientation with the alien word that occurs in the object’ (ibid.:279).  What Ormerod offers is a way of seeing the anti-Adamic world of multiple voices that construct our sense of America as a complex social landscape of real and represented dialogues over time.  Never simple truths or pure, singular visions, but often contrary encounters with the past and future, simulation and dream, tragedy and comedy recorded not with the ‘unqualified’ eye of Adam (or Adams, as in Ansel) but with an eye of the outsider, saturated by images and by the histories that had already created that landscape both visually and culturally in many other ways. 


‘The practice of outside’

Michael Ormerod, a ‘minor’ figure in the history of photography andAs an outsider, like one of his heroes Robert Frank, Ormerod brought a particular eye to the American landscape, and in so doing recorded a powerful dialogic encounter:

In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful factor in understanding. It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly (but not maximally fully, because there will be cultures that see and understand even more). A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures … Such a dialogic encounter of two cultures does not result in merging or mixing. Each retains its own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched  (Bakhtin 1986: 7 – my italics)[2].

Ormerod’s work is about encounter and contact, about a dialogue with and within America, but not in the univocal or limited perspective of some photographers like Ansel Adams whose work maintained certain mythic visions of wilderness and uninhabited landscapes. Instead, Ormerod rejecteds the notion of epic distance and sacredness embedded in Adams and preferreds more contradictory and problematic representations of  ‘lived’ spaces with all the complex relations that this involves.  Rather than shy away from the banal and ugly in an attempt to promote a view of the persistent beauty of the sublime wilderness, Ormerod has learned from the likes of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and the New Topographics that these are part of the totality to be represented and acknowledged. The version of landscape that derives from Ansel Adams, with its emphasis upon distance, grandeur, and the absence of humanity, is not a view that Ormerod favours in his work. People live, work, love and die as part of the environment, constructing it and relating with it in a whole series of complex, multi-faceted ways.  Ormerod’s work aligns itself with other representations of America drawn from a more diverse and dialogical tradition whose pictures are referred to and echoed throughout the States of America (1993) collection.


As Bakhtin stated above,


He was very aware of that … of man and his effect on the environment … There’s a lot more social issues in there as well, like the effects of the people … in these towns … human miseries  (Stolworthy 1998).


‘Just like a hint of something’

‘There’s a lot more in his photographs than you see at first, there’s a lot of humour in them’



Michael liked poking around in the rubbish that was left behind as well. He went through a stage of taking lots of photos of matted up and decomposing stuff, but not for environmental reasons … but saying, this is what people left behind, somebody has been here, that this is their life … somebody’s life … Michael would always have to poke around in a skip and find something he wanted

(Stolworthy 1998).


The influence of Geoff Weston at the time on Ormerod’s work.  Weston was photographing vomit on the streets of Newcastle, for the exhibition Bad Taste (1993) early on Sunday mornings, and Ormerod ‘started to look at poking around in rubbish and then started rearranging it…’.


‘He loved junk shops and everything people discarded …’


Wim Wenders … ‘yes, Michael liked him’


Animal images – preserving – stuffed animals, dinosaurs, elephants and ‘quite a few dogs crop up in his pictures’


‘He liked the artist Edward Hopper’s work too … scenes through a café window … and petrol stations, he loved his work …’



Reading Garry Wills’ Reagan’s America



central to the dialogical tradition is being both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ the culture you are studying since: ‘Creative understanding does not renounce itself, its own place in time, its own culture: and it forgets nothing’ (Bakhtin 1990b:7).  However, to be ‘located outside the object of his or her creative understanding’ (ibid.) and to still ‘forget nothing’ of one’s own culture is Bakhtin’s primary critical position. As an Englishman and a traveler within the USA rather than resident, Ormerod’s work conforms to this critical stance of ‘creative understanding’ which according to Bakhtin ‘raise[s] new questions for a foreign culture, ones that it did not raise itself’, and through our contact with these issues, ‘we seek answers to our own questions in it; and the foreign culture responds to us by revealing to us new aspects and new semantic depths’ (ibid.).  The parameters of dialogic encounter as explained here show Ormerod’s relationship to America as a man exploring a ‘foreign culture’ and his own identity in a prolonged search for  ‘new aspects and … depths’ entwined in both.

Ormerod’s America is more often than not seen from ‘outside’, even when he is physically within; from its edges, geographically and socially, from small-towns, half-built housing projects, roadsides, highway intersections and parking lots.  We look across, through and over scenes as he draws together in a single frame, unlikely and unexpected combinations of relations, objects and people.  The mixture of disgusted fascination, love and hate, hope and loss all mingle in the juxtapositional marginal spaces of the images.  Bell hooks writing as a black woman understands the perspective of ‘outside’:

We looked both from the outside in and from the inside out.  We focused our attention on the center as well as on the margin.  We understood both.  This mode of seeing reminded us of the existence of a whole universe, a main body made up of both margin and center (hooks 1990:149).

Although, as a black woman hooks’ experience is very different from Ormerod’s in so many ways, her emphasis upon the ‘mode of seeing’ is relevant, directing us towards the outside eye’s unique capacity to see both ways, from the margin.  She adds that this margin is a ‘site of radical possibility, a space of resistance’ (ibid.), but a space to be entered in order to ‘tell stories and unfold histories’ – ‘Enter that space. Let us meet there.  Enter that space’, she writes (ibid.:152).  Working through the marginal and the forgotten, hooks argues, one can re-engage in a dialogue with others who would conventionally ignore and oppress you and be blind to the world you inhabit.  The photographer too can work this space as a space of ‘meeting’ and encounter whereby the visual moment, the flat plane of the image itself, opens up a complex mixing of hitherto forgotten or marginalized perspectives to the viewer – ‘Enter that space.  Let us meet there’.  Robin Blaser, writing of the poet Jack Spicer identifies what he terms ‘the practice of outside’ in which ‘an other than the reasonable is said to enter the real’ to ‘disturb[ ] our settled relation to language [or image]’, introducing ‘some path that you’ve never seen on a map before …’ (Blaser 1975: 276, 278).  These different ‘practices of outside’ can be seen operating within Ormerod’s photography of ‘creative understanding’ as he grapples with an America that he feels both a part of and separated from.

One brief example might show how this is central to Ormerod’s work. In his image of an Albuquerque planning board (States, p. 49) Ormerod suggests ‘some path you’ve never seen on a map before’ through engaging the viewer in a picture about representation.  As we view this frame, there is no single, ‘readable’ text, but a multiplicity of layers that intersect to represent America as a series of constructions, a montage from which we, the viewer, must create meaning. Because any photograph or collection of photographs can only ever be fragmentary and incomplete, Ormerod used his work to comment both on the art of photography, and, I would suggest, the nature of the environment itself. There is no single, unified version of the American West here, but instead an uneasy collage of fragments and representations that together interact dialogically in a variety of ‘languages’ or ‘voices’ to suggest his new ‘map’. Here it is a ‘found’ display board in Albuquerque, New Mexico in which varied voices combine to portray ‘landscape’ (a key word visible in the photograph): words and images, photographs and drawings, plans and geological sketches, human and non-human presence. This clearly breaks with the normalized view of mapping in which ‘the basic rule of legibility is that all symbols should be identifiable without any strain or ambiguity wherever they occur, in order to respond to a map symbol, the user perceiving the map image must be able to identify each symbol easily’ (Keates 1973:67 – my emphasis). The photographs within the photograph are images of the road, points of entry and departure, motion contained within the staticity of Ormerod’s ‘final’, but unfinished, image itself, all of which counter the tradition of maps without ambiguity.  For the overall effect of the photograph is incompleteness – a space full of edges (it is one of the words one can clearly read in the photograph) – a spilling out in all directions without conclusion – suggesting, more accurately than a conventional map, the complex environments of the West.  The touches of irony emerging through the juxtapositions and the uncertainty in the viewers’ response to something so indeterminate, all combine to add to the photograph’s power to suggest. In fact, the very problems presented in the ‘reading’ of this photograph are indicative of Ormerod’s position in relation to environment; it cannot be ‘summed up’ or totalized and, therefore, presented as some raw ‘truth’ but as ‘consumers’ of the land, we have a role in its creation and definition – from outside and inside the landscape, if you like. Both in form and content, this image represents the complex, contradictory simultaneities of the environment as a heteroglossic space.

When Bakhtin defines heteroglossia he insists upon the ‘interaction and interanimation of languages’ as a key marker of its function, and goes on to write that

Languages of heteroglossia, like mirrors that face each other, each reflecting in its own way a piece, a tiny corner of the world, force us to guess at and grasp for a world behind their mutually reflecting aspects that is broader, more multi-leveled, containing more and varied horizons than would be available to a single language or a single mirror (Bakhtin 1990: 414-5).

Surely the re-mapping that Ormerod’s photographs achieve is precisely about breaking away from the mythic, ‘single language’ (monoglossia) and providing instead a multiple, real and imagined cartography that can often be best appreciated from the outside looking in.

Ormerod’s ‘practice of outside’ suited his decidedly mixed sense of America, as his friend Geoff Weston testifies: ‘I think Michael, like most of us, definitely had a love-hate relationship with America.  On the one hand he found it pretty seductive and on the other he found it almost gross in its indulgences and I think some of that is fairly evident in the work’ (Weston 2001).  Like Benjamin’s Paris, Ormerod wanted to study and photograph his own ‘dream-world’ of America in much the same way as an earlier traveler to the USA, Robert Frank, arriving there after the second world war, was equally torn in his views, writing in his Guggenheim application of his desire to photograph ‘what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere’ (Tucker 1986).  What would later become known as the ‘spectre of Americanisation’ (Hebdige 1988:52) was a common response to the fear and fascination of the shiny barbarism of the brash USA selling itself to the world as super-power and market-leader.  Richard Hoggart, writing in 1957, commented on the British ‘juke-box boys’ whose ‘clothes, their hair-styles, their facial expressions all indicate are living to a large extent in a myth-world compounded of a few simple elements which they take to be those of American life’ (Hoggart 1957:248).  For Hoggart, it is clearly America that creates this ‘hedonistic but passive barbarian who rides in a fifty-horsepower bus for threepence, to see a five-million-dollar film for one-and eightpence’, and who is not simply a social oddity; he is a portent’ (ibid.:250) of the growing, dangerous influence of America in the world.  Popular culture in all its forms appeared to be American in this post-war world – the world that Michael Ormerod grew up in too and for many posed a threat to ‘authentic’ and traditional British cultural forms.

Spectacular subcultures, commercial popular culture, America, the triumph of record and television: by the 1960s they were all uniting to announce the death of an aesthetics based on the stable referents of the ‘authentic’, and ‘unique’, the ‘irreplaceable’ (Chambers 1986:8).

For Ormerod, and others of his generation born in 1947, America’s ‘dream-world’ represented also a positive alternative to the stuffy establishment values of conservatism, rationing and repression.  With a public school education, Ormerod was destined for an upper-middle-class life in the world of commerce (his degree was in Economics), and yet his contradictory feelings always pulled him to the ‘outside’, to other perspectives, to left-wing politics, to photography and to travels in America.  Rather than a pure hatred for many American values that he found in themselves unpleasant, Ormerod entered a dialogue with the place, its people and its politics, as well as with the mythic imaginary deeply ingrained in any sense of the country.  As with all meaningful conversations and exchanges, Ormerod’s with America was an ever-shifting, complicated process of ‘give-and-take’ or ‘outside/inside’.  His photographic images convey these tensions and use them to create powerful visual explorations of America’s social landscape.

One can perhaps trace this double response in Ormerod’s work by following the example explored by Dick Hebdige (1988) of the Cadillac as ‘the embodiment in chrome of the American Dream’, stream-lined, aspirational, and democratic and yet also signifying ‘affluent workers locked into a closed circuit of production and consumption, “watching the same TV programmes and visiting the same resort places” as their employers, struggling only to purchase the products of their own alienated labour’ (Hebdige 1988:66, 67).  Dream and excess, aspiration and exploitation appear simultaneously bound up in one of Ormerod’s most repeated images – the big car of the 1950s and 1960s – still found in the small towns and the junkyards of seventies America like a ghostly presence, a double reminder of dream and loss, desire and oppression.  This dialogue between glamour and greed, consumption and excess is a thread through Ormerod’s work and reflects his own uncertain relations with the American nation and its values. The kind of society that produced the attractive, streamlined design of the Cadillac was the same one that created a ‘one dimensionality’ or monologism that Ormerod also saw as dangerous and destructive.  As Geoff Weston told me,

Michael was very left wing … he was very Socialist … Michael would meet people in the street and take them home with him – he really would – there was a kind of generosity of spirit that was genuine … it was not the individuals that he hated but the attitudes that were formed within them … he recognized that people who lived such isolated lives might end up with fairly extreme positions and I think he saw those as the worst and most limiting aspects of American culture, the kind of narrow-mindedness of it in some ways (Weston 2001  – my emphasis).

As a photographer in America, Ormerod’s work reflects these tensions in a number of different ways, and most noticeably, to return to the imagery of the car, through his attention to its presence both as icon and junk, spectacle and waste.  As Hebdige makes clear in his discussion of the rise of pop art in the 1960s, America could represent ‘a repressed, potentially fertile realm invoked against the grain’ (Hebdige 1988:128) in the work of Europeans, symbolizing transgressive, alternative energies in the face of official discourses. Pop Art utilized the commercial iconography of advertising, signs, and the everyday, unsettling established art practices by including previously marginal or excluded visual codes so that ‘[t]he reproduced object hides nothing.  It has no secrets, no ulterior meaning’ (Chambers 1986:10).  Photography could assume some of this new vision, freed to represent the everyday world as worthy of consideration, as ‘aesthetic’, as in the work of American Ed Ruscha whose images of gas stations or motels would influence the development of the New Topographics movement in the 1970s and contribute greatly to a new attentiveness to the hybrid cultural landscapes of America.

The Destruction of Aura and the Redemption of Dreams

Ormerod’s juxtaposition of elements within his images, as we have seen, has something of Walter Benjamin’s ‘dialectical image’ or Bakhtin’s notion of ‘simultaneity’ that ‘deals with ratios of same and difference in space and time’ (Holquist 1991:19).  Just as in the collagist work of much pop art – clearly influential on Ormerod’s generation – it is as if we are asked to recognize and analyse within a single photographic image the dual perception of the chrome-Dream as a rusting relic, like a Walker Evans billboard or found object, or an Atget backstreet piled high with the left-overs of an apparently affluent Paris.  The Cadillac may have stood for an aspirational classlessness in post-war American advertising, but Ormerod’s photography refutes any notion of a mythic, classless America, for his images remind us, as Frank’s do, of a diverse and divided America along lines of race and economics, region, gender and ethnicity. The ‘fashionable’, new, modern object (the Cadillac) with all its mythic connotations of ‘progress’, ‘freedom’ and ‘style’ will, in time, become old, unfashionable and obsolescent and as we gaze upon the afterlife of the object, as it rusts by the roadside or falls apart in the junkyard, we are, in truth, entering into some wider commentary on the systems that produced and consumed it before moving onto the next ‘new thing’.  Walter Benjamin, like Ormerod, was fascinated by decaying objects and obsolescence, for it is the ‘pitiful state, or comic final condition of the commodity.  The outmoded thing is an object of scorn and ridicule [or nostalgia].  No longer the stimulator of sexual desire … the old-fashioned discloses the reality of the fashionable’ (Gilloch 1998:123).  In the relentless rush of the modern age with its insistence only on a forward-looking ‘progress’ and a craving for the ‘always-new’, that builds interstates not ‘blue highways’ and casts asides everything in hunting out the novel, it forgets its past, loses that which is worth preserving and cherishing from that past, and wraps it all up in a mythic dreaming for more.  Ormerod’s photography intervenes to capture this process in his visions of a liminal America, on the edge, in danger of forgetting the past.  The remnants of Main Street, the old shops, gas stations, diners, commodities and billboards are tragic reminders of rapidly disappearing worlds, hopes, and dreams that were once, in the past, themselves the cutting edge of fashion and modernity but now, sad demonstrations of capitalism’s need for constant turnover and perpetual ‘progress’.  Patterns of production, consumption and loss echo through these images fixed in the very architecture, which once spoke of communal dreams of greatness, technological prowess and design, but now in their shabbiness are further reminders of ‘latent mythology’ (Gilloch 1998:123).  This is what Benjamin recognized in Atget’s Paris photographs and I see in Ormerod’s American images – ‘an index of dream-traces for the contemporary archaeologist excavating the residual ruins of modernity’ (ibid.:124).  The ‘dream-traces’, like voices across time and space, whilst reminding us of the cycles of capitalism and its mythic versions of history (based on progress and linearity) may also contain positive, human traits (original dreams, utopianism) that if wrenched out from their current use might be reconfigured and transformed in more meaningful ways. In a sense, photography can  freeze this moment, this ‘pause’ between life and death, as a fleeting moment of hope, of redemption (ibid.:127).  Do not forget, these images plead – be less deceived, look at the over-looked and learn from that which is about to be lost forever.  In breaking the continuity, the flow of assumptions, the individual objects and places are paused before our eyes and we are awakened to their significance, to their presence, not just as commodities, but as human achievements and dreams, desire, work and struggle.  With objects stripped of their ‘aura’ as monuments to capitalism and the myths of success, they are re-positioned, re-visioned, as part of a wider social landscape in which power might shift and decay.  Benjamin recognized that ‘aura’ was also an attribute of the natural world and the way in which it was ‘mythicised’, since looking upon a mountain range from ‘distance’, ‘you experience the aura of those mountains’ as ‘uniqueness and permanence’ (Benjamin 1992:216).  A different angle of vision or a closer look might ‘destroy its aura’ and change our relationship to its apparent mystery.  For Benjamin, photography and film offered the opportunity for just such a new angle, with close-ups, slow motion, enlargement and endless ‘reproducibility’ (ibid.) that would act to unsettle ‘aura’ and counter the ‘distance’ that kept established patterns of thought (and vision) ‘imprisoned’ in place.  As he writes, photography and film can

burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.  With close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended.  The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject (ibid.:229-30).

The camera ‘intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions.  The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses’ (ibid.: 230).  What Benjamin recognized was the camera’s capacity to disrupt the smooth surfaces of ‘myth’ and to shatter the supposed uniqueness of its elements with reproductions available to all, everywhere.  Not locked away in elitist houses or museums but images in the streets where they could be seen, used, debated, but also where they could be seen as decaying, capable of transformation, change and amendment.  The ‘sacred’ objects were vulnerable and all the mythic weight that lay behind them was also, therefore, susceptible to degradation and to de-bunking, not unique but plural. 

The decay of the aura detaches the cultural text or practice from the authority and rituals of tradition.  It opens them to plurality of reinterpretations; freeing them to be used in other contexts, for other purposes.  No longer embedded in tradition, significance is now open to dispute; meaning becomes a question of consumption, an active (political), rather than passive … event (Storey 1993:108, see Benjamin 1992:215).

The critical eye is, therefore, potentially transformative or revolutionary, shifting from the ‘auratic’ to the ‘democratic’ culture where meaning is no longer seen as contained and defined by the few, but open to question, negotiated and mobile, defined (or struggled over) at the point of consumption.  The viewer ‘reads’/ ‘meets’ (Benjamin’s word) the text, engages dialogically with its multiplicity and is part of the process of making-meaning actively not passively.  Benjamin states this perfectly when he writes ‘it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway’ so that the ‘reproduced object’ is ‘reactivated’, given a new life, in the dialogic process the image has set in motion (Benjamin 1992:214 – my emphasis).

In Michael Ormerod’s collection there is an Edward Hopper-like image, ‘Steppin In High Fashions’ (States, p.58), that helps to apply some of these Benjaminian ideas to his photographic practice, for in this image he captures an ironic moment of loss in which an ‘optical unconscious’ emerges.  That which was once ‘high fashion’ – the dresses in the shop window – are now sad reminders of the endless cycles of production and consumption that under-pin capitalism.  On the door is a notice ‘Welcome National Guard’, suggesting a link in Ormerod’s mind between this scene and the military-industrial complex that contributed greatly to the system of values it represents.  The clothes are strangely detached as they now appear in the frame of the image, hanging as if magically in a ‘closed’ shop, on a deserted street, in an empty town, below a dingy hotel; objects which are now the obsolescent remains of a previous time when they were, perhaps, for a moment, indeed ‘high fashions’.  The vacant windows stare out of the image as lifeless and closed as the shop and the system of exchange that they represent here.  Everything is separated, blocks within the image (again, the word is itself before us in the picture), fragments, apart, atomized – like the fire hydrant on the corner, the car, and the telegraph pole.  These fragments interrupt the smoothness of a mythic, small-town image and the seamless ‘whole’ is disrupted by Ormerod’s montage of ‘blocks’ that never quite fit back together again.  It is the viewer who is engaged in the process of working with the ‘blocks’, denied any simple, complete ‘ready-made’ image and any conventional ease of interpretation.  The mythic Norman Rockwell America is both here and not here, caught in the image’s frame in a jarring, uncanny sense that draws the viewer into its comfort zone of familiarity whilst disturbing us with its strange, unanswerable elements. Within this field of complexity, Ormerod conveys a still beauty and  ‘traces’ of hope, in the photograph, with its attention to detail, form and colour that, like the mannequins in the window, seems to reach out to the viewer, almost making a connection.  The architecture is faded, but grand (to the left of the image the letters ‘G and’ ironically suggest this remembrance) like the ‘fashions’, and the carefully painted fire hydrant suggests care and dedication.  This is a lost world, hanging on to its former glories and its dreams of individual entrepreneurialism as reminders of human resilience, whilst the reality is of the Shopping Mall, the Golden Arches and the suburbs somewhere just out of shot, and the relentless pace of change and ‘new’ fashion.  ‘We’ are placed as viewers in this image with a space between ‘us’ and the shops inviting speculation about how we relate to its meanings – do we feel nostalgic or are we implicated in the system that creates such scenes?  As so often in Ormerod’s work there is a sense of dialogue suggested in the formal structure of the image that insinuates a relationship and a distance between the various elements in the shot.  In asking what this represents, what this means, we are drawn into a complex set of historical processes, dialectics or dialogues that make these images rich and yet, as with Edward Hopper’s painting, uncannily unfinished and ‘open’.  ‘He was a big fan of Hopper, especially when he moved into colour, and there is a certain stillness and emptiness in some of Michael’s pictures which is what people talk about in relation to Hopper’s paintings, so I think he took something from that …’ (Weston 2001).

Benjamin’s ‘destruction of aura’ can be translated into these everyday subjects of Ormerod’s work and his observations of the ordinary world (‘commonplace milieus … taverns … streets … offices … furnished rooms … railroad stations … factories’ – Benjamin 1992:229) or shop windows where strange encounters take place.  Commercial space can become surreal and symbolic for Ormerod, like the image of a brightly-lit Lewistown (States, p. 59) where stuffed deer heads stare out from a barber shop window alongside an advertisement for the street fair with its appealing cartoon clowns and smiling children.  Life, death, artifice, childhood, and the everyday, mingle and co-exist in this image whilst an ominous shadow encroaches across the foreground of the picture.  The complex relations he finds in such unpromising places are engaging assertions of life’s richness and diversity as well as timely reminders of its harshness under the persistence of myth.  An unpublished image of a car parked on a dusty roadside in Wyoming, with its sunshield of four bikini-clad girls, conveys much about these mixed feelings, juxtaposing, as it does, notions of the road and the car, always powerful, mythic symbols of freedom in the USA, with the unabashed sexual promise of pleasure (girls and beach), compromised by both the run-down location and the staticity of the picture.  The contradictions are revealing and perhaps ultimately under-lined by the irony of the Wyoming license plate with its iconic ‘bucking bronco and rider’ image from the Old West, for as so often in Ormerod’s western photographs, the mobility that created the West has become just a memory, a reference point for myths and stories that have been over-taken by the everyday realities of economic decline, fuel crisis and demographic shifts. Central to this image though, and true of many in Ormerod’s best work, is the sense of seeing all these elements at the same time, occupying, and indeed vying, for the very same space within the frame.  Myths need to be seen, placed out in the open, in order to be recognized and contested.  The ‘aura’, as Benjamin, termed it, has to be shattered by humour, irony, juxtaposition or any other form of counter-force that might allow more diverse perspectives to emerge.  The ‘states of America’ represented in Ormerod’s work are rarely mutually exclusive, but rather co-existent and inter-related just as they are in Robert Frank’s pictures where the eye is drawn backwards and forwards within the rigors of the frame seeing ‘black, white and things’, as he put it.  Ormerod clearly fears homogeneity and the loss of difference and diversity; the eccentric and the quirky have powers to challenge the smooth-running orderliness of myth and like the angle of a camera’s vision or the compositional frame, can make us re-consider things we take for granted. Thus, a (white) statue of Joe Louis under an ostentatious chandelier in a Las Vegas hotel lobby (States, p.75) takes on a jarring, surreal significance, emphasized by the angle of the image and the geometric flooring and the shining marble background.  The incongruities of the black man in the kitsch opulence of the hotel is as disorientating as the décor – with its insistent pattern – and immediately forms a disquieting series of questions about America as land of opportunity or inequality. Myths rely upon unquestioned ‘patterns’ to arrange the past into neat, seemingly natural stories – such as the ‘black sportsman belongs in the American mainstream’ – and in doing so become ‘depoliticised speech’ (Barthes 1973:11) because all the complexities of language (the product of history) have been hollowed out until all that remains is ‘what goes without saying’, ‘the taken for granted’ (ibid.), a simpler version of things denuded of political debate, dialogue and difference.  This is Bakhtin’s concept of monoglossia – a kind of ‘single-voicedness’.

In turn, this notion of monoglossic myth is akin to Benjamin’s ‘continuity of history’ which he saw as a structured neatness playing into the hands of those with power, and that had to be disrupted: ‘explode[ ] the homogeneity of the epoch, interspersing it with ruins – that is, with the present’ to remind us all of the discontinuous processes that have lead to the myths themselves (Benjamin 1999:474).  Ormerod’s attraction to ‘ruins’, to the surreal and the incongruous are exercises in this rejection of mythic ‘monologic’ fixing and to the recovery of an almost child-like appreciation of human potential and creativity.  The creative spontaneity of childhood is too easily destroyed by ‘bourgeois socialization … Parroting back the “correct” answer, looking without touching, solving problems “in the head”, sitting passively, learning to do without optical clues’ (Buck-Morss 1993:265), whereas photography might reproduce something of the spirit that social order ironed out.  As Buck-Morss puts it, ‘children got to know objects by laying hold of them and using them creatively, releasing from them new possibilities of meaning’ (ibid.:264) and it is perhaps through visual re-appropriation that the apparently fixed and ordered world of myth might be challenged and even renewed as part of a wider a process of creative, critical understanding.

Dialogic Influence / Art Exchange

To think about Ormerod’s responses to America as a European, one is naturally drawn into the influences at work within his vision.  Rather like European pop art drawing strength from American cultural forms but giving it a particular twist, Ormerod’s attitude to America was governed by the kind of double vision outlined above in our discussion of ‘creative understanding’; his love-hate, inside-outside, dialogic relationship with the country provided his particular energy as a photographer.  Yet when one views the images Ormerod produced, it is hard to escape the presence of multiple other ‘voices’ drawn from art history and photographic practice providing complex layers of history within each frame.  Roland Barthes, in his essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968) redefines the notion of text as,

a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash … a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture  (Barthes  1979: 146).

To contain the possibilities of the text by imposing the idea of ‘Author’ upon it, according to Barthes, is ‘to close the writing’ and seek to ‘explain’ it and fix its meaning as singular and knowable.  In contrast, with the emphasis upon multiplicity and the reader’s role in the production of meanings, Barthes argues for texts which are more open because they are ‘ranged over, not pierced’, and do not ‘assign a “secret”, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and the world as text)’, and thus, are ‘truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law’. (ibid.: 146-7)  He continues by claiming that,

a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.  The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. (ibid.: 148 – my italics)

Barthes’ use of the phrase ‘mutual relations of dialogue’ alerts us to the redefinition of the important connection between reader and text as ‘a passage, an over-crossing’ in which no single meaning is insisted upon since the text is plural, ‘woven entirely of citations, references, echoes, cultural languages … antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through’ (ibid.:160).  What Barthes is arriving at here in an essay of 1968 is the concept of intertextuality: ‘The intertextual in which every text is held, is itself being the text-between of another text’ (ibid.), whose plurality he sets against ‘monologism [which] appears to be the Law’ (ibid.).  For from this ‘network’ of crossed-over relations, threads of meaning and traces of possibility, Barthes defines the relations with texts as ‘play, activity, production, practice’, as ‘a practical collaboration’ (ibid.:162-3), from which comes ‘jouissance’ – ‘a pleasure without separation’ of reader from text (ibid.:164).  Victor Burgin explains Barthes’ notion of intertextuality in helpful terms, beginning with his view of ‘text’

seen not as an ‘object’ but rather as a ‘space’ between the object and the reader/viewer – a space made up of endlessly proliferating meanings which have no stable point of origin, nor of closure.  In the concept of ‘text’ the boundaries that enclosed the ‘work’ are dissolved; the text opens continuously onto other texts, the space of intertextuality (Burgin 1986:73).

Photographs, apparently contained within their material boundaries of the plate or negative and the literal limits of the frame, are capable of over-flowing precisely because of what takes place in ‘the space between’ the image and the viewer.  This is an intertextual space constantly changing in response to all the differences brought to the reception and use of the photograph as it moves from its physical existence into the fluid realms beyond its edges.  The process of ‘unframing’ is precisely the point at which the image over-flows its edges – its ‘fixing’, both literally with the chemical process, and culturally in terms of how it might be seen and interpreted, is resisted as it takes on new meanings and associations for the viewer.  Barthes comments on a similar idea himself, when he discusses ‘the frayed character’ of texts being ‘as a tissue … as a braid of different voices, of many codes, at once interlaced and incomplete’ that affect the reader/viewer as ‘an explosion: calls for contact and communication, positing of contracts, exchanges, outbursts of references, gleams of knowledge, dimmer, more penetrating impulses from “the other scene” …’ (Barthes 1988:292).  Barthes views the text as ‘undecideable’, unfixable in its endless production of possible meanings; ‘there is no univocal determination of the utterance: in a statement, several codes, several voices are there, without preeminence.  Writing is precisely that loss of origin, that loss of “motives” to the gain of a volume of indeterminations (or of overdeterminations)’ (ibid.:293).  The language and concepts used by Barthes clearly echo the work of Bakhtin’s anti-monologism – intertextuality, different voices, univocality and unfinished texts – and provide helpful critical approaches to photographic practice.  In explaining intertextuality, for example, we begin to understand the complex relations between photographers whose work refers to others and become less concerned with notions of derivation than with direction and dialogue.  Further to this, it helps us to understand that there is an even more important interaction with the reader/viewer whose world is also drawn into the network of meanings. Bakhtin wrote, ‘I live in a world of others’ words.  And my entire life is an orientation in this world, a reaction to others’ words’ (Bakhtin 1990b:143), and this suggests a very powerful sense of the matrix of other images within which photography functions.  The world is mediated and inter-discursive, embroiled in constant interactions whereby individual photographs are merely ‘momentary objectifications within a wider semiotic stream or “chain of meaning” which itself has no beginning or end’ (Gardiner 1992:89).

Within this ‘matrix’ any contemporary photographer is bound to draw upon (derive) the many ‘voices’ of other artists in the creation of his/her own work – voices found in other photographers’ images, but also in writers, painters, and critics ideas filter into those new texts.  In Michael Ormerod’s work, for example, one finds intertextual, visual echoes of Atget, Kertesz, Brandt, Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Frank, Friedlander, Ray-Jones, Sternfeld, Eggleston and others, and the cultural resonance of William Least Heat-Moon, Robert Pirsig, and Edward Hopper.


Photographic Monologism and the Epic Image

As we have seen, monologism is best defined as a single voiced point of view wherein the authority is claimed exclusively by the controlling ‘eye’, the framer of the photograph, the definer of the image, presenting only a ‘closed-off discourse’ (Bakhtin 1997:63) sealed against other voices and visions. As Bakhtin wrote:

Monologue manages without the other, and therefore to some degree materializes all reality. Monologue pretends to be the ultimate word. It closes down the represented world and represented persons (ibid: 293).

Photography can be monologic in its insistence upon a single point of view, its exclusion of human presence, historical, technological and geographical change or its assumption of representable ‘truth’ and ‘reality’.  In American landscape photography, the work of Ansel Adams, for example, might be termed monologic because of its ;monolithic, monumental vision of a preserved wilderness devoid of humanity (except the photographer) and all cultural presence. Indeed, Martin Stupich has written that Adams’ photographs are like a ‘long monologue of brilliant diction and linguistic arabesque … [like] photography made to celebrate photography. The pictures were whole, conclusive, final – each glorious print was a complete and clear answer, but to a question I would never ask’ (in Adams 1993: 95). Adams’ authority, has ironically, cast a massive monologic shadow over Western landscape photography creating a photographic epic, as Bakhtin would term it, which appears as ‘already ready defined and real … already finished, a congealed and half-moribund genre’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 14) defining a vision in which


In the past, everything is good: all the really good things (i.e the “first” real things) occur only in this past. The epic absolute past is the single source and beginning of everything good for all later times as well (ibid: 15).


For Adams, ‘the tradition of the past isn sacred’ (ibid.) and appears complete and untouchable,

as closed as a circle; inside it everything is finished, already over. There is no place in the epic world for any openendedness, indecision, indeterminacy. There are no loopholes in it through which we glimpse the future; it suffices unto itself … (ibid: 16).

Bakhtin could almost be describing Adams’ landscapes when he writes that, ‘The epic world is constructed in the zone of an absolute distanced image, beyond the sphere of possible contact with the developing, incomplete and therefore re-thinking and re-evaluating present’ (ibid: 17 – my italics).

As a counter to this epic sense, some many younger photographersy haves become fascinated by the very ‘loopholes’ leading to the openendedness and indeterminacy that Bakhtin wrote about deliberately rejecting the ‘distanced’ epic in favour of the immediate and everyday.  Many of those whose work Michael Ormerod admired can be classified as ‘anti-epic’ and anti-mythic photographers whose work strives to encompass the everyday, the over-looked and the marginal as worthy of inclusion within a reassessment of traditional definitions of representation. In the epic we are presented with the frozen idealization of place as a myth – Edenic, Paradisal, Promised Land – whereas Ormerod, for example, sees a social landscape environment as a dialogic zone of contact and encounter where interaction and dialogue takes place at all levels. He shatters the epic distance of those like Adams by representing the close at hand in a ‘zone of maximal proximity’ (ibid: 23), making environment more inclusive and more dialogic by showing itsthe lived experience of the West; its roadside attractions, its wastes, diners, gas stations, Indian Reservations, small towns, the little interactions of everyday life, and makinge us aware that what we are looking at is indeed a representation, an image, a particular moment.


The eternal and sacred effect of the epic imagery of Ansel Adams is dialogized by the presence of these alternative ‘others’ – bizarre, contradictory, problematic – even reminding us of the photographer’s position in the construction process too. The two visions, however, do not exist in opposition, but interact as in a dialogue, fusing, merging, and coexisting. Equally, the ‘author / photographer’ isn’t removed outside the frame like some omnipresent God, but is referred to in the image itself – by reflection as in Eugene Atget, Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander’s work, by shadow as in Mark Klett’s or being photographed, as in Ormerod’s image (States, 77). Bakhtin wrote that ‘This new positioning of the author must be considered one of the most important results of surmounting epic (hierarchical) distance’ (Bakhtin 1990a :28) because it signifies the inclusion of the human in the natural and the photographer in the act of representation.

In one image, ‘Dead Car in Desert’ (States, p.28), Ormerod juxtaposes Ansel Adams’s style, with the eye drawn to the distant rocks and the cloud hovering above, with the overturned car and the buildings to the right. The photograph creates a space of simultaneity in which the environment is strangely harmonious, without being beautiful or static. Unlike an Ansel Adams’ epic image, Ormerod represents an ‘inhabited nature’ (Robert Adams, 1978) of change, where differences coexist and time is not a frozen ideal but an active element of space – shown in the notions of geologic time (rocks), climatic time (clouds), and human time, seen as both decay and creation (car and the buildings).  A visual polyphony is created – ‘a plurality of independent and unmerged voices …’ (Bakhtin 1997: 6) – in which Ormerod presents the text but lets the elements exist in tension, or in dialogue with each other and with the viewer / audience. It is worth remembering that the idea of dialogism in Bakhtin from which I am drawing throughout is not

dyadic, much less a binary, phenomenon. Dialogue is a manifold phenomenon … [of] three elements … The tripartite nature of dialogue bears within it the seeds of hope … This degree of thirdness of dialogue frees … existence from the very circumscribed meaning … in the limited configuration … (Holquist 1991: 38).

What emerges within polyphony is in fact hybrid space, for our purposes, a view of the environment stressing simultaneity, coexistence and interaction. In Ormerod’s photographs one can see what Bakhtin saw in Dostoevsky’s ‘visualizing power’ (Bakhtin 1997: 30):

Dostoevsky attempted to perceive the very stages themselves in their simultaneity, to juxtapose and counterpose them dramatically … to see everything as coexisting, to perceive and show all things side by side and simultaneous, as if they existed in space and not in time … (Bakhtin 1997: 28).

A key moment in the development of such alternative approaches in photography can be seen in the 1975 exhibition New Topographics, in which Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore and others represented American environment as building sites, roadsides, housing projects, industrial parks almost as a direct comment on Ansel Adams and others belief in the emotional ‘equivalence’ one should record in landscape. They had clearly learned, like Ormerod, from earlier photographers like Walker Evans and Atget, the need to represent ‘social landscape’ as a complex, interactive space where difference did exist ‘side by side’ in the strangest ways.  The New Topographics claimed an emotional neutrality and an objective recording of the world around them, indeed, William Jenkins, its curator, claimed they were images of  ‘man-made structures within larger contexts such as landscapes’ (Jenkins 1975:5). However, statements by the exhibitors delineate a more inter-connected and complex relation between these elements: Nicholas Nixon wrote, ‘I love the contradictions of photography’ and Baltz said ‘There is something paradoxical in the way that documentary photographs interact with our notions of reality’ (ibid. – my emphases).   These unsettling contradictions, interactions and paradoxes emphasise the radical effect of the exhibition on younger photographers like Ormerod who admired their subject matter and their responses to a hindering tradition.  Beyond the ideal, mythic landscape and its limited relations, these new topographies of culturally produced space, provided a focus for reconsideration in which modern Industrial Parks, trailer sites, suburban subdivisions, sidewalks and driveways are provocatively juxtaposed with conventional American space to challenge the eye and the mind.

These photographic ‘new topographies’ began to re-map ways of seeing and thinking that realized an ecological vision neither dismissive nor utopian, but attempting to contemplate space as multiple, contested and inter-relational.  Statements in the exhibition catalogue suggest this, with Joe Deal writing of the need to eliminate ‘the vagaries of sky and horizon’ by creating ‘undifferentiated space’ with the emphasis upon the ‘ground-directedness of these photographs’. Robert Adams wrote

By Interstate 70: a dog skeleton, a vacuum cleaner, TV dinners, a doll, a pie, rolls of carpet … Later, next to the South Platte River: algae, broken concrete, jet contrails, the smell of crude oil… What I hope to document, though not at the expense of surface detail, is the Form that underlies this apparent chaos (Jenkins 1975:7 – my emphasis).

Robert Adams’ notion of ‘Form’ indicates not a perfect order or unity, but the recognition of inter-relatedness – a dialogical connection – Nature here includes and cannot be separated from culture. 

This ‘new [photographic] topography’ interrupts the easy flow or ‘lure’ of mythic landscape images inherited from Ansel Adams, shifting the eye from the distant horizon ‘out there’ of epic monumentalism with its grand, eternal narrative of ‘Nature’ (as God-given, ‘natural’, and independent of humanity), to ‘here’ and near-at-hand, to ‘ground-directedness’ and to their hybrid relations. Felix Guattari claims that from the mythic, ‘sedative discourse’, we might instead ‘apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses or points of view of the three ecologies’ (Guattari 2000:41, 42 – my emphasis).  The traces of human presence are inserted into the once mythically envisioned landscape until all Ansel Adams cropped out of his images returns like the repressed to remind us of a more complex, relational existence, of our responsibilities in a simultaneous, living, changing environment of growth, despoilation, and survival.  We see, within the frame so much that is usually separated out and kept apart: Nature / Culture / Technology / Excess / Beauty / Horror / Waste / Growth / Death / Life / Motion / Stasis / Commerce. As Henri Lefebvre has written: ‘Space has been shaped and molded from historical and natural elements … Space is political and ideological.  It is a product literally filled with ideologies’ (Lefebvre in Soja 1989:80). 

In Bakhtin’s discussion of Greek romance he comments similarly on how that genre existed outside recognised time with a kind of epic distance where ‘nothing changes: the world remains as it was … This empty time leaves no traces anywhere, no indications of its passing’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 91). In surmounting epic distance, photographers, like the New Topographics and Michael Ormerod, deliberately leave and represent traces to emphasize change and time passing within space, across varied environments.  To borrow from Michel De Certeau, ‘we never write on a blank page, but always on one that has already been written on’ (De Certeau 1988:43), and therefore, constantly engage in intertextual relations with others’ traces.  In a rare comment directly about environment and how it is represented, Bakhtin comments that when the fullest representation of the environment’s ‘voices’ are denied one is left with a limited and proscribed vision which he summarized as: ‘“Landscape” … that is, nature conceived as horizon (what a man sees) and as the environment (the background, the setting …’ (ibid: 143).  The lesson of the New Topographics, in part, was to expand the notion of landscape and break the dominance of the ‘epic’ view, so that

Hence, instead of the rich variety of a heteroglossic, multiple environment one is faced with just ‘picturesque “remnants” …’ which ‘can exist only in the isolation created by closed verbal landscapes that surround them’ (ibid: 144). When the living complex of nature is turned into remnants, into frozen moments of epic picturesque, then ‘nature itself ceased to be a living participant in the events of life … [becoming] a “setting for action”, its backdrop; it was turned into landscape, it was fragmented into metaphors and comparisons’ (ibid: 217). This has so often become the role of environment, less as a living participant in the texts of life, and more of a setting for human action or events. Bakhtin recognises the significance of a fuller vision of environment which would be inclusive, dialogic, heteroglot, involving the constant, dynamic relations of the living and the dead, the past and the present, the natural and the man-made. Hence, instead of environment as ‘setting’ it is better seen, as Bakhtin wrote, as ‘a speaking vestige of the movement of history’ defined by the ‘inseparable unity and interpenetrability’ of the human and the natural where ‘the locality [place] ceased to be part of abstract nature, a part of an indefinite, interrupted, and only symbolically rounded out (supplemented) world’, and became instead ‘an irreplaceable part of the geographically and historically determined world, of that completely real and essentially visible world of human history’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 49-50).

In these notes, Bakhtin develops an idea about the human / natural ‘matrix’ which he had earlier defined as ‘the single great event that is life (both human and natural) [that] emerges in its multiple sides and aspects, and they are all equally indispensable and significant within it’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 211).  The loss of this matrix, which Bakhtin links to ‘a pre-class, agricultural stage in the development of human society’ (ibid: 206), is central to the changing structures of human society. The collective spirit is replaced by the individual and the private, and the ‘all-embracing whole’ (ibid: 213) is lost to a more fragmented system in which nature becomes divorced from its integrated relationship to the collective life of humanity. This bifurcation is the root, for Bakhtin, of the separations of human and natural, and the subsequent representation of nature as a ‘setting’ or a ‘backdrop’ to human action, rather than an inherent part of a more cohesive and interconnected process. Bakhtin sought a re-evaluation and re-thinking of this spilt in the environment favouring a more relational, dialogical basis as the heart of a future-looking project for a new matrix.

Bakhtin argues that this is an inadequate representation of the ‘world’ (environment), and that what is found in Goethe is a more honest vision because there humanity ‘emerges along with the world’ (Bakhtin 1990b:23). Thus, space (Bakhtin’s environment) and time (Bakhtin’s history, humanity) ‘are inseparably linked’ (ibid: 27) – chronotopic – and in this linked, living phenomenon, he recognised ‘multitemporality: as remnants or relics of various stages and formations of the past and as rudiments of stages in the more or less distant future’ (ibid: 28). So as Goethe (according to Bakhtin) looked at a scene or location he did not see a static and fixed moment but a more complex and dynamic intertextuality formed in the very mingling, coexistence and interaction of different ‘stages and formations’. Thus the environment is a layered, over-lapping archeaology, constructed of formations of time and space, human and nonhuman, in which Bakhtin, via Goethe, sees ‘development, emergence, and history’ (ibid: 29), and

interwoven with them signs of historical time – essential traces of human hands and minds that change nature, and the way human reality and all man has created are reflected back on his customs and views (ibid: 32).

Environment has to be an interillumination between human and nonhuman, and cannot be ‘an abstract thing, for the sake of its self-sufficient naturalness’ (ibid: 38), it is a living dialogue – as heteroglossia: ‘it contains no inanimate, immobile, petrified places, no immutable background that does not participate in action and emergence (in events), no decorations or sets… Everything in this world is a time-space, a true chronotope’ (ibid: 42).

Implied in many of these versions of human / nature is a strong and rigid vision of hierarchy, a word used much in Bakhtin’s works. The visual hierarchy that one might encounter in certain portrayals of environmental photography is clear. Thus, as we have noted, Ansel Adams’ work is characterised by both distance and a certain hierarchy in which we, the viewers, are held at bay, removed from the site / sight by the very structure of the framing itself. The land is way over there and never close at hand, rarely to be communed with or lived in, but to be admired at a distance, in awe, in wonder, like a natural cathedral, a preserved wilderness. Bakhtin knew that the hierarchies, wherever they were to be found had to be challenged and turned upside down. This is his famous idea of carnival in which the prevailing truth of the established order, and all that is fixed and complete, is opposed and countered by the riotous assertion of becoming, change and renewal. Anti-mythic photography, such as that of Michael Ormerod, for example, has strong aspects of the carnivalesque within it as a way of challenging stilted and static photographic texts, whilst re-presenting the social landscape as an extraordinary mix of layered, dynamic dialogical energies. What emerges is a sense of environment as hybrid, mixed and multi-layered rather than complete preserved and sacred – a space in which the body of the earth and the human body are bound together: where

the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences.  What can be seen designates what is no longer there … the invisible identities of the visible: it is the very definition of place, in fact, that it is composed by these series of displacements and effects among the fragmented strata that form it and that it plays on these moving layers (De Certeau 1988:108 – my emphases).

De Certeau argues against the distanced epic view of the cityscape and poses an alternative vision built from ‘everyday’, lived experiential ‘stories’, ‘the world’s debris … leftovers … fragments’, ‘Things extra and other (details and excesses coming from elsewhere) insert themselves into the accepted framework, the imposed order… The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order’ (De Certeau 1988:107).  Thus, argues De Certeau, ‘within the structured place of the text …[are] produce[d] anti-texts …[and] possibilities of moving into other landscapes’ (ibid.), which can be the function of dialogical photography.


Photography can be sensitive to these notions of ‘presence/absence’, ‘moving layers’, ‘strata’ and ‘leaks of meaning’ without becoming a purely abstract form, by asserting and then challenging the relations between the image and the viewer with all their underlying assumptions and expectations.  The ‘anti-text’ existing within the text’s frame is a concept readily recognizable within the realm of photography that can, of course, actively employ diverse juxtapositions, contradictions and anomalies to spur on and provoke the viewer/reader beyond their initial responses.  As Victor Burgin rightly argues, ‘the photograph is a place of work, a structured and structuring space within which the reader deploys, and is deployed by, what codes he or she is familiar with in order to make sense’ (Burgin 1982:153).

Allan Sekula, writing in the same collection as Burgin, has commented on some of these ideas in his essay ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, where he argues that a photograph is an incomplete utterance, ‘a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability’ (Sekula in Burgin 1994:84).  A photograph has no ‘intrinsic or universal meaning’ (ibid.:86) but depends upon its context or in being ‘placed’ and determined by the ‘archive’ to which it belongs.  However, photographs have been seen as having ‘legal status of document and testimonial … generat[ing] a mythic aura of neutrality around the image’ (ibid.:87). Sekula sees this as a form of reductionism that defines photography as truth so that history becomes that which is pictured, a ‘spectacle’ used to produce a ‘regularized flow of images’ that tells only a particular, approved version of the story’ and which simultaneously offers the viewer a ‘kind of powerless omniscience’.  The photograph rules the spectator, so that ‘all other forms of telling and remembering begin to fade’ because the historical document has become the aesthetic object (Sekula in Wallis 1993:122).  Sekula, like Walter Benjamin, asserts the importance of ‘historical materialism’ which rejects the victors’ stories and accepts ‘nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history’ (Benjamin 1992:246), ‘For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’ (ibid.: 247, and Sekula’s epigram). As Benjamin goes on to say, the historical materialist cannot accept the given (mythic) ‘treasures’ of the culture for they will carry with them the marks of their origin; ‘the spoils are carried along in the procession’ and cannot be viewed ‘without horror’ (ibid.:248).  Photography can contribute to this new documentary tradition that strives not for truth but for a critical interruption which will ‘brush history against the grain’ (ibid.:248) and engage the viewer in an interactive process of dialogue. 

In Ormerod’s best work, these processes emerge in his complex re-interpretation of landscape photography, since it is through the inter-relations of spatial contacts that new histories are told and new stories suggested.  De Certeau understood the significance of places as ‘a palimpsest’, containing layered, archaeological sites, for ‘there is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence’ and ‘Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body’ (De Certeau 1988: 109, 108).  These are the ‘stratified places’ of Michael Ormerod’s America (ibid.:200).



States’ Evidence: Monologic Photography


‘Photographs are never “evidence” of history; they are themselves the historical’ (Tagg 1988ibid.:65)


The ‘official’ use of the photographic image is an important extension of the ‘monologic’ tradition, for it employs visual representation as ‘evidence’, ‘proof’, ‘identification’, and utilizes it in various forms of surveillance, discipline and control.  As Tagg has written, evidential photography ‘is a complex historical outcome and is exercised by photographs only within certain institutional practices and within particular historical relations’, revealing ‘a network of disciplinary institutions – the police, prisons, asylums, hospitals, departments of public health, schools, and even the modern factory system itself’ (Tagg 1988:4, 5). Existing in a separate sphere to ‘art’ photography, this accumulation of ‘evidence’ amassed the power to define, order and normalize society through reinforced, reproduced representations constructing a ‘knowledge’, as Foucault would term it.  Knowledge is power.  This use of photography was underpinned by the assumption of the ‘reality’ of the image, its ‘truth’, embedded in the aphorism ‘the camera cannot lie’.  Of course, Foucault maintained that power was not uni-directional, but flowed between and through all relations, therefore, just as photographs might appear to empower through their inherent ‘truth’, they might also become the source of oppositional power questioning and challenging its assumptions.  ‘It is because power is relational that there is no power without resistance … Power gives rise to a countervailing force’ (Tagg 1988:93).  In photography, resistance can take many forms, as Tagg points out,

strategic kinds of intervention which can both open up different social arenas of action and stretch the institutional order of the practice by deploying or developing new modes of production, distribution and circulation … by cutting different trajectories across the ruling codes of meaning; and by establishing different relationships both with those who are pictured and those who view the pictures (ibid.:93-4).

The different ‘voices’ of photography mean that such a body of resistance is diverse, ‘a multiplicity of local incursions in a constantly shifting ground of tactical actions’ (ibid.:94), with the objective of critiquing any system of normalization and ‘official’ fixture.  Photography’s reduction to pure institutional evidence or commerce, or even to its elitist ‘art-house’ status, can be ‘cut across’ by alternatives ways of seeing and representing human experience in the world.  Tagg argues that socially defined ‘realism’ is the mode of evidential, ‘official’ photography, for it appears to tell the truth and to record the indisputable facts of the case, it ‘offers a fixity in which the signifier is treated as if it were identical with a pre-existent signified’ (ibid.:99).  What counts here is the end product – the image, and the ‘production’ process or the history of the product is not important: ‘the text is nothing but what it can denote or describe’ (ibid.).  What counts is the communication of the concept, with minimum intrusion by the means of representation and ‘It works by the controlled and limited recall of a reservoir of similar “texts”, by a constant repetition, a constant cross-echoing’ (ibid.) so that it draws on a knowledge-base to persuade us of its validity, its reality because it looks and feels ‘real’.

The problem is of how to ‘cut across’, to intervene, in this dominant notion of the real, for as Tagg argues, ‘documentary’ photography cannot do this easily because it is ‘already implicated in the historically developed techniques of observation-domination’ (ibid.:102).  The traditions of ‘documentary’ photography, of documenting the world through the lens of the camera, could, however, acknowledge and explore the complexities of ‘reality’ without imposing upon it an artificially ‘straight’ or absolute, singular meaning.  The world beyond the lens with all its multiplicitous relations, ambiguous meanings and incomplete stories could, in fact, be represented accurately by a renewed, responsive and innovative documentary photographic practice evolved and in dialogue with previous generations of social documentarists.

In 1931 Walker Evans had taken some inspiration from Photo-Eye in which photographs were gathered from a variety of ‘non-art’ sources to under-cut any ‘romantic’ pretensions to an elitist practice.  He wrote that the book is ‘social and didactic’ and contained ‘the news photo, aerial photography, microphotography, astronomical photography, photomontage and the photogram, multiple exposure and the negative print’ (in Trachtenberg 1980:186).  Evans’ admiration for the amateur’ and for a photography that reflected ‘swift chance, disarray, wonder, and experiment’ caused him to feel that by 1931 it had entered ‘the third period of its history’ (ibid.:185) in which it was able to move beyond the containment of artiness and discover new possibilities.  One of Michael Ormerod’s most treasured books, now owned by Geoff Weston, was Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel published in 1977.  This a collection of institutional photographs from government agencies’ files, educational institutions, corporations and other ‘official’ organizations, taken, one assumes as ‘evidence’ of one kind or another. They seem to declare, as John Tagg puts it about similar photographs, ‘This really happened. The camera was there. See for yourself’ (Tagg 1988:160), giving the image a ‘binding quality’ because it has the stamp of the official upon it ‘to bestow authority and privilege on photographic representations’ (ibid.)  Decontextualized, as they appear in this book, however, the photographs take on a mysterious, often surreal quality that completely subverts their evidential function as ‘proof’ and their ‘authority’ as official documents, transforming them by a whole new set of questions for their audience.  They are visual documents that provide no single, tangible, self-evident meaning, no complete ‘story’, for as we attempt to read them, they re-direct us to speculate about their purpose and meaning.  On the surface they are straight ‘documentary’ images telling us of events, people, places, and yet detached from their larger narrative, they trigger a series of deepening and troubling questions. What are they evidence of?  What kind of bureaucracy made these images and why? Do these images really have power and for whom? Are they beautiful, or ugly, or both?

Although often banal and familiar in terms of content, their trajectory as images carries them in the minds of the audience to unfamiliar, imaginative places as they are broken away from the apparent continuity of their ‘normal’ context. They become like Walter Benjamin’s fragments of discontinuity serving to remind us of all the assumptions of continuity that resides in society’s notions of history, progress and power.  The ‘realism’ of their evidence – an embankment of rocks held in a steel cage, for example, takes on a new life in the dialogue with the ‘reader’ whose possible responses may move beyond the picture as mere ‘document’, to see it as a representation of nature contained, or of environmental damage.  Ormerod borrowed this image in States of America, recasting it as an ironic juxtaposition of building materials in a yard in front of the epic Western mountains behind (States, p. 68), so that everyday moments tell not just one story, but reverberate with many possible meanings and questions. The point of these kinds of photographs, presented in this way, is to challenge our assumptions and expectations about the ‘real’ and about ‘quality’ art images, by blurring distinctions usually made between certain uses of pictures.  By changing the context, as here, we are required to re-assess how we view and judge these photographs, rather like the work of the New Topographics who had exhibited in 1975 a series of images representing the ‘evidence’ of suburban development, industrial parks and subdivisions across America.  This attention to the everyday seemed ‘artless’, like real-estate photography, it was said at the time, but as with the photographs in Evidence, they can be seen as shifting notions of context and use of images.  Taken out of their ‘normal’ context, the photographs take on a new life, like an advertising image or billboard in an Ormerod picture that is reversed or shabby.  Suddenly, the visual ‘norm’ of slick, seamless advertising is unsettled because we see it and we are made to think about it differently, re-focussing our easily distracted attention onto the form itself.  Too often advertising, for example, is merely absorbed into our everyday lives as ‘natural’ and ‘taken for granted’ with its ideology unchallenged as seemingly innocent, but in these deceptively simple photographs these elements can be unraveled.  These tactics are everywhere in Ormerod’s work, with images of trailers in the desert, pylons and roads, Winnebagos by the lakeside, stone statues in a garden or watermelons (like curious alien organs) growing in the red dirt field.  The ordinary and the familiar create new sites of meaning rather like that defined by Sigmund Freud in his essay, ‘The Uncanny’, in which he wrote, ‘the word “heimlich” … belongs to two sets of ideas … on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight’ and further, ‘this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only by the process of repression’ (Freud 1990:347, 363-4).  Presented to us as re-contextualised images, photography can create this sense of jarring uncanniness out of the familiar precisely as a means of questioning our frames of reference and expectation, causing ‘uncertainty’ and the sense of ‘something one does not know one’s way about in’ (ibid.:341).  A photograph’s lure of the homely can serve to achieve a similar effect as its comforting familiarity leads us back, visually, to the ‘repressed’ or over-looked within the social landscape.  An ‘EAT’ sign rusting by the roadside seemingly inviting the viewer off the road’s harshness in to familiar, homely world, and yet the image contains other ‘signs’ that declare ‘No Name’, as if to warn us of some other, darker reality in this obviously decaying landscape.

The work of William Eggleston was clearly influential on Ormerod’s colour photography as it was his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the collection William Eggleston’s Guide (1976) that largely marked the acceptance of colour photography within the art community.  Coming towards the beginning of Ormerod’s career one can see traces of Eggleston’s rich colours, his fascination with forgotten places and his representation of the ‘uncanny’ everyday as all presence in the Englishman’s own work.  Eggleston belongs to what one might term a serial vernacular tradition, like Evans and Frank (and Ormerod), with an almost obsessive need to photograph again and again certain types of place and object, building up a kind of alternative ‘guide’ and history of place and space.  Hence, Eggleston, very much in the spirit of Ormerod, claimed that the ‘same, square frontal view’ of Walker Evans had to be broken by the experimentation with new angles to find the ‘surprising view’ on similar subjects (Eggleston 1992: 13).  He found in the ordinary rhythms of daily life his most radical departures, transforming everyday objects like fridges, ovens, road signs, houses, cars, into starkly magical presences.  He wrote, ‘It’s a world that’s familiar and darkly mysterious at the same time’ (ibid.:36), an ‘uncanny’ world ‘at war with the obvious’ (Eggleston 1998:n.p.), reminding us of life’s complex patterns, its beauty and intensity even within the apparently everyday.  This attention to detail and to the layered reality of the varied landscapes of America can be seen working through Ormerod’s photography so that when Eggleston came to Britain he claimed he had a ‘feeling for a secret London’ in the same way that Michael Ormerod sensed a ‘secret America’ that he tried to suggest through his images (ibid.).

Henri Lefebvre, writing about the need to reappraise the ‘everyday’, claims that ‘in each thing we see more than itself – something else which is there in everyday objects … something enfolded within which hitherto we have been unable to see’ (Lefebvre 1991:134).  In seeing this ‘enfolded’ thing, emphasized by its new context, our ‘awareness of this contradiction [between advertising and environment, implied corporate wealth and local deprivation etc.] becomes more acute’ (ibid.).  Photography, like Eggleston’s or Ormerod’s, can provoke the viewer to explore the ‘enfolded’ within our immediate world through a re-engagement with the known and the familiar since, ‘it is in the most familiar things that the unknown – not the mysterious – is at its richest, and that this rich content of life is still beyond our empty, darkling consciousness, inhabited as it is by impostors, and gorged with the forms of Pure Reason, with myths and their illusory poetry’ (ibid.:132).  Ormerod’s work has the knack of engaging with the everyday in just such a positive and yet ambiguous manner, seeing within it the ‘brutal reality’ and the moments of beauty and hope as part of a larger dialogue of which both are a part.  Like Lefebvre, Ormerod asks, ‘Is it not in everyday life that man should fulfil his life as a man?’ (ibid.:127) and his photographs so often capture moments of work, leisure, family life as significant gestures of human community:

One of things Michael wasn’t, in his life or in his photography, was cynical, in fact he had a very positive view … this comes across most in the way he photographs people.  I think he photographs people very empathetically … he had a genuine interest in people … One of the projects he ran as a teacher was to get his students to photograph people, but he would insist that they talk get to know them first, know their names, enter into a dialogue with them … he thought that was important … he had a genuine interest in people … and without wanting to romanticize it …  I think that’s in many of the photographs, some of which are in the book and some of which aren’t (Weston 2001).

In so many different ways as I have already suggested, Michael Ormerod’s photography ‘enters into dialogue’ with photographic and literary traditions, with the landscape he pictures, with the viewer and within the very frames of his images themselves, and these can be seen most emphatically in his posthumous collection States of America.


Bakhtin On Goethe


Many of these latter comments occur in a little discussed fragment of the lost Bakhtin book on the ‘bildungsroman’ published in Speech Genres. Here, he develops the idea of the chronotope in Goethe’s writings, and concentrates in particular upon the relations between the human and the nonhuman. Bakhtin comments on the tendency in much literature towards ‘geographical exoticism’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 15) whereby, as I commented above, the environment becomes ‘mere background … a decoration, a setting’ (ibid). I would add that although Bakhtin used literature as his point of entry to his discussion, one could equally employ these ideas, as I am, in relation to photography. The very same kinds of ‘geographical exoticism’, or what Barry Lopez has called ‘pin up nature photography’ (Aperture), deny fuller and more complex interactions between human and nonhuman, presenting the world as ‘an immobile orientation point for developing man’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 23). However, what Bakhtin argues is that this is an inadequate representation of the ‘world’ (environment), and that what is found in Goethe is closer to a more honest vision because there humanity ‘emerges along with the world’ (ibid). Thus, space (Bakhtin’s environment) and time (Bakhtin’s history, humanity) ‘are inseparably linked’ (ibid: 27) – chronotopic – and in this linked, living phenomenon, he recognised ‘multitemporality: as remnants or relics of various stages and formations of the past and as rudiments of stages in the more or less distant future’ (ibid: 28). So as Goethe (according to Bakhtin) looked at a scene or location he did not see a static and fixed moment but a more complex and dynamic intertextuality formed in the very mingling, coexistence and interaction of different ‘stages and formations’. Thus the environment is a layered archeaology, constructed of formations of time, human and nonhuman, in which Bakhtin, via Goethe, sees ‘development, emergence, and history’ (ibid: 29).


As in the photography of Michael Ormerod, Goethe valorized the visualizing power of the eye and constantly commented upon the misleading representation of landscape as ‘something constant and unchanging’ (ibid: 29) when in fact it was alive, changing and dynamic. In this mobile environment of mountains and rivers, Bakhtin saw


interwoven with them signs of historical time – essential traces of human hands and minds that change nature, and the way human reality and all man has created are reflected back on his customs and views (ibid: 32).


So that everywhere, historical time ‘is inseparable from the natural setting (Localitat)

(ibid.), and everything within it is bound up in a series of simultaneous dialogues and interactions: human with nonhuman, past with present.


            A locality or a landscape in which there is no place for man and his creative activity, which cannot be populated and built up, which cannot become the arena for human history, was alien and unpleasant for Goethe (ibid: 34).


Goethe disliked the fashion for raw wilderness, for ‘wild nature, virgin and inaccessible to man, primordial landscape’ (ibid.), and preferred always an environment in which ‘necessary connections’ (ibid: 33) existed and where the two were inter-defined, embroiled in each others’ identities. Environment has to be an interillumination between human and nonhuman, and cannot be ‘an abstract thing, for the sake of its self-sufficient naturalness’ (ibid: 38). Goethe felt that,


A piece of the earth’s space must be incorporated into the history of humanity.Outside this history it is lifeless and incomprehensible, and nothing can be done with it. But, conversely, nothing can be done with the historical event, with the abstract historical recollection, if it is not localized in terrestial space … (ibid.).


This smacks of anthropocentrism of the worst kind – that the ‘earth’s space’ is only

meaningful when incorporated in human history – and yet Bakhtin’s ‘conversely’ emphasises interconnectedness and interdependence and refutes the monological assertion of human history over the natural history of space. For Bakhtin, therefore, using Goethe as his prism, the point is that ‘space and time are bound together into one inseparable knot. Terrestrial space and human history are inseparable from one another in Goethe’s integrated concrete vision’ (ibid: 40). The power of this vision is to see environment as living dialogue – as heteroglossia – : ‘it contains no inanimate, immobile, petrified places, no immutable background that does not participate in action and emergence (in events), no decorations or sets… Everything in this world is a time-space, a true chronotope’ (ibid: 42).


Implied in many of these versions of human / nature is a strong and rigid vision of hierarchy, a word used much in Bakhtin’s works. The visual hierarchy that one might encounter in certain portrayals of environmental photography is clear. Thus Ansel Adams’ work is characterised by both distance and a certain hierarchy in which we, the viewers, are held at bay, removed from the site / sight by the very structure of the framing itself. The land is way over there and never close at hand, rarely to be communed with or lived in, but to be admired at a distance, in awe, in wonder, like a natural cathedral, a preserved wilderness. Bakhtin knew that the hierarchies, wherever they were to be found had to be challenged and turned upside down. This is his famous idea of carnival in which the prevailing truth of the established order, and all that is fixed and complete, is opposed and countered by the riotous assertion of becoming, change and renewal. The anti-mythic photography of Michael Ormerod, for example, has strong aspects of the carnivalesque within it as a way of challenging the stilted and static photographic texts of Ansel Adams, whilst re-presenting the environment as an extraordinary mix of dynamic dialogical energies. What emerges is a sense of environment as hybrid, mixed and multilayered rather than complete preserved and sacred – a space in which the body of the earth and the human body are bound together.


                                  Michael Ormerod’s States of America  (1993)


On Blue Highways

Michael Ormerod went out of his way to experience the margins of American life. His journeys were planned to avoid the large cities and the highways and to take him instead into the byways and small towns, to meet the people who lived and worked there and to photograph the world they saw and experienced. The influence of Robert Frank’s The Americans and Walker Evans’ American Photographs, as we have seen, are clear in many of these decisions, as well as his reading of, and admiration for, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, that set out to explore America along its minor roads and backwaters just as Ormerod would do. Anne Stolworthy told me that Blue Highways was in part a guide for their travels since, ‘we did go to some of the towns he’d written about [Pioche, Nevada, Deming, New Mexico for example] … he was fascinated by that book’ (Stolworthy 1998).  In it, Least Heat-Moon writes that the ‘blue highway’ is ‘a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself’ leading to ‘those little towns that get on the map – if they get on at all – only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill’ (Least Heat-Moon 1999:n.p., 4).  At one point, Least Heat-Moon claims that ‘a man becomes his attentions [during a journey]. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him’ (ibid.:17). This coincides very clearly with Ormerod’s sense of travel-as-becoming, of letting-go into the spirit of the journey and to the contacts that the road would bring, and also to the Freudian / Lefebvrian sense of an ‘repressed’/‘enfolded’ world coming to light in these ‘out-of-the-way’ places.  Geoff Weston added that,

It’s almost as if photographers feel in a curious way that if you want to get to America’s unconscious, as it were, it’s more possible in those kind of backwaters of America – I’m not sure that’s true, and if it was true, I’m not sure it is anymore … I suspect that a lot of that was Frank’s and Evans’ influence (Weston, 2001).

These ‘backwaters’, as Weston calls them, are the meeting points of complex social, economic and cultural forces, where struggles over change and tradition are often most heightened.  The city’s rapidity can often obscure these ‘crises’ in the relentless pursuit of progress and reinvention, whereas smaller towns show the traces on their very everyday surfaces and landscapes; the Main Street, the gas station, the diner, the backyard, the details of lived experience and on the faces of the people.  Rather than race through these places to the next sensation or the next fashion, the photographer – Evans, Frank, Ormerod – might step ‘off the road’ to preserve in their moment of change these communities and their inhabitants.  We are required to look, not ignore, these moments as they are held in time, taken out of the incessant flow of visual information that encompasses them and threatens to overwhelm and consume them.  In the informational age of modernity with its accelerated patterns of life, of which photography has been a significant factor, Ormerod ‘immobilizes’ the mobility of America, freezes the frame so that the audience can enter the moment and engage and converse with the image. In a way, the ‘forgotten’ small-town ‘backwaters’ are, as Weston comments, like the ‘repressed’ unconscious that modern America happily pushes aside in its rush forward. The photograph can stop the rush to reveal the complex constructions of that ‘forgotten’ world to find within its layers the very elements that might help us interpret and understand the present and the future. This is a version of Benjamin’s ‘optical unconscious’ through which photography ‘reveals the secret’ by directing the eye to ‘the smallest things, meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams’ (Benjamin 1997:243).

Cinema and television assumes a fast-cutting montage as the norm, flashing products and experiences before our eyes with little time or space in which to contemplate the relations of those experiences to our lives or communities.  It is as if Ormerod slows down the flow of images and presents them not as blurred memories but as dialogic encounters, spatial reminders of all the complex forces entwined in even the most apparently insignificant moment.  A recurring and appropriate motif with all this in mind are Ormerod’s various figures of intersection – spaces where elements converge and disperse – on roads and highways, street corners, crossings, windows, angles, lakesides, beaches, curbs and arrows.  Again and again, images are intersected by lines of transit (paths, roads, telephone cables, sidewalks, fences, white-lines) like visual conversations and inflections, clashing ‘voices’ and ‘accents’ articulated as material presences passing within his landscapes, but here the ‘noise’ is halted in the momentary ‘silence’ of photography. Roland Barthes writes of the ‘pause’ or ‘punctum’ in a photographic image (Barthes 1993:23) and Jean Baudrillard calls a similar effect ‘silence’ in which the image captures the ‘intense immobility’ of a scene within the complexity of the frame (Baudrillard 1997:161, Barthes 1993:49).  In that ‘silence’, our active involvement with the image might begin – our turn to participate in a dialogue that too often appears to take place elsewhere in our alienated, commodified culture.  Photography has the capacity for what John Roberts calls ‘interactive relationality’ (Roberts 1998:6), a ‘dialectical realism’, as he terms it, whose intersecting layers can expose contradictions through an intimate and detailed exploration of the ‘everyday’.  Thus Ormerod’s work delves into the flow of the everyday in order to ‘frame’ these moments of dialogue or ‘interactive relationality’, and ‘studies the negative and positive aspects of capitalist culture which confront each other on a daily basis’ (ibid.:8).  Like Henri Lefebvre, whose ideas Roberts examines too, Ormerod’s ‘sense of social reality is double-sided: as involved in the realisation and derealisation of human needs and desires’ (ibid.).  Thus in representing and articulating this doubleness in photography one asserts a vision of humanity formed out of such contradictory relations to the world and acknowledges the often paradoxical nature of our existence.  Ormerod both loved and hated America, as we have commented, its contradictions run through his work, and to return to the intersection, can be seen as visualized in the matrix of simultaneous relations encompassed in such tension-filled moments.  As Lefebvre writes, ‘There can never be any question of denying anything that exists the right to exist.  It is the movement within whatever exists which transforms the world, past, present or future, and not theories about what should be rejected and what should be preserved’ (Lefebvre 1991:193).  In these terms, what ‘exists’ in America has been a complex national mythology of individualism, the ‘frontier ethos’ and a manifest destiny to succeed, based upon dreams of unrestricted progress, mobility and freedom.  As Lefebvre comments, this ‘confusion is lived – in other words it intervenes in life and in the consciousness of life’ (ibid.), and appears in the ideological myths that encode people’s lives to form a significant part of who and what we are.  Ormerod, even as a European ‘outsider’ to America, cannot isolate himself from these myths, in fact, they are probably heightened by this position, and he is attracted by their promise as much as he repulsed by their effects.  Once again, Ormerod’s ‘intersections’ must include him (the ‘author’), the shadowy presence on the edge of America looking in for clues at the ‘scenes of crime’, as Benjamin called Atget’s photographs (Benjamin1997: 256), but unable to ‘solve’ the case.  Instead, Ormerod’s photography cannot provide the hard evidence nor the objective ‘truth’, but offers instead the fragmented case-notes, the multiple documents and points of view that form the layers to be still pondered and unraveled by the viewer actively called upon to intersect themselves within the dialogical process his work maps.

A good example of Ormerod’s awareness of these issues can be seen in his fascination for Garry Wills’ book Reagan’s America (1988) in which he analyses the popularity of Ronald Reagan as the ‘great American synecdoche’ whose own life embodies, therefore, so many of the ‘collective dreams and memories’ of the nation itself, ‘the sincerest claimant to a heritage that never existed’ (Wills 1988:1, 94).  Wills sees in Reagan what I have termed an ‘intersection’, for he is ‘capacious, surrounding contradictions. Different worlds cohabit the man’ (ibid.).  For all his apparently obvious banality and artificiality, and perhaps even because of it, Reagan embodied a myth-driven America living ‘continuously in everyone’s home-movies of the mind’, providing many people with what they seemed to want in the 1980s – a vision of the past uncomplicated by real history (ibid.:2).  Wills argues that all Americans were ‘complicit’ in Reagan, ‘jointly responsible’ for seeing in him a ‘metaphorical cartography, tracing “new frontiers” of various sorts’ to replace their sense of loss and disappointment after Watergate and Vietnam:  ‘He renews our past by resuming it … not a tracking shot, but a montage.  We make the connections.  It is our movie’ (ibid.:4).  This kind of analysis is at the heart of Ormerod’s exploration of the ‘States of America’ in which the mythic and familiar that construct the impressive, apparent ‘whole’ is interrupted and fragmented by the intrusion of ‘other’ presences that intersect or dialogize that supposed totality.  We are drawn to the myths and what they represent, ‘complicit’ in their attractiveness and promise to some degree, but simultaneously, by the detail and framing of the images, made aware of the, often over-looked, histories that have created that moment.  We see the myth – it is, after all, our movie – and yet the myth is juxtaposed with something else that causes us to look again, to look back, to revise and to ‘converse’ with what is there.  Reagan represented for Wills a sinister mythic containment by which Americans were allowed to live certain fantasies through him without actually translating positive change into their own lives: ‘We are allowed to dream the wildest things, so long as we do not think anything new’ (Wills 1988:148).  Thus Reagan’s ‘movie’ America – Reaganland – is sanitized like Disneyland, unhindered by contradictions, and preserved in a neat, pristine black and white (in every sense), ‘bring[ing] the oldest stories back to us in “real life”’ to create a ‘remembered self’ which is ‘simplied to resist the endless impingements of disorientating change.  Old things, we are assured, do not really change, they are fixed under the blur of mere “externals”.’(ibid.: 387, 149, 375-6). Reaganland is a mythic theme park where America is ‘cut … to measure…[with] a safe past, with no sharp edges to stumble against.  The more visits one makes to such a past, the better is one immunized against any troubling incursions’ that reality might make into its territory (ibid.:387).  Reagan’s illusory past smothers the complex histories that actually formed the nation, hollowing it out with mythic gestures and icons that provide a ‘substitute history to lull us’ (ibid.), and therefore providing no reliable lessons from which to learn about the future.  Using a driving metaphor, Wills concludes his study by insisting on the importance of the ‘rearview mirror’ which helps us get a sense of perspective, whereas ‘what happens if, when we look in our historical rearview mirror, all we can see is a movie?’ (ibid.: 388).  Reagan was an ‘intersection’ of the real and the imagined, a bizarre mythic presence whose values seemed to speak clearly to the American people as a mix of Western frontier ethics, Hollywood sheen, capitalist individualism, small-town sensibility and corny melodramatic nostalgia for a lost, but recoverable world.  When Ormerod read Wills’ book it provided a parallel to his own photographic project that sought to record and reflect upon many of these same issues and dilemmas, not to overtly condemn America at all, but to represent his twin responses of dynamism and disbelief.

Published in French two years before Wills’ book, Jean Baudrillard’s America comments on Reagan’s ‘Californian … triumphal illusionism’ and his ‘sunny screen memory’ in which ‘image alone counts’ (Baudrillard 1991:108).  Reagan is the epitomy of simulation, an ‘advertisement effect’, more real than reality itself simply because he is a cluster of polished needs and achievable dreams.  Both Wills and Baudrillard present Reagan as a phenomenon whose meanings can be teased out to reveal something of the spirit of the age, something about America’s psyche, but in Baudrillard’s case in particular, he cannot condemn what he finds.  The analysis of Reagan and more widely, of America itself, is marked by a sense of intrigue at the persistent lure of the place – as he puts it at one point, ‘It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, Puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe’ (ibid.:23 – my emphasis).  Baudrillard’s ‘and yet’ demonstrates the double-sided nature of the place that continues to attract and repulse, just as it did for Michael Ormerod, with the spectral promise of ‘a society of complexity, hybridity, and the greatest intermingling, of a ritualism that is ferocious but whose superficial diversity lends it beauty’ (ibid.:7).

Ormerod’s work addresses some of these issues directly through his frequent representation of advertising on billboards, shop windows, street signs and elsewhere. He would have noted this too in the work of Atget, Evans and Frank as well as writers such as William Least Heat-Moon, who writes of billboards ‘repeated like a stutter’ along the very road that promises escape and self-renewal: ‘On the way out of town, I saw a billboard advertising a bank: WHEN YOU’RE BETTER YOU GET BIGGER. Pleasant little Jonesboro … gave the lie to that’ (Least Heat-Moon 1999:153, 39).  This is best exemplified in Ormerod’s billboard image ‘Luxury in the fast lane’ (date unknown, but probably 1989) which unfixes the eye with a tension-filled environment of signifiers and edges. The foreground’s spatial boundary separates us from and joins us to the billboard that speaks of ‘Luxury in the fast lane’, but is clearly in decay and in the process of being reclaimed by the natural surroundings. Language is peeling away so that words are indistinct and can no longer communicate with their original clarity and purpose and likewise the image of the car disappears within the frame of the billboard itself. The aura of the fetishisized object is undercut through its representation here, partially hidden and decaying by the side of the road. Equally ambiguous is the arrow pointing us along the road (in to the ‘fast lane’, the future?), which in fact points to another edge, that of the photograph, and presumably a reminder of the inadequacy of photography to encompass anything more than the fragmentary and the contradictory. The effect of this photograph is to pull the eye in several directions and to bombard the viewer with lines and markers that cut up the frame into a range of shapes and patterns (the telegraph pole, lines, road, arrow the glare of the sun).  So although this is a ‘social’ image, commenting as Least Heat-Moon did upon the changing landscape of modern America, upon its consumption of goods and images, it is also self-referential, commenting as it does upon representation itself and the transience of the image.  The framed pictures are inadequate, both the billboard and Ormerod’s own photograph, and can only suggest the complex processes of time and change captured momentarily in a picture that does, in fact, re-direct our eye (with the arrow – often recurring in Ormerod images) along the road to somewhere else, to another frame (a second billboard along the road).  So this single, commercial moment is in decay but there can be no easy comfort in the natural world’s reclamation of space since the relentless production of images and goods demands that a new billboard awaits us around the next bend.

In contemplating this photograph one is drawn back to the ‘blue highways’ of Least Heat-Moon with a different perspective, but one which is as important as his interest in small towns, and that is the road itself.  As in Ormerod’s picture, what actually dominates the photographic frame is the road itself, the possibility of movement onwards, away or between places, that is, precisely the transience of detachment from community and fixity.  Ormerod, as a ‘traveler-photographer’, can be interpreted in this way, as one comment on his work suggests, he was interested in ‘in-between places … places where the landscape fights a silent battle with the man-made, where the forces of nature collide with the artificially banal’ (unknown author Cape 2 America no date: 43).  In other words the road is a dialogic space connecting and disconnecting, arriving and departing, and at the same time it is a contact zone in which meetings take place and lives coincide – if only briefly, before moving on again.  The ‘road narrative’ – whether novel, film or photographic sequence – has become a central aspect of American cultural practice precisely because of its historical resonance for the nation and its attractiveness as a flexible form for the expression of encounter and education.  Ormerod’s ‘in-betweenness’ appropriates the road narrative for photography as a mode of referring to this rich tradition whilst adding to it a transatlantic ambiguity about the kinds of myths and fables it has so often been built upon.  The reversed advertising sign[3] (for Texaco [in the collection], Marlboro [in the archive]) or the sign displaced as in the ‘Luxury in the fast lane’ example, or in other archived pictures, such as one for ‘Stuckeys’ standing in a swamp, or simply a blank billboard next to a hotel, all resonate with ambiguous possibility, inviting the viewer to engage with this social landscape.  Of course, there is no clear, didactic message in these images, although they often appear to be critical of the commercialization of the American landscape, since Ormerod is obviously attracted aesthetically to the iconography itself and reflects this attraction / repulsion response in the pictures.  At this level, they are examples of dialogic landscapes where excess and beauty, commerce and aesthetics, graveyards and building sites meet.

Ormerod, like the radical photographer-critic Allan Sekula, is suspicious of photographs claiming to present truths or to present themselves as ‘uninvested analogues’ (Sekula 1994: 87). On the contrary, much is ‘invested’ in every photograph for they are mediated by their context, author and usage, and the idea that any photograph might be neutral or objective is naive in the extreme. Similarly, it is dangerous to claim too much for the photographic image, and I think Ormerod’s evident humour, irony and carnivalesque spirit act to undercut any pretensions or pretence to authority. Sekula states that photographs can only ever be ‘fragmentary and incomplete utterances’ (Sekula 1993: 117) and in Ormerod’s work one is aware that this medium is well suited to the representation of America and its environments that are themselves fragmentary, incomplete and riddled with contradictions.

The Junkyard of Dreams

The marginalized, as we have seen, is important to Ormerod’s photography in a number of ways giving him access to alternative versions of the imagined America so readily apprehended in Europe.  Places, people, activities and their material cultures presented a type of ‘symbolic inversion’, as Stallybrass and White term it, which ‘inverts, contradicts, abrogates, or in some fashion presents an alternative to commonly held cultural codes, values and norms’ (quoting Babcock in Stallybrass and White 1986:17).  At the edges, where things become unfixed, shabby and fluid, there is more potential for change and for irregularity, even for ‘heteroglot exuberance … where all is mixed, hybrid, ritually degraded and defiled’ and yet ‘always becoming … mobile’ (ibid.:8, 9) because they are prone to the shifts of time, decay and renewal.  Backstreets, junkyards, graveyards, gutters, building sites, vacant lots, unused motels and rubbish dumps recur in Ormerod’s Archive as resonant spaces that reflect his mingled, dialogic sense of loss and hope, life and death, dream and despair.  As Lefebvre writes,  ‘Differences endure or arise on the margins of the homogenized realm … What is different is, to begin with, what is excluded: the edges of the city, shanty towns, the spaces of forbidden games …’ (Lefebvre 1994:373).  These are important clues to Ormerod’s attraction to America’s margins where layers of history can be revealed rather than simply the glossy, official version, proving, as Lefebvre writes, ‘[n]othing disappears completely … In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows’ (Lefebvre 1994:229).  Recalling Benjamin’s ‘debris of history’, the ‘excluded’ can reveal so much about the processes of power that created them and about their potentiality to re-energize the homogenous, monoglossic, normalized world.

At the end of the second block, everything changed.  I thought of science fiction movies in which whole towns were abducted by aliens, plopped back down in the midst of nothingness.  You’d see folks standing there at the edge of town, looking out.

            America, and civilization, ended here.

It was the sort of abrupt border that a decade or so later we’d get used to in our cities.  Across the street lay a vast empty lot overgrown with banana trees, Johnson grass and sunflowers.  It had been used as a dump for appliances, old tires, automobile doors and sacks of garbage.  The ground was studded with broken glass.  In the clearing beneath one straggly oak sat a cable spool with vegetable crates upended around it… Time and time’s footman-vandals had had their way: it may as well have been an Anasazi ruin. (Sallis 1999:99)

In the last chapter of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990), his journey through contemporary California has brought him to Fontana, ‘[r]ising from the geological and social detritus that has accumulated at the foot of the Cajon Pass … the regional antipode to the sumptuary belts of West L.A. or Orange County’ (1990:375).  Examining the ‘deeply emblematic local history’ (ibid.) of this place reveals in its layers of dreams, boosterism, decline and reinvention a political and social archaeology that tells a complex narrative about capitalism in America.  Davis examines the ‘human residues’ from industrial landscapes that had once dominated Fontana which in its boom time of the 1940s ‘was a colorful but dissonant bricolage of Sunkist growers, Slovene chicken ranchers, gamblers, mobsters, over-the-road truckers, industrialized Okies, braceros, the Army Air Corps … and transplanted steelworkers and their families’ and by 1946, even the original nucleus for the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang (ibid.:398-9).  However, the decline of the Kaiser Steel empire left the area a desolated mix of scrapyards, closed-down chicken farms; ‘a landscape of randomly scattered, generally uncollectable (and ungentrifiable) debris: ranging from Didion’s creepy boulders to the rusting smudge-pots in phantom orchards, the Burma-Shave-era motel names (like ‘Ken-Tuck-U-In’) …’(ibid.:434).  But most powerful of all these remnants of the past for Davis is the circus wrecking yard with the bits and pieces of California’s amusement parks, which he sees as a ‘summary, unsentimental judgment on the value of its lost childhood’ in which ‘the past generations are like so much debris to be swept away by the developers’ bulldozers’ (ibid.:435).

The loss and anger felt in Davis’s book is apparent but his efforts to record these moments before they are swept away forever represent a further aspect of his project as a historian.  The ‘lost childhood’ suggests Davis’s nostalgia for the past and his Benjaminian desire for a different way of seeing (see later), which is always present in his work, mixed up intimately with the cultural debris all around him through which his work teases out meanings and patterns of loss and (occasionally) hope.  We need to study the debris and the wreckage, something Davis has learned from Walter Benjamin, who provides Davis’s epigraph, which contains the line ‘A native’s book about his city will always be related to memoirs; the writer has not spent his childhood there in vain’, for it tells the tales of desire, genuine striving, failure and redemption.  In Benjamin’s work on cities, the ‘rag-picker’ had a unique and heroic perspective for he dealt with and collected ‘everything that the big city has cast off, everything it has lost, and discarded, and broken.  He goes through the archives of debauchery, and the jumbled array of refuse’ (Benjamin 1999:349).  The rag-picker ‘rescues from complete destruction the broken, the obsolete and the despised, refunctioning them and making them useful once more’ (Gilloch 1996:165).  Recall for a moment one of the dialogic threads we have been following throughout this essay, the one that leads us back from Ormerod and Benjamin to Eugene Atget’s chiffonniers (rag-pickers) in the streets of Paris.  As always, Benjamin appreciated that photographs could capture the fragments as well, and none better than Atget.

The fragments of the modern, commercial world are seen and taken up as if the very ‘ruins of modernity’ are being recycled (ibid.) by the archaeologist who ‘unearths the old-fashioned commodities that in turn reveal the truth about the new ones: namely, that they are the same old rubbish’ (ibid.). For Benjamin and for Davis, to an extent, the rag-picker is a vision of the historian whose work takes in the over-looked and the hidden, the historical materialist ‘concerned with the salvation of objects and people from the oblivion of forgetting, with collection and recollection’ and resistance to the ‘fragmentation of experience … the growth of modern amnesia’ (ibid.:166).  For Benjamin, the poet/rag-picker like Baudelaire saved the fragments, studied the refuse and the socially over-looked – ‘to excavate and remember’ (ibid.:178) – rather than to simply forget and move on.

Of course, Benjamin’s fascination with photography relates to his concerns for not forgetting and for ensuring that the kaleidoscopic rapidity of modern consumerism is captured for examination.  The ‘Denkbild’ (thought-image) provided a means of providing what Graeme Gilloch calls a ‘historical snapshot, a frozen moment’ (ibid.), not unlike a photograph’s capacity for ‘intense immobility’, as Barthes and Baudrillard termed it (see earlier), and for the simultaneity and dialogue that draws in the viewer requiring participation not passivity. Benjamin’s aim was to

reclaim the debris of history from the matrix of systemacity in which historiography has embedded it: to blast the fragments from their all-too-familiar, taken-for-granted … mythical context and place them in a new, radically heterogeneous setting in which their integrities would not be fused into one (Gregory 1994: 234).

Benjamin’s insistence upon ‘montage’ was his attempt to break up the conventional hold of linear, totalising history (like Bakhtin’s epic) and invoke the subjugated knowledges from below as a new way of telling to resist the fusion ‘into one’[4].  The ‘radically heterogeneous’ is akin to Bakhtin’s dialogized heteroglossia, wherein many voices are permitted to speak, to interact and to create without the dominant pressure towards a  centralised, controlling over-voice or framework of totalisation. In photographic terms, montage cuts up the unmediated, apparent neutral objectivity of the picture and reclaims the ‘debris’ in order to incorporate it into a more complex patterning of interaction and encounter. Within the context of a discussion of photography, it is useful to append the notion of ‘collage’, for this allows for the specific additional sense of layering and ‘intersection’ into this new, radical definition of photographic practice. The supposed ‘truth’ of the photographic image as ‘evidence’, as we have seen, might simply endorse the status quo and bolster established ways of thinking, but is challenged by montage/collage which functions as a dialogic process within the picture’s frame breaking up the closed circuit of meaning.  Trachtenberg defines montage, in relation to Walker Evans’ interest in it, as ‘juxtaposing two images to produce an unarticulated but felt idea or emotion’ (Trachtenberg 1995:259).   The resultant image is dialogic and multi-leveled, blasted out of ‘the matrix of systemacity’ that attempts to define and reduce it to a single vision, a manageable whole.


Just as Bakhtin’s writing is concerned for the anti-epic, anti-mythic, centrifugal, and carnivalesque often to be found outside of ‘official’ discourses, so too is Benjamin’s desire to ‘blast open the continuum of history’ and reveal the over-looked and fragmentary in the process (Benjamin 1992: 254). Michel Foucault’s concept of genealogy defines the thrust of these radical perspectives in its gathering of the

local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchise and order them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitrary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects (Foucault 1980: 83).

It is the ‘centralising powers’ (ibid) of tradition and consensus that enframe, fix and anchor ‘history’ or ‘knowledge’ [and representation] against which Foucault rails, seeking a liberation from such unitary, or ‘monologic’ assertions by the rememberance of the marginalised. The ‘fragments’ (Foucault 1980: 87) blasted out are like Benjamin’s ‘traces’ and ‘fossils’ that must be reinscribed into a more inclusive texture of culture, into a ‘heteroglossia’, as Bakhtin would term it. Foucault once said that he was interested in ‘the smallest details … [in] those things that were never hallowed by an idea’ (quoted in Mahon 1992: 113). Michael Gardiner specifically links Foucault, Bakhtin and Benjamin when he claims that

They [Foucault and Bakhtin] attempt to encourage this Benjaminian ‘return of the repressed’ by probing the gaps, silences and discontinuities in the text of history, thereby undermining the abstract claims to truth made by official historiography (Gardiner 1992: 159).

As Paul Hamilton puts it, ‘History must be contradictory to be adequate to the discursive effects characterizing an epoch. It is therefore neither systematic nor totalizing’ (Hamilton 1996: 138). Foucault’s genealogical history refutes a ‘total history’ since a ‘total description draws all phenomena around a single centre – a principle, a meaning, a spirit, a world-view, and overall shape; a general history, on the contrary, would deploy the space of dispersion’ (Foucault in Dean 1994: 39). Genealogy ‘is a way of analysing multiple, open-ended, heterogeneous trajectories of discourse, practices, and events, and of establishing their patterned relationships, without recourse to regimes of truth that claim pseudo-naturalistic laws or global necessities (Dean 1994: 35-6).

Ultimately, genealogy as critique investigates ‘the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to see ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying’, and it ‘separates out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think’ (Mahon 1992: 122). Genealogy is, therefore, to be seen as a history looking toward the future, towards the possibilities of unlearning the past and adding to our understandings of it at the same time.

Photography can contribute to this ‘genealogy’ by representing the ‘voices’ of the unrepresented and the marginalized, and by carnivalizing the dominance of the center through formal interventions in the supposed visual norm. Benjamin argues that photography’s attention to detail – as in the work of Atget – reveals the ‘optical unconscious’, that is, all that has been repressed and forgotten, but which for him might in the process of rediscovery, offer a political alternative to the clouded ‘aura’ of the past (Benjamin 1997:243). In addition, the concept of ‘montage’, that is the association of juxtaposed elements, was likewise a ‘means of bringing hidden structures and relations into discursive view’, according to Roberts, and able to ‘recover more of the world’ and ‘capable of “capturing” the multiperspectival complexities of reality’ (1998:30). In Benjamin’s version of montage there is no synthesised totality, since the retrieved past is permitted ‘to speak back … in all their significant insignificance, opening the past and its futures to the possible futures of the present’ (ibid.:34) One sees these impulses, as I have argued,  running through the treads of influence I have charted – from Atget to Evans to Frank to Ormerod – in work which is always implicitly engaged in these processes of revision and re-evaluation, projecting, as it does, a dialogized heteroglossia – a kaleidoscopic contest of voices.  As Roberts states, in the early Stalinist debates over montage, it was largely considered ‘as a dialogue with “others” as part of wider dialogue within the working class and the workers’ movement as a whole, the net effect being a continually growing connectivity of consciousness’ (ibid.:35).  However, dialogism ‘does not imply holism’ in Benjamin’s rethinking of montage for he connects the dialogue with a past characterised by loss and incompleteness and, therefore, insists upon the unfinished, on-going nature of dialogic relations.  As Roberts suggests, this brings his ideas closest to Bakhtin’s, in which ‘this interpretive relationship between the self, the work and others was always an unfinished process’ (ibid.) whereby the living and the dead, present and past are intertwined in the dialogic process and hence, ‘nothing is subject to loss in Bakhtin’s model, everything potentially recoverable is able to take part in an endless, transmuting universal discourse’ (ibid.:36).

Walker Evans, as we have seen, was fascinated by montage, graffiti, signage and debris throughout his career and actually ended his life ‘poring over garbage cans and abandoned objects, which he collected with manic enthusiasm’ (Mora and Hill 1995:305).  These everyday elements were part of what it meant to experience life and, therefore, could not be excluded from the frame.  Indeed, Evans ‘explored new ideas about the evolution of the image: trashed, recovered, recycled, it obeyed the laws of change …’ (ibid.) and could become embedded within the layered landscape of everyday life, full of curious juxtapositions, ironic contrasts and unexpected beauty.  He had seen it, like Benjamin, in the streets of Atget’s Paris where every corner and shop-front held the possibility of unique, vernacular oddities that only the unplanned, accidents of the everyday could create.  Evans’ awareness of these social layerings and leavings is in tune with the landscapes of his most well known photographs of cultural debris and ruin, writing that, ‘A ruin is more interesting than a freshly completed building.  It shows the effect of time and experience’ (cited in Mora and Hill 1995:332).  Mora and Hill see in all this interest an ‘aesthetic of the rejected’ (ibid.) that relates back directly to American Photographs and the picture ‘Stamped Tin Relic’, 1929, which opens the second part of that collection, and continues into his last works with their minute concentration on scattered debris, waste and heterogeneous objects.  Evans, as always, is ‘rag-picking’ twentieth century America for evidence of its history; for the scraps and details that might provide us with clues to the hidden stories and unacknowledged presences that make up the complex patterns of the cultural landscape[5].  This is not the official version, of course, not ‘top-down’ history, but is a version of Michel Foucault’s genealogy– ‘local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges’ (Foucault 1980: 83).

(Ella Shohat and  Robert Stam in The Visual Culture Reader ed. N Mirzoeff 1998).  In this article, the authors argue that ‘garbage’ with its ‘promiscuous mingling’, its ‘mixed, syncretic, radically decentered’ qualities ‘provides an ideal postmodern and postcolonial metaphor’ and as a space of buried, hidden traces exemplifies the ‘time-space compression’ typical of the accelerated production and waste of technology  (Shohat & Stam in Mirzoeff 1998:42-3).  Foucault writes of the ‘heterochronic’ as time concentrated in a circumscribed space, or as Shohat and Stam put it, ‘coagulated sociality, a gooey distillation of society’s contradictions’ (ibid.:43).  Garbage is social over-spill and the mark of excess that is cast out, buried in landfill (an interesting word) or burnt (cremated) like the dead and the forgotten. Yet it is the remains, the tell-tale remnants of that very social order ‘an aleatory collage or surrealist enumeration, a case of the definitive by chance, a random pile of objets trouvés and papiers collés, a place of violent, surprising juxtapositions’ (ibid.:43), and curious mixings.  Garbage ‘signals the return of the repressed’, for it is ‘the ultimate resting place of all that society both produces and represses, secretes and makes secret’ (ibid.).  In examining this process of production / repression, as archaeologists do, rather than ignoring it, one might understand much about social and economic orders for in what we throw away is a story of how wealthy and careless we are.  In addition, garbage is dumped at the edges of that social hierarchy, out of sight, visually repressed and hidden, and therefore, there is political value in refocusing attention upon the forgotten and the marginalized as a way of examining power relations and conventions.  In this re-centering of margins and the appropriation of garbage as a metaphor of resistance and creativity, one signals a counter-history that asserts the hidden and the over-looked as a productive source of alternative values and ideologies.  Out of the garbage, therefore, emerges a new, cultural vision, a  ‘recycling’ and re-using of the discarded in both literal and metaphorical ways.  A surprising hybrid formation emerges from which to reassess commodity capitalism, consumerism and its various processes and mechanisms – ‘Garbage becomes the morning after of the romance of the new’, as Shohat and Stam put it (1998:45). Borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s discussions of decay, fragmentation and ‘rag-picking’, they add that, ‘In the dump’s squalid phantasmagoria, the same commodities that had been fetishized by advertising, dynamized by montage, and haloed through backlighting, are now stripped of their aura of charismatic power’ and re-invented (ibid.).

As we have seen in our earlier discussion of billboards, Ormerod’s work is constantly engaged in this ambiguous de-fetishizing of commodities and in the critique of ‘aura’.  This is exemplified in a number of ‘trash’ images throughout his ‘archive’ – ‘Abandoned fridges’, ‘Backyard Trash’ and most accessibly ‘Smashed TV and Car’  (States, p. 57).  In the latter, Ormerod places us, as viewers, in the dark margins of the scene looking out upon ‘layers’ of trash at the roadside, whilst in the background stretches out a mountain horizon of Ansel Adams proportions.  This is a technique repeated across a number of key images in which Ormerod juxtaposes the traditional western landscape with humanized landscapes of waste (see ‘Dead Car in Desert’, p. 28; ‘Car in Canal’, p. 47; ‘Roof of car in a field’), one effect of which is as a reminder of the interrelations, at all levels, of the human and the non-human.  In this photograph, the television is a startling reminder of the source of so many mediated images of American landscape, from TV westerns, Hollywood films and advertising, in which the wide-open spaces are synonymous with freedom and unchecked mobility.  But here, the screen (of mythic memory) is literally shattered and the television breaking down into its component parts and lost in the shadows of the encroaching shrubbery.  The other layers of waste lay all around; a rusting water tank, a toilet, a garbage bin and an old, abandoned Chrysler – all once-prized and used commodities, symbols of the good life and the conquest of the natural world, but now simply ghosts of that time of plenty superceded by the very latest products no doubt newly-prized in the shining pink house in the background. This photograph is echoed too in ‘Dead deer and tyre’ (1989) in which our gaze moves towards a wooded clearing interrupted by a mixture of human and non-human debris – a decaying deer, a car tyre, an old oven and piles of junk thrown into the woods. These images are perfect examples of Ormerod’s dialogical photography, working, as they do, across various interconnected and overlapping layers of history and meaning, to create simultaneous and ambiguous representations of the contradictions inherent in American society where land is both cherished and exploited, commodities worshipped and discarded, and history transformed into myth.

The eye of the photographer can re-direct our vision away from mythic ground (the sublime landscape of Ansel Adams), to the alternative space of the dump ‘where hybrid, multi-chronotopic relations are reinvoiced and reinscribed.  Polysemic and multivocal, garbage is seen literally … but it is also read symptomatically, as a metaphorical figure for social indictment…’ (ibid.).  The monologic world attempts to present itself as a ‘clean’, well-ordered place where everything has its place in the total picture, and garbage merely unsettles this portrait, implying there is something ‘other’ interfering and upsetting that order, something from the past which that order would much rather hide away and forget.  In American terms, the connotations of the word ‘trash, as in ‘white trash’, relates also to issues of class and race and specifically to those seen as outside the ‘norm’, living on the social and economic fringes of mainstream, respectable society.  Thus, in representing human ‘trash’ one might both be validating their lives and re-inscribing their stories as significant elements within the larger pattern of history. This is not to ‘speak for’ these people, of course, but to re-situate their over-looked presence into the dominant cultural discourse. Ormerod’s image ‘Graveyard – Wounded Knee’, 1989 (States, p.66) combines many of these elements by representing a Native American standing in a tribal graveyard.  Here, the marginalized man – ‘social’ trash within the wider perspectives of American history – looks down upon the dead, life’s ‘waste products’ fenced within the open spaces their peoples once lived and worked within.  The only Native American in Ormerod’s collection is with the dead, like a living, but ghostly, reminder of the terrible waste of history and its capacity for destruction and erasure of other histories and other lives. The visual ‘histories’ of the trailer park, dump, the junkyard, the graveyard, and the wastelands of modernity can act as timely interjections in the smooth assertions of capitalist production, consumption and history, reminding us of the unchecked consequences of its processes and assumptions.  As Benjamin, Bakhtin and Foucault argue, it is important to redeem the forgotten and to inject it into the monologic world so that nothing is lost to history and indeed, that the nature of that very history is questioned, revised and extended. Or as Robert Smithson wrote succinctly in 1967,  ‘I am convinced that the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the non-historical past; it is in yesterday’s newspapers, in the jejeune advertisements of science-fiction movies, in the false mirror of our rejected dreams’ (Smithson 1996:74). 

Faced with these simultaneous representations and stratified social memories that ‘mirror’ our ‘rejected dreams’, photography can play a role in a process of re-vision by directly involving the viewer within multiple, discontinuous layers of meaning assembled in the apparently smooth space of the image itself.   Photographer Joel Meyerowitz[6] has written of this process as a dialogue, commenting on the material image ‘interposing itself into the plane of time’, so that ‘you bring it into your experience’ irrespective of when the photograph was actually taken, and then,

You look at it and all around you the real world is humming, buzzing, and moving, and yet in this little frame there is a stillness that looks like the world.  That connection, that collision, that interfacing, is one of the most astonishing things we can experience (Meyerowitz 1990:11).

This experience of ‘connection… collision … interfacing’ for Meyerowitz, is dialogic since

You picture something in a frame and it’s got lots of accounting going on it  – stones and buildings and trees and air – but that’s not what fills up a frame.  You fill up a frame with feelings, energy, discovery, and risk, and leave room enough for someone else to get in there … A photo must have room in it for entrance by outsiders, so that the photographer himself or herself hasn’t built a structure that keeps you out, but instead has left some crack that allows you the freedom to enter (ibid.:17, 19).

Meyerowitz up-dates the earlier discussion of ‘montage’ in Benjamin and others such as Eisenstein, by seeing in photography the capacity of engaging the audience not as passive receivers but as active, collaborative, critical intelligences responding in complex, different ways to the image (see Roberts 1998:22). Alexander Rodchenko wrote in 1928 that,  ‘In order to teach man to look in a new way it is necessary to photograph ordinary familiar objects from totally unexpected viewpoints, and in unexpected positions’ (in Roberts 1998:20), and although the pure constructivism of this idea is not present in Meyerowitz’s or Ormerod’s work, there are traces of this impulse in many of their photographs.  Rodchenko’s unusual angles and his emphasis on the ‘unexpected’ served to cut up the framed image and encourage the eye /I to look at the world differently and disturb the status quo so that the viewer might ‘re-construct’ their relationship to that world.  As Rodchenko wrote, his aim was ‘to show the world from all points of view and to teach the ability to see it from all sides’ (in Burgin 1982:164).

waste etc.


Ormerod’s published and unpublished work is fascinated by various forms of debris or ‘what is left behind’, and his photography can be seen as twentieth century ‘rag-picking’.  The American shiny consumerism that represented the postwar world of boom that Ormerod had grown up recognizing reappears in his images as a comment on its crass obsolescence and of a kind of nostalgia for the values it stood for, for the excess of its designed glamour and a sadness for the economic processes that demand relentless change and alterations. A haggard but resilient man standing by an abandoned gas station on a lonely western road in Tonopah, Nevada in 1989 (States, p. 12) epitomizes the dual vision of Ormerod’s work.  Both person and place are fragments ‘left behind’ when looked at from the perspective of the speeding car on the highway heading for Reno or Las Vegas, but stopping to record their continued existence engages the reluctant viewer with their history and their survival.   In so doing, Ormerod records a secret history told through fragments, the kind of marginal or ‘lowly’ worlds that Benjamin, Foucault and Bakhtin believed was a necessary ‘counter’ to the official, centripetal order.  Hence, Ormerod’s surviving notebooks demonstrate a man fascinated by graffiti and my snippets of language chanced upon on his journeys since, just like the photographs, they seemed to provide an alternative document for America to place alongside the ‘official’ and established version.  In his last notebook, for example, there are a number of revealing jottings, such as, ‘Headless Body Found in Topless Bar’, ‘When I die, I’m going to Hell again’ and more serious ones, like the sign near Beaufort Corps Air Station, ‘The sound you hear is the noise of freedom’ or the words of President Truman at Wendover, ‘The atomic bomb is too dangerous to be loose in the hands of a lawless world … we pray that (God) may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes’. Like the book Evidence he admired so much, or Frank’s The Americans, or Evans’ American Photographs, or Least Heat-Moon’s or Pirsig’s books, together they assemble a vision of America not encountered through the mainstream media images or in advertising copy or from Hollywood, but alternative, often quirky, visions that are in dialogue with the official version, contesting and challenging it in diverse ways.  He could provide photographic reminders of the layers of history and encourage the ‘architectonics’ needed to read this more inclusive, intertextual landscape.  ‘The task of architectonics’, according to Henri Lefebvre, ‘is to describe, analyse and explain this persistence, which is often evoked in the metaphorical shorthand of strata, periods, sedimentary layers, and so on.  It is an approach, therefore, which embraces and seeks to reassemble elements dispersed by the specialized and partial disciplines’ (Lefebvre 1994:229).

As part of Ormerod’s gentle assault on the mythic ‘aura’ of America and his stripping away of its layers, his attention is often drawn not just to waste and debris but to the unfinished and the half-built landscapes, as if to remind us of the workings that actually go into production of space (as in the production of any commodity usually elided), to the ‘new buildings like flat-packs being put up everywhere’ (Stolworthy 1998). The ‘finalized’ surface of the pristine object – the suburban house (States, pp.54, 69) or the city skyline (ibid.:55) are under-cut by the representation of their working parts, by the means that drive the social machine so often hidden from view. The house with its ‘skin’ off  (p. 54) reveals its inner shell, un-clad and vulnerable despite its intrusion into the wooded landscape and the seemingly fragile electricity transformer amid the building rubble stands in contrast to the cityscape beyond with its power-hungry tower-blocks and assured aura of authority and showiness.  Just as objects will decay and return again to their parts, these images of the unfinished serve to demonstrate the very acts of creation that have brought together the parts in the first place.  There is a cycle of creation-destruction here, which as in Benjamin’s work may have within it the potential for emancipation and regeneration – or re-cycling – since all that can be constructed, can be in some manner de-constructed and reclaimed for alternative uses. Thus, looking in from these alternative angles, across and over and through, these dialogic photographs articulate a politics of seeing that functions by recalling to eye and mind what we already know and possibly accept, whilst simultaneously intervening in that established, mythic vision with some unsettling, ambiguous ‘otherness’ that destabilizes and brings into question the previously ‘accepted’ norm. 

His photographic trips returned to certain kinds of places where either the remains of American boom-times could be seen in the various forms of ‘dead technology’, as it has been termed (see Hamm and Steinberg 1982), or where communities and ways of life continue despite social and economic changes. His images often show the fragmented ‘strata’ left by such a process of change; the bits and pieces, broken toys and television sets, roadside scatterings, airplane ‘graveyards’, junk, ‘dead tech’, old advertising, monuments, graves, social rituals and faded glories.  By  ‘reassembling’ them within the photographic frame and allowing their contradictions and disharmonies to remain, Ormerod’s work, read as a series or sequence (as Geoff Weston feels it should be), charts an alternative, ‘architectonic’ history or ‘genealogy’ that perhaps could only come from an outsider.  His work has much in common with George Lipsitz’s definition of ‘counter-memory’ as a process that

starts with the particular and the specific and then builds outward … looks to the past for the hidden histories excluded from dominant narratives …[and] forces revision of existing histories by supplying new perspectives about the pat.  Counter-memory embodies aspects of myth and aspects of history, but it retains an enduring suspicion of both categories (Lipsitz 1990:213).

Ormerod’s archive shows many images of monuments and memorials, of which only one survives in States of America – (p. 82: ‘Boy with gun’, New York City, 1988-9) – demonstrating his fascination with commemorations of the past as ‘official’ gestures in the same way that his increasing picturing of debris suggests his concern for an ‘unofficial’ marking of the past traced on the landscapes of America.  Each fragment is a story within the ‘bigger’ story, for ‘He always said … when you take a photograph it’s the edges that count, everything is important’ (Stolworthy 1998).

Michael liked poking around in the rubbish that was left behind as well. He went through a stage of taking lots of photos of matted up and decomposing stuff, but not for environmental reasons … but saying, this is what people left behind, somebody has been here, that this is their life … somebody’s life … Michael would always have to poke around in a skip and find something he wanted …He loved junk shops and everything people discarded (ibid.: 1998).

Ormerod was a photographic ‘rag-picker’, recalling Atget and Evans, linking him into this chain of artists whose work redefined the social landscape.  But even closer to home, Ormerod was influenced by his close friend Geoff Weston, as Ann Stolworthy has pointed out, who was photographing vomit early on Sunday mornings on the streets of Newcastle, for the exhibition Bad Taste (1993) and around the same time Ormerod ‘started to look at poking around in rubbish and then started rearranging it…’ (ibid.). These versions of the ‘everyday’ and the cultural ‘traces’ they leave behind informed Ormerod’s American work and further extend the discussion of alternative histories and counter-memory.

Georges Bataille’s concept of base-materialism has been applied to Weston’s photography by John Roberts, and to an extent this helps define the particular influence of Weston on Ormerod. Bataille argues that photography’s attention to ‘the abject and the lowly’ is a potentially revolutionary force of ‘eruption from below the surface of bourgeois order and good taste’ (Roberts in Weston 1998:25). Roberts calls Bataille’s theory a ‘Marxist-primitivism’ in which the ‘lowly, humble, and abject stand to disrupt the repressive functions of social power’ (Roberts 1998: 103), and correctly links some of these ideas with Bakhtin’s interest in the carnivalesque and the grotesque body as assaults on the normalised world. Weston’s work is indeed literally ground-directed (as the New Topographics said their work was too) towards waste and decay, the ‘lowly and remaindered, the extruded and mortified’ (Roberts in Weston 1998:26), using close-up ‘realism’, of vomit, for example, in a sequence of images that invite the viewer ‘to think dialogically or diegetically; the discrete naturalistic photograph is always embedded in an internal and external set of textual relations’ (ibid.).  In other words, these are not simply isolated, shocking, naturalistic images but a series of pictures engaging our responses within a wider context of history, class and attitudes to the body. For as Weston has said himself, these images are ‘a way of pointing up both waste and loss.  And the notion of a repulsive beauty seems very suggestive to me’ (ibid.:6).  To borrow a phrase from Bakhtin (on Rabelais), ‘these images are opposed to all that is finished and polished, to all pomposity, to every ready-made solution in the sphere of thought and world outlook’ and in the true spirit of the carnival all about ‘becoming, change and renewal … hostile to all that was immortalized and complete’ (Bakhtin 1997:3, 109).

Ormerod’s interest in detritus, the over-looked and the unfinished are a continuation of many of these threads of influence both in photographic practice and in theoretical ideas that emerge across the different writers I have considered.  In one sense they are all examples of a type of ‘counter-memory’ running against the grain of ‘normalised’ history and cultural record, or what Bakhtin would term the official, centripetal monoglossia.  Julia Kristeva’s writings on ‘abjection’ emphasise all that ‘lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the … rules of the game’ as a means of ‘challenging its master’ (Kristeva 1982:2).  Like the vomit in Weston’s images or the various marginalized elements in Ormerod’s, she claims the abject ‘beseeches a discharge, a convulsion, a crying out’ and is a response to ‘what disturbs identity, system, order.  What does not respect borders, positions, rules.  The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’ indeed anything, according to Kristeva that ‘draws attention to the fragility of the law’ is abject (ibid.:2, 4).  Although photography rarely achieves the most extreme dimensions of Kristeva’s abjection, it nonetheless shares some of its central characteristics and its intentions, such as ‘ambiguity’ forming out of a combination of ‘condemnation and yearning’ (ibid.:9, 10).  As I have emphasised throughout this essay, part of the effect of dialogical photography is transgressive in its assault on assumption and normalisation in both form and content, creating what Brian Jarvis terms, in his discussion of abjection, ‘both the potentially threatening and the potentially liberating instabilities if identity’ (Jarvis 1998:191).  That is, confronted by the challenge of seeing differently, we are forced to think differently about our identity and its relationships with the world that forms it and this might, ultimately, serve to remind us ‘that resistance can continue, that the centre is in perpetual danger, it is not unified and unassailable as it may appear to be’ (Jarvis 1998:193). 

Photography’s political potential is in the ambiguous and challenging spaces it constructs through which established and ‘taken-for-granted’ positions may be countered and opposed as a process of ‘talking back’ or dialogism.  Of course, photography, as we have seen, has always recorded these social spaces of exclusion and waste precisely because, as Lefebvre noted (see earlier), it is from the edges challenges form and alternatives emerge.  In Bakhtinian terms, the ‘homogenized realm’ translates to the official, monologic centre, being ‘dialogized’ by the ‘languages’ / voices / images from below – the heteroglossia of difference.  For Ormerod, the photograph had the power to both document and simultaneously to unsettle our reception of those documents through formal composition, irony, humour or juxtaposition, whilst the unfinished, the waste, the decaying, the broken and the isolated can act as beginnings, re-assemblages, in an anti-mythographic process of critical redemption.  He had learned in the photographers he admired most the various strategies of dialogism that he found most evocative in the complex representations of America, at the precise and telling moment, as Lee Friedlander put it, ‘when the landscape speaks to the observer’ (Friedlander 1998:n.p.).

Edges and Thresholds

Stephen Shore (born 1947 – the same year as Ormerod), whose work has many echoes with that of Ormerod (see for example States, p. 56, 59), came to public attention as one of the New Topographics (1975) as the only colour photographer in the collection.  Like Ormerod, his images resonate with small towns social landscapes, old cinemas, gas stations, homes, streets, corners, intersections and crossings (of wires, shadows and light, sky and earth, nature and culture), indeed the many everyday spaces where the static and the mobile interact and relate.  They are often still, poised images with a Hopperesque quality of a whole, complex narrative about to unfold or of one that has just happened and moved on already somewhere else.  These are what Shore terms ‘uncommon places’, the title of his 1982 collection of his 1973-81 work.  Of course, these are, in fact, ‘common’, everyday places that for Shore have an immense significance of being, and a complexity revealed in their patterns, tones and relations.  To recall Lefebvre, writing in 1945, ‘Is it not in everyday life that man should fulfil his life as a man?  The theory of superhuman moments is inhuman.  Is it not in the day-to-day life … that the truth in a body and a soul must be grasped? … Man must be everyday, or he will not be at all’ (Lefebvre 1991:127).  This is Shore’s world of the uncommon common learned in the same tradition as Ormerod – Atget, Evans and Pop Art (Shore worked in Andy Warhol’s New York Factory in the 1960s).

As with so many of these influential figures traced throughout this paper, Stephen Shore’s work has been much admired in Europe as well as the USA.  In Germany, for example, Hilla and Bernd Becher, who were also part of the New Topographics with Shore, have helped to promote his work.  Hilla Becher commented in words equally appropriate to Ormerod’s work, that Shore’s photographs often return to points of crossing and ‘[t]he intersection is what America is … life intensifies precisely at the intersections … Stephen Shore’s photographs have something of the quality of a first encounter’ (Shore 1994:30).  Heinz Liesbrock says ‘I think he was able to see this country with the eyes of a foreigner, and was therefore able to show things in his pictures whose special characteristics are not recognizable to many Americans, but which have almost a mythical quality for us Europeans, things we’ve often investigated in film and literature’ (ibid. – my emphasis). Perhaps the European interest in Shore is based partly in this extraordinary sense of outsideness in his work, as if he is seeing the landscape through the lens of imagination and mediatized representations. 

Shore’s ‘outside eye’ gazed upon the ‘mythic’ America without obvious nostalgia, but with a certain disbelief and anthropological interest summed up in a story he tells about his first photographic road-trip:  ‘In 1972 I set out with a friend from Amarillo, Texas.  I didn’t drive, so my first view of America was framed by the passenger’s window.  It was a shock’ (Shore 1994:63). Slightly removed behind the window, Shore saw everyday America as a series of framed images, in all their variety, and many of the consequences can be seen in the style of his subsequent work with its intense use of colour and shape to represent the fullness and ordinariness of the landscape.  Liesbrock writes that ‘Each point in the picture seems to be demanding to appear at precisely the same level of intensity … its deep fascination, and the simultaneous self-referentiality with which it rejects the significance we demand of it’ (ibid.:15). 

As we have seen, Ormerod’s work is rarely ‘frontal’ or ‘flat’ photography, tending to automatically present his subjects at angles, through other objects, framed, juxtaposed or cut-up in some way.  He had learned this from many of his ‘mentors’, none more so than Robert Frank of course, but it is also often apparent in the works of the New Topographics, especially people like Shore, Baltz, Deal and Adams, as well as later influences like William Eggleston.  Ann Stolworthy told me that Michael ‘always said … when you take a photograph it’s the edges that count, everything is important’ (Stolworthy 1998) and this manifests itself in so many different ways in his work.  The ‘edges’ have many meanings in this context, firstly referring to the edges of the print or frame, and therefore, to all that is squeezed into the final image.  Ormerod’s inclusiveness often means his pictures take their frame further back to juxtapose another object or element within the totality of the image.  This is demanding for the audience whose eyes are forced to encompass diverse and sometimes discordant and distracting forces within the ‘field’.  It is, however, the edges that create the field of vision we encounter, for they map out the space for the simultaneous perceptual collage that we undergo as we ‘read’ from edge to edge.  Secondly, my stretching the frame as such, Ormerod’s gesture is one of inclusion, of bringing into the privileged arena of the photograph elements that might in the hand of others be edited or cropped out.  Once again, the Ansel Adams tradition comes to mind here.  Ormerod’s edges represent a democratic, egalitarian desire to embrace all aspects of America, for he believed ‘everything is important’.  The final sense of the edge corresponds to Ormerod’s interest in marginal geographies and forgotten spaces, to the back-roads he admired in William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, and to the people who lived and worked there.  On his many trips to the USA, he never visited the National Parks precisely because they represented a preserved version of the environment – a version influenced, of course, by Ansel Adams – preferring instead to see the hybrid social landscape with all its flaws and glorious, quirky surprises: ‘He wouldn’t go to any of National Parks, he was more interested in the deserts, the towns, especially the down town parts …’ (Stolworthy 1998).  This meant following the ‘blue highways’ right to the edges of America – to the ghost towns, fly-blown small towns, dusty desert roads, junkyards, building sites and to the borders themselves where the USA became another country. In such places Ormerod found residual working communities of small ranchers marginalized within an ever-corporatized American landscape.  His photographs in Faith and Lennox, South Dakota, in particular, capture the dignity of these working people and their way of life (States, pp.20-4).  In one photograph ‘Gay Hattle and Magnus, Lennox, South Dakota’ (August, 1986) Ormerod shoots the image through the mud-spattered windscreen as if to suggest the distance between these lives and their accurate representation, as if their ‘reality’ is somehow always compromised by the way they are shown.  The mythic nostalgia or kitsch associated with the isolated cowboy life was a barrier to their inclusion in kind of diverse culture that Ormerod sought to represent and contributed to their marginalisation within American life.  Here were the human workings, like the parts of the machine or the innards of the house that recur in Ormerod’s pictures, and that so often never get seen in the rush to represent the ‘finished’, pristine and mythic object.  Just as his photographs linger over the strewn ground and seem to cherish the very fragmented things others disregard, so too do they represent human beings in process, as unfinished, becoming, waiting, pausing – out of the manic flow of time, and yet vital elements in the working of the social machine, crucial individual and collective ‘states’ in the complex, contradictory whole ‘America’.

His journeys took him to the very edges of America too, into the Southwest borderlands, for as Ann Stolworthy told me, ‘He had a lot of interest in the Mexicans and the border towns, we spent quite a bit of time down in Del Rio and we crossed the border into Mexico …[from] El Paso …’, and whilst there on one trip he bought a copy of La Frontera: The United States Border with Mexico by Alan Weisman, with photographs by Jay Dusard (1986). At the frayed edges of the nation were to be found both extraordinary examples of oppression and exploitation as well as the hybrid possibilities of intersecting cultures.  Typifying so much of Ormerod’s own dual response to America, the borderlands can be places of threat and promise and yet, as Bakhtin wrote, ‘border zones (new trends and disciplines usually originate in them)’ (Bakhtin 1990b:137).  Ormerod’s pull to the margins was potentially a disruptive gesture aimed at revising the terms by which center and periphery, inclusion and exclusion were determined and represented in American culture.  There is little sense of nostalgia or sentiment, but always a concern for shifting our gaze and challenging our assumptions.  Take, for example, his image of the broken white picket fence (States, p103)where the symbolism is stark and powerful, assaulting the eye with Ormerod’s characteristic fascination for divisions, edges, boundaries and transgression. Here the white picket fence, an archetype of American values and dreams, has broken down and the previously separated worlds are suddenly connected. The binary spatial split of manicured private lawns and the public street are commingled by this act of transgression and our perspective is altered as a consequence. The gap opens up these two worlds to one another – dialogizes them – and simultaneously interrupts and unsettles our sense of order and normality, breaking up the image itself and refuting any sense of unitary space and meaning by asserting  liminalityand thresholds.

In Bakhtin the chronotope of the threshold is associated with encounter, crisis and break in life (Bakhtin 1990a: 248), and with the idea of ‘boundary’ (or border) so that ‘every internal experience ends up on the boundary, encounters another, and in this tension-filled encounter lies its entire essence’ (Bakhtin 1997: 287). As Dominick LaCapra has written,

Dialogization highlighted the importance of the border or the threshold where seeming opposites entered into an exchange and possibly coexisted, often in tensely charged relationships … (LaCapra 1990ed: 313).

The threshold, as a meeting-place, is, therefore, a signifier of dialogism but also a potentially powerful perception of the environment, (‘life’) itself, as ‘an unclosed whole … life poised on the threshold’, always mobile, developing and unfixed (ibid: 63). If we add to this a similar and related concept, liminality, one can see its further application to the work of Michael Ormerod. Liminality (from ‘limen’ meaning threshold) was coined by Van Gennep in his Rites de Passage (1960) and taken up by anthroplologist Victor Turner ‘to designate moments of discontinuity in the social fabric, in social space, and in history … [an] “in-between-ness”, of a loss of social coordinates …’ (Shields 1991: 83). Liminality can be seen as the moment ‘when those being moved in accordance with a cultural script were liberated from normative demands, when they were, indeed, betwixt and between successive lodgements …’ (Turner quoted in Shields ibid: 84). As we have seen such thresholds and intersections recur in Ormerod’s work marking the potentialities for transition, disruption and change. The photographs, as single images, tend to capture the sense of poise that Bakhtin wrote of, an environment on the edge between worlds and yet communicating across the lines, interacting and hybridising as a visual heteroglossia.

Reflections, windows and frames

Windows recur in Ormerod’s work as if to remind us of the barrier of the lens itself separating the photographer from the world he seeks to represent (States, p.15, 20) and to under-line the very act of framing the world that the camera is engaged in.  These are just photographs adding to a world already crowded with images and cannot, they seem to say, be privileged as more important than the faded billboard or the street posters (States, pp.44, 45).  Shop windows emphasise these odd parallels in Ormerod’s work, for they are frames of glass (lenses) within which an image is displayed, arranged, composed for the gaze of the ‘audience’.  The commodity within the window frame likened to the subject of photography itself captured and ‘displayed’ by the act of representation.  Life is made immobile in the image, suspended, like the stuffed animals that recur throughout Ormerod’s work, often within windows themselves, further amplifying this tension between photography and the world it seeks to represent (States, pp.31, 36, 59,90, 87). 

There is a tension between the ‘immobile’ artifice so often portrayed in these images and the exciting possibility of action, life and pleasure going on ‘outside’, like his  photograph of formal ladies’ hats with the lively conversation of two African-American men taking place through the window (States, p. 42) or that of a statue advertising ‘Johnston’s chocolate’ with the worker seen through the window in the background actually producing the commodity itself.  The layers of reflections and frames permit Ormerod to reiterate the complexity of society too often made to appear one-dimensional and mythic.  As a photographer frustrated by the limitations of his art and aware of its complicity with a culture of image-saturation, his recourse was to utilize and explore images of images and frames of frames and to constantly reflect (literally and metaphorically) the process, with all its compromises, of photography itself.  Like his great influences Atget and Frank, Ormerod acknowledges artifice and immobility – plastic geese on a roadside in Bridgeport, Nebraska (ibid.:71) – amidst a culture of supposed speed and change as an example of the contradictions and anomalies he found everywhere in America.  It is a dialogical environment conveyed through his use of reflections, windows and frames, directly echoing Bakhtin’s own definition of 


Languages of heteroglossia, like mirrors that face each other, each reflecting in its own way a piece, a tiny corner of the world, force us to guess at and grasp for a world behind their mutually reflecting aspects that is broader, more multi-leveled, containing more and varied horizons than would be available to a single language or a single mirror (Bakhtin 1990a: 414-5).

The visual ‘languages’ of Ormerod’s images function like Bakhtin’s mirrors refracting differences, throwing out centrifugal contradictions in ‘a landscape of echoes and ambivalent boundaries’ (Bhabha 1994: 189) invoking the documentary tradition of Walker Evans, the radical critique of Robert Frank and the counter-cultural Lee Friedlander (to name but a few) in his appropriation of reflections and windows. Hence when we see one of his photographs we experience theirs in the intertextual ‘mirror’ – the ‘voice-ideas of the past’, as Bakhtin called them (Bakhtin 1997: 90) echoing across time.  Perhaps we cannot help but see the world through ‘already-present’ representations and simulations, seeing a diner like Edward Hopper, a billboard like Walker Evans, or an open doorway and a flag like Robert Frank.  Surely, the ‘optical unconscious’ of photography has to remind us of the persistence of such images so that we might  comprehend their significance and extend beyond them in the creation of new representations.  Out of photographic dialogues both within the images and outside, with other photographers, Ormerod’s work extends and develops the tradition of environmental representation so we read the landscape through a multitudinous set of other readings, existing definitions, known or half-remembered fragments and images, representations and texts – like Benjamin’s ‘debris of history’. Ormerod’s working with and through others’ images is close to Bakhtin’s sense of  ‘re-accentuation’ in which he argues that  ‘Every age re-accentuates in its own way the works of its immediate past … their semantic content continues to grow, to further create out of itself … New images … are very often created through a re-accentuating of old images …’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 420-21).  Hence, Ormerod’s layering of vision is a means to represent simultaneity and demonstrate the inter-connections that co-exist within a complex social landscape in which history is alive in the past and present of the scene, and where the viewer has to be actively engaged in the dialogues within the frame[s].


The second photograph (p.10) in States of America is an example of how these multiple dialogues might work. It is an anti-mythic picture through the windshield of a car – an image used elsewhere in his work (p.15, 20) – and emphasises the blurring of boundaries and thresholds: inside / outside, human / nonhuman, technology / nature, night / day, and so on. It also frames the environment twice – through the windshield and through the photograph – thus reminding us of the nature of representation, selection and ideology as the means by which we see and interpret the external world. The effect of the rain in this photograph is to both separate and to join the viewer with the world beyond in such a way that any sense of fixity or delineation is broken[7].  We have to view things differently here because traditional and conventional perception is just not adequate. The inadequacy of seeing and its inability to fix meaning and coherent pattern is a reminder of the broader vision I am arguing for Ormerod’s environmental photography. One just cannot make out the complete picture because the limits of seeing and the contextual discourse is too restrictive. Ormerod binds us into a relationship with the road, the car, the landscape and the rain because he denies us any clear separation and distance. This is repeated in another photograph (p.15) where signs of division are very apparent in the image; the road’s centre line, the windscreen blade, the roadside verge, and yet, the rain and the twilight make even these less distinct. There is a sense of merging in this image too, of the intimate and complex interrelations between human and nonhuman, but this is not a romantic desire for fusion. Instead it is a dialogue – not straightforward and neat, but having many parallels to that described by Bakhtin:

overlain with qualifications, open to dispute … already enveloped in an obscuring mist … [an] agitated and tension-filled environment … weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group … (Bakhtin 1990a: 276).

This is the environment recorded by Ormerod and refracted in his windshield/window images, where ‘complex interrelationships’ are echoed in the layers of the image without any single, fixed meaning, but something more diverse and contradictory. The effect of this is to present Bakhtinian ‘quarrels’ as the voices within the photograph collide and clash, move backwards to remembered images from the past, and forward to some alternative vision of the future.

As a result if this process of seeing, Ormerod belongs firmly within a tradition that refutes the mythic reductionism of so much photography and represents instead a more complex, historical world of unfinished, contradictory threads and encounters where ‘[e]verything that seemed simple became … complex and multi-structured … he perceived profound ambiguity, even multiple ambiguity …’ (ibid: 30). This unsettling of the eye is Ormerod’s visual ‘uncrowning’ – his carnivalesque – that serves to destabilise hierarchies of conventional meaning, coherence and myth. A seemingly banal scene acts like a collage, to suggest, frustrate and ultimately to coax the viewer beyond an easy response to the image. His work moves beyond and perhaps towards a new way of seeing, towards a third space in which many voices are permitted to coexist in a site of contest and encounter.

Re-stating America

In many different ways, as I have shown, Michael Ormerod’s work ‘reaccentuates’ or ‘re-states’ America by layering traces of myth with alternative, dialogical images that enable the viewer to engage critically with the contexts or ‘histories’ that created them. Central to this aspect of Ormerod’s work is his sense of humour, irony and love all of which re-state certain human possibilities of resistance and compassion amidst a social landscape that often appears to be provisional, bleak and careless.  For example, childhood figures in a number of images (pp. 23, 53, 62, 63, 77, 93, 102, 104, 106) without sentimentality, but showing children as non-mythic beings, active, independent and self-aware, seeing the world differently.  Without being fully conditioned by the cynical world around them and living on its edges, they offer perspectives that clearly appealed to Ormerod’s sense of ‘outside’ and of looking (and photographing) the world with fresh eyes.  As in Walter Benjamin’s work, the child served to remind him of a vision lost or forgotten and of a more intimate connection with material things, of a ‘hands on’ relationship with the world that is often lost or displaced in adulthood into ownership and ‘use’.  The child looks into the established world without knowing all its elements, unhabituated to its cynicism and involved with it through play, seeing things as if for the first time.  Benjamin writes about seeing the ‘first glimpse’ of a landscape where ‘foreground and distance’ are connected and ‘[h]abit has not yet done its work’, a  feeling lost ‘[o]nce we begin to find our way about’ (Benjamin 1997:78).  There is something of this ‘first glimpse’ that Ormerod conveys in his pictures where ordinary things take on a magical, almost surreal quality of freshness and unexpected wonder, like the unedited vision of the child noticing the airplane caught in the spider’s web of trees (p. 80-1), or ignoring the glorious desert landscape in favour of a giant plastic dinosaur with a viewing platform in its side and a pterodactyl-like bird flying by (p. 50).  These images cut through the ‘habits’ of the eye that are reductionist in taking the world for granted and serving to perpetuate the ‘over-looking’ of the everyday and the rejection of proximate things.  As Gilloch puts it, ‘The work of habit engenders indifference, unconcern, disinterest’, making the world appear ‘unchanging, always-the-same [like Bakhtin’s monoglossia]. Habit brings with it petrification, boredom and forgetfulness’ (Gilloch 1996:64). Benjamin’s work sought to break these habits by reclaiming the child’s view to remind us of that which we had forgotten in the rush to look beyond, providing an interplay (or dialogue) between distance (myth) and proximity in order to activate a new critical vision in which both are part of the process.  On its own, the child’s view is insufficient, but it can serve as a jarring reminder of all that is ignored in our habituated and conditioned ways of seeing the world and its vitality and incisiveness needs to be reclaimed for a fuller and more complex perception. Thus in Ormerod’s work the child often stares into the camera lens, like ‘Levi Howell, Hillrose, Colorado’ (1989) with his sinister hockey mask that confronts clichés of innocence with the echoes of the serial killer, or the boy who stands in the wood photographing the photographer in an act of reflective defiance (p. 77) or the proud cowboy-child at the rodeo staring nonchalantly back (p.23).  As always, in Ormerod’s work, there is no single dimension, and his work is just as likely to capture a moment in which childhood seems on the threshold, like the cover image of States of America in which a solitary teenager stands on the edge of the road, about to cross, but paused for a moment, blowing a bubble with her gum.  This is a suspended moment, captured in the intense, dreamy blue colour that saturates the image with the girl picked out in sharp focus fully absorbed by her ‘childish’ action whilst the ‘adult’ world of fast food outlets and truck-stops is distanced and blurred in the background.  Her glasses in hand, her vision is focused only on the moment, detached and separated from the world to come, as if she is in her own ‘bubble’ too, on the threshold of the world she is crossing into.  There is something of ‘the first [and last?] glimpse’ to hold on to in this moment, an encounter between two worlds that articulates so much of Ormerod’s desire to re-state America as a hybrid mixture of both dream and loss, innocence and experience, past and present.  For in the remembrance of the child’s perception of things, seeing the world from ‘outside’ and ‘below’, his photography awakens new recognitions built on the problematization of the habitual, forgetful and mythic vision of the adult and rooted in a special relationship with people and things.  Childhood’s contact with the everyday is an intimate dialogue with the direct process of history which is eroded by the conditioning and socialization of adulthood and which the photographer might serve to remind us of, both in the direct experience of children and in the preservation of their ‘modes’ of apprehension.

Just as the child’s vision challenges aspects of mythic America so does Ormerod’s persistent sense of humour and irony evident in so many of his photographs that gaze upon the nation with the outside eye. As Anne Stolworthy commented, ‘There’s a lot more in his photographs than you see at first, there’s a lot of humour in them’ (Stolworthy). Always slightly apart from his subjects, but never cold, Ormerod’s ironic humour allowed him to engage with serious issues by pointing out the anomalies he found in the landscape.  Against the background of American myths of frontier, Manifest Destiny, individualism, and entrepreneurial capitalism Ormerod found much ‘uncrowning’ humour, like the shooting range in the middle of an empty, desert landscape (p.18) acting as a reminder of the violence that created the West and still persisting in its gun laws.  These ‘frontier’ ideologies still echo across America embedded in the positive struggles of ranchers to make a living off the land and more negatively in the isolated, inward-looking values of those who would paint on their satellite dish in Rhyolite, Nevada (1986) ‘Nuke Kaddaffy Now’ [sic], and it is part of Ormerod’s non-judgmental style to place them both before us, dialogically, in his work.  As Robert Venturi put it in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), a book that sought to understand these forms of vernacular,

moral subversion through irony and the use of the joke to get to seriousness, [are] the weapons of artists of nonauthoritarian temperament in social situations that do not agree with them.  The architect [in Venturi’s case] becomes a jester.  Irony may be the tool with which to confront and combine divergent values … for a pluralist society and to accommodate the difference in values … (Venturi et al. 1996:161).

Out of this process of representation and ‘understanding’ argues Venturi we might ‘learn’ from the existing landscape without automatically reproducing the ‘crass commercialism’ and ‘vapid subcommunication’ of the Strip (ibid.:162).  Indeed, rather like Ormerod (and other photographers) Venturi claims that the best way to achieve this is ‘to question how we look at things’ and ‘gain insight from the commonplace’ (ibid.:3).

The gentle, but pointed ironies of a ‘Lives Nudes’ roadhouse on a desolate Interstae 10 near El Paso (1986) [Archive B630/027], a ‘Super 8’ on a shabby strip [B570/041], a sign inviting us on to ‘Brothel Tours’ in a desert landscape [B570/042], or the sign with gun-toting, Stetson-wearing prawn by the side of a strip at night, all indicate Ormerod’s sensitivity to the surreal and comic disjunctions between dream and reality, the sales pitch and the product.  There is ‘larger-than-life’ quality to America that the European outsider cannot help responding to, a brash self-assertion in contrast to the reserved embarrassment so evident in British culture voiced in the very landscapes of these images.  Ormerod’s ironic eye is not, as I have said, entirely critical and in fact is constantly drawn to these ‘commonplaces’ because they articulate many aspects of the America he admired, as well as some he did not.  However, the advantages of Ormerod’s style allowed him to juxtapose in a single photograph’s frame an ironic collision of images, like the Archive picture of graveyards and building sites [B260/037] or a wonderful shot of graffiti under a bridge reading ‘Humans are only a disgusting memory’ with the shadow of Ormerod himself across the print.  Humour and irony become part of the toolkit by which Ormerod explores his feelings about America and encourages the viewer to do the same, for in a time-honoured manner, laughter can be a response to uncertainty and a critique of the systems that created it.  Once again, Bakhtin is an importance source here locating ‘laughter’ as potentially centrifugal, ‘a victory over fear’, he called it; running contrary to the ‘official and authoritarian’, it ‘clarified man’s consciousness and gave him a new outlook on life’ by ‘turning the symbols of power and violence inside out’ (Bakhtin 1984:90-1). Humour ‘unveiled’ society’s pretences and myths, ‘resisted praise, flattery, hypocrisy … [and] degraded power’ so that the ‘official’ culture’s ‘eternal truths’ – based on ‘a tendency toward the stability and completion of being, toward one single meaning, one single tone …’ were held up for questioning and ridicule (ibid.:101).  Irony and humour cuts through the ‘single meaning’ to provide ambivalence and instability, making us doubt reality and, therefore, its ‘official’ definers and myth-makers.  Ormerod’s use of humour deflates the official world and shares much with Bakhtin’s claim that ‘laughter purifies [society] from dogmatism, from the intolerant and the petrified; it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naivete and illusion, from the single level, from sentimentality’ (ibid.:123).

Perhaps laughter shares at least some of these characteristics with love, for that too, in the face of a world of lies and deceit, might offer an alternative possibility extending from the individual outwards to the world.  Ormerod’s seriousness emerges through his humour, as we have seen, through his attention to the eccentricities and anomalies of American culture as they arise in the everyday world, and yet however much despair he finds there, this can be off-set by love and by care.  In States of America there are a number of photographs in which love seems to shine through the everyday as a moment of completeness and ease, as if forces have cohered to bring into being something beyond the fragmentation that surrounds the subjects. In the image of two middle-aged people dancing alone in a sun-lit, empty bar (p.33) it is as if this is the universe and the lovers are at its center with all else blurred into the distance as they are lost in their moment of love.  This sense is repeated in a number of very different images (pp. 106,104,102) and very noticeably in the photograph of two embracing lovers in San Francisco (1978) (p.99) where the world goes on behind them as the ship approaches the Golden Gate Bridge and yet they seem solid, safe and enduring amidst a fluid social order.  Henri Lefebvre captures for me Ormerod’s sense of love writing that ‘The moment of love is situated at the intersection of the impossible absolute and of the everyday, which it also makes impossible.  It is a moment lived in the mode of contradiction’ (cited in Shields 1999:62).  That is, love is the ‘impossible-possible’, running against the tide, and somehow transformative without being sentimentalized.  Love is not mystical but actually, ‘impossibly’ everyday and capable of linking our feelings to all those around us in a microcosm of political and social fulfillment.  Lefebvre compares love to politics, arguing that ‘By bringing together two complex free beings these physiological, “spiritual” relationships will go infinitely farther than the merely sexual …’ because they are ‘humanized’ and not reliant upon ‘myths of possession’ (Lefebvre 1991:156-7).  I would go further and add that love is a perfect dialogue, an exchange between two distinct and different ‘voices’, whose creative ‘interillumination’ create something new and unexpected ‘as a living mix of varied and opposing voices’ (Bakhtin 1990a: 48). In Holquist’s words, dialogue ‘bears within it the seeds of hope’ because ‘my “I” is dialogic, it insures that my existence is not a lonely event but part of a larger whole’ (Holquist 1991:38). Dialogue is like love because it is founded upon the sense of ‘something larger than me in me’ and the necessity to reach beyond oneself and to ‘cast from itself the burden of being the only I … in the world’ so that ‘[i]n the act of understanding a struggle occurs that results in mutual change and enrichment’(Bakhtin 1990b:146-7, 142).  Thus within Ormerod’s dialogic landscapes, representing layers of simultaneous and complex interrelationships, we must include love with its capacity to open up the self (the ‘I’) to others and to the world in widening circles of enrichment and creative understanding.  Love is not a magical, mysterious romance, but the ‘impossible-possible’ of the everyday relationship, as the basic ‘workings’, the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ so often over-looked, of a better world where lives can be fully lived and not reduced or curtailed by the encroaching standardizations of ‘official’, normalized culture.

In his dialogical images of social landscape where humour, irony and love intermingle, Ormerod re-states America from the ground up in all its diversity; from ranching and rodeos (pp.20, 21), through tourism (p.19), and housing (p.29) to shooting ranges (p.18) and abandoned gas stations, to families and alienated loners, collectively articulating the strata of history ‘written’ in the environment itself.  Thus when we look at a photograph such as ‘Gold car outside motel’ (probably near Amarillo, Texas) so many of Ormerod’s thematic threads come together.  The sense of isolation, intense immobility and distance is melded with the golden car glinting in the sunlight suggesting some dream-traces of better times when the town itself was new and forward-looking.  The buildings look like back-lots from old Hollywood, a strange mixture of styles registering economic decline and shifting patterns of consumption.  The ‘Budget Shop’ and the old Hotel both seem closed and certainly uninviting, and the other buildings appear half-empty and desolate.   And yet so typical of Ormerod’s work, the image contains within itself other possibilities; the well-kept flower tubs on the sidewalk and the festive poster for the ‘Hamilton County Fair’ both suggest the will to survive and the resilience of those who still live here and are not just passing through on highway 27 to somewhere else. These traces of hope dialogize the first impressions of the image and are further embodied in Ormerod’s glorious use of colour with the golds, pinks and blues radiating a feeling of warmth like Edward Hopper’s ‘Early Sunday Morning’ (1939).  Both images create a cinematic sensation of the panning shot awaiting incipient action, of movement about to enter the scene but momentarily paused between different states, ‘an interim condition … a human world that is no longer in a state of innocence, but has not yet reached the point of self-destruction … a tremulous balance that is not yet equilibrium’ (Kranzfelder1995:75). As I have argued throughout, Ormerod’s America is so often this world on the edge or ‘between’, strangely off-balance and therefore capable of shifting in any direction, positive or negative, but more likely to be a hybrid mixture of both. Ormerod’s re-stated America is a space as capable of ending as of beginning, a ‘first sight’ contained in every photograph and yet with a critical, satirical aspect cutting through any sentimentality or nostalgia.  A golden car in front of a fly-blown hotel on the road to somewhere else has within itself all the nihilism and despair of a 1940s film noir and yet also present is an alternative sense of possibility, of resilience, of a bright, shining ‘everydayness’ that speaks of humanity’s strength and determination to live fully as part of a complex, social landscape. Thus Ormerod’s photography shares something of Deleuze’s comment on ‘modern cinema’ in that his work

develops new relations with thought from [at least] three points of view: the obliteration of a whole or a totalization of images, in favour of an outside which is inserted between them; the erasure of the internal monologue as a whole of the film, in favour of free indirect discourse and vision; the erasure of the unity of man and the world, in favour of a break which now leaves us with only a belief in this world  (Deleuze 1994:187-8 – my emphasis).

Ormerod’s photographs are indeed ‘an outside which is inserted between’ established images and myths (‘monologues’) causing the viewer to look again, pause, reconsider and possibly ‘break’ the ‘taken-for-granted’ and the familiar that appears to be ‘whole’ and unified.  ‘It is the method of BETWEEN, “between two images”, which does away with all cinema [read photography] of the One.  It is the method of AND, “this and then that”…The whole undergoes a mutation, because it has ceased to be the One-Being … The whole thus becomes what Blanchot calls the force of “dispersal of the Outside” …’ (ibid.:180).

Conclusion: ‘Nothing is absolutely dead’

Ormerod’s photography, as I have asserted throughout this essay, is multi-layered, concerned as it is with engaging its viewers with the complex textures of an American social landscape through which its many histories ‘speak’.  Finding a form of practice that allowed this ‘voices’ to speak through the visual frame seems to me to be uppermost in the short career of Michael Ormerod.  Learning from other photographers directly and indirectly, trying out styles and modes of expression, and returning to certain themes and places that seemed to hold some power over him as an artist, Ormerod developed a practical vision through which the layers of myth and history, hope and despair, love and suffering all found space in his own dialogic photography. Each intertextual, layered image contributed to this practice, building a sequence that over time re-stated America from the ground up through its places – places that included people – representing no single coherent narrative, but ‘stratified places’ full of contradictions, ambiguity and uncertainty.  Looking through and across the stratified layers of an Ormerod photograph is to understand something of what De Certeau means when he writes that ‘epochs all survive in the same place, intact and mutually interacting’, for it is as if their simultaneity and imbrication are represented within the frame as active history.  It is this sense of lived place that De Certeau defines so well:

The kind of difference that defines every place is not on the order of a juxta-position but rather takes the form of imbricated strata … beneath the fabricating and universal writing of technology, opaque and stubborn places remain.  The revolutions of history, economic mutations, demographic mixtures lie in layers within it, and remain there, hidden in customs, rites, and spatial practices. The legible discourses that formerly articulated them have disappeared, or left only fragments in language.  This place, on its surface, seems to be a collage.  In reality, in its depth it is ubiquitous.  A piling up of heterogeneous places.  Each one, like a deteriorating page of a book, refers to a differerent mode of territorial unity, of socioeconomic distribution, of political conflicts and of identifying symbolism (De Certeau 1988: 201).

Ormerod’s fascination with ‘opaque and stubborn places’, the ‘hidden’, ‘fragments’ and with ‘heterogeneous places’ all relate to his awareness of untold histories, forgotten stories, and how ‘legible discourses’ (or myths) construct a partial version of reality to exclude these diverse elements. Consider the image ‘Frontier – rarin to go’ (States, p. 72) in which Ormerod captures the simultaneity and diversity of the American Western environment where many things and many voices go on together in the same ‘collage’ -like space. In this dialogical photograph, we are invited to ‘read’ its stratified space like an archaeological process puzzling over the mixture of elements within its frame. Ormerod’s irony is focussed upon the sign whose meaning has changed with time and space, and now seems to sprout from a bush. The history of this space as a roadside attraction has been transformed until all that remains are the remnants; a closed-up brick building, a shed, some abandoned machinery – the debris of memory, and the sign itself, whose slogan reminds us of the spirit of the frontier and the desire for progressive westward motion. But the layers of the image suggest something beyond these readings in which the sign has a strange new meaning and one not necessarily ironic at all.  Surrounded by the natural growth of trees, a blue sky and crop fields beyond, and shot in sharp daylight colours, irony is tempered by the indomitable human spirit that still moves on, is still ‘rarin’ to go’, up the road to the new silohs one can see in the distant corner of Ormerod’s image. The ‘collagist’ intertext suggests the discontinuities of history, its comings and goings, booms and busts, leaving its bizarre traces of older dialogue on the land itself, gradually themselves becoming decayed and reclaimed by the trees and grasses growing all around. The human and nonhuman worlds are engaged through time and space and their individual elements perpetually bound together in a series of relationships that are often uneasy and destructive, as well as joyous and productive. But it is precisely within this web of living and dynamic relations that Ormerod locates America.

There is, I believe, a politics to these environmental images whose aim is to counter the overly simplistic, mythic representations of the environment with their implicit ideological meanings about progress, sacredness, wilderness and human violation. In representing a fuller, more contradictory set of images of the West, Ormerod underlines the environment as contested terrain, defined and redefined through time, but always capable of change, regeneration and motion. This is no false optimism, but rather a recognition of the dominant discourses of environment that often reduce the multiple nature of things to the simple and the univocal by replacing their history with myth. The openness of Ormerod’s photographs engage the viewer in a dialogue with the layers of historical meaning but resists privileging a single point of view, preferring instead to emphasise place as a locus of difference, and therefore of struggles over meaning and power.  As Deleuze writes ‘the visual image … develops a whole aesthetic power which reveals the layers of history and political struggles on which it is built’, since,

History is inseparable from the earth [terre], struggle is underground [sous terre], and, if we want to grasp an event, we must not show it, we must not pass along the event, but plunge into it, go through all the geological layers that are its internal history (and not simply a more or less distant past).  I do not believe in great resounding events, Nietzsche said.  To grasp an event is to connect it to the silent layers of earth which make up its true continuity, or which inscribe it in the class struggle.  There is something peasant in history.  It is therefore now the visual image, the stratigraphic landscape, which in turn resists the speech-act and opposes it with a piling-up (Deleuze 1994:254).

In ‘piling-up’ layers (as both De Certeau and Deleuze put it) to set against the overly simplified, straight, evidential image, Ormerod asks the viewer to plunge below the surface, through the screens of myth and ‘effect’, in order to see ‘the life beneath the ashes or behind the mirrors’ (ibid.:256), a life brimming full of unresolved histories and contradictory dialogues.

Michael Holquist writes that

dialogue always implies the simultaneous existence of manifold possibilities, a smaller number of values, and the need for choice … To be responsible for the site we occupy in the space of nature and the time of history is a mandate we cannot avoid – in the ongoing and open event of existence we have no alibi (Holquist 1991: 181).

Michael Ormerod’s work contributes a similar recognition of possibility, values and choice born out of a deep set of responses to the landscapes of America, not as a one dimensional sacred space, but as an ambiguous, multifaceted, real-and-imaged space of change and interaction in which human presence is everywhere traced in the layers that constitute the world that exists and within which we lived our everyday lives.  This position – one, ultimately, of qualified hope and possibility – has many similarities to that articulated in one of Bakhtin’s last essays:

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival (Bakhtin 1990a: 170).

In the dialogic landscapes of Michael Ormerod, ‘Nothing is absolutely dead’, for everything ‘lives’ within his image, has some voice and engages with the viewer at some level. The photographer’s goal, as I have shown, is to represent these complex relations and to strive for a critical, creative understanding in a constantly shifting world. As Rebecca Solnit writes, in a contemporary gloss on these Bakhtinian ideas, ‘Conversation is, among other things, a more democratic model, as well as one closer to the systemic interdependence of ecosystems, than is the monologue of mastery and masterpieces – and it is this convergence of political, ecological, and philosophical ideals that made such art so compelling to me … the interdependencies of the world better imagined as webs of interconnection than as a collection of discrete objects, the value of diversity whether cultural or biological, and the intricate interpenetrations of mind and body, individual and environment’ (Solnit 2001:6).


For Ormerod, his ‘conversation’, his complex, multi-layered dialogues with America, were cut artificially short by a cruel accident.  However, his partner, Anne Stolworthy told me that Michael ‘had a theory that you’re only allocated so many words in your life and when you’ve used them all up – that was it’ (Ann Stolworthy, 23/3/98).  Fortunately, for those of us who remain, his photographs still have ‘words’ to spare and the dialogue will continue forever.

[1] Geoff Weston (2001) confirms the influence of Frank, Evans, Sternfeld (‘I know was a favourite of Michael’s’), Shore (‘perhaps less so’), and Eggleston as Ormerod began to ‘collect colour work’.

[2]I would connect Bakhtin’s comments here with the work of M-L Pratt, Imperial Eyes (1992) and in particular her excellent discussion of contact zones and encounters.

[3] The Ormerod Archive has many photographs of signage, but they are often shot in reverse as if to literally take us behind the image and therefore to ‘see through’ it and all it represents in terms of multinational corporate America and commercialization.  The other technique is a method of displacement where the sign is shot in an odd context or juxtaposed for effect with some other aspect of the landscape.  For example, there is an image of a Coca Cola sign alongside wrecked buildings (B260/044).

[4] There is no space to develop these ideas about history and ‘new history’. In particular, the twin efforts of New Historicism and New Western History have many implications for the environment’s centrality to the consideration of ‘time-space’. More of this is discussed in my The Cultures of the American New West,  2000, Edinburgh University Press.

[5] Mora and Hill (1995:332) quite rightly connect Evans’ fascination with debris to the work of later photographers like Lewis Baltz, whose San Quentin Point (1985) they argue continues this tradition of ‘photographing the unphotographable’ (1995:332).  Of course, I am arguing that Michael Ormerod’s work, which reflects upon both Evans and Baltz, is clearly part of this tradition.

[6] Meyerowitz is an important ‘thread’ in my chain since he worked with Tony Ray-Jones (see Cape Light, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1978) and has written of the two major influences on him as Robert Frank and Eugene Atget  (see Creating a Sense of Place, Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1990).  Along with William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, Meyerowitz’s color work can be seen echoed in Ormerod’s later work.

[7] Robert Young discusses Jacques Derrida’s tern ‘brisure’ as ‘a breaking and a joining at the same time, in the same place: difference and sameness in an apparently impossible simultaneity’ (Young 1995: 26).

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