There is a beautiful dare at the heart of photographs by Gregory Halpern (b. 1977), to find meaning where there might be none. Seven stars on the palm of a hand lit by the Los Angeles desert sun. A white horse turning its head away, as if offended. The holes in a blue tarp suggesting a face, complete with frayed polyethylene eyelashes. The incorrigible human tendency to see ourselves in randomness could be dismissed as pareidolia, but Halpern’s images dare us to marvel at it — and at the idea that you can look into the eyes of a stranger a world apart and find a connection.
If not daring then go-on-your-nerve is integral to the photographer’s approach. Wherever he follows his gut, he finds mystery, volatility and hope. In Omaha, graceful sunlight spills through a willow tree. Young men in gray jump suits play cards (all spades) on a wooden coffee table. This image was taken in the 2000s when, on a whim, the photographer talked himself inside a juvenile prison (‘getting into places was way easier’, Halpern remarks.)
Indeed, a lot has changed since the early years of the Iraq War when Halpern began the series that would become Omaha Sketchbook. Over 13 years, through the administrations of George W. Bush, Obama and Trump, Halpern has returned to Omaha and taken photographs, many of them portraits of men and boys — scouts, football players, reserve officers — responding to hypermasculinity in the American Heartland (moth; flame). ‘Experiencing Trump through the eyes of my daughters was really clarifying for me’, Halpern reflects. ‘I dislike that sort of traditional American cowboy masculinity value system even more now.’
Even so, the portraits themselves are characteristically open and equivocal. One photograph sees a conventionally attractive, muscular cage fighter being watered through a chain-link fence. Crouched down, fingers laced through the diamond-shaped apertures, pinkie slightly raised, the photograph calls forth the under-image of the fighter as a baby taking a bottle.
James in Car is even more intuitive. ‘Later on, the aesthetic got a little softer,’ Halpern reflects. ‘I started using more natural light, getting closer to people's faces.’ The contradictions are subtler. In the noir-like chiaroscuro, light catches a faint scar on James’ forehead in the pewter-green darkness of his car. ‘There was a toughness about him’, and at the same time ‘something about the sloping of the forehead and the nose feels really delicate,’ he says. ‘James was a very calm, quiet person, and he was also very trusting.’
Indeed, having met on Craigslist (‘it's much less predictable; I find myself meeting people who are less likely to overlap with my social circles’) there was a lot of trust required on both sides. ‘When I photograph, I love to enter that space of being caught up in it. I feel like the important thing is to go with where the world is taking you. And just to trust the world and the person I'm with, and that's it.’ With tight framing on James’ face sheltering in a quiet pocket of a drizzly Omaha night, the viewer shares the privilege of searching the face of a perfect stranger, perhaps finding herself there. Finding herself being caught up.