Theory & Practice

At home with Gregory Halpern and his collection of photobooks

Find out the inspiration behind the Magnum photographer's own work and bookmaking in this self-filmed video for Mack, his London-based publisher

Gregory Halpern

“I feel I’m there with the people she’s photographing,” says Gregory Halpern, relating to the power that he feels emanates from the portraits by photographer Judith Joy Ross, whom he describes as “perhaps the greatest of them all.”

“And I know it’s being filtered through a very subjective lens of an artist,” he continues. “I feel her presence is just very quiet; a presence of love and tenderness, an attention to detail, a sensitivity. She pretty much gets out of the way. And I find myself moved by the people she photographs.”

Th 45-minute film is a typically personal account from Halpern and is the latest in Mack’s series, ‘a tour of my bookshelf’. Halpern has collaborated with the London-based publisher on two of his six books, including his most celebrated work to date, Zzyzx, shot in and around Los Angeles, published in 2016.

Gregory Halpern From the project 'ZZYZX'. Los Angeles and vicinity, USA, 2008-2015 © Gregory Halpern | Magnum Photos

Following in the footsteps of photographers including Alec Soth, Paul Graham, and Vanessa Winship – who have all recorded their own ‘a tour of my bookshelf’, usually at arm’s length, shot on a camera phone – Halpern provides an insight into the photographers that have most influenced him.

The books he pulls from the shelves of his family home include titles from his former teachers, his brother, his wife, his former students, and even two classic children’s books, beloved of his daughter.

But he begins with books about photography – paying homage to Robert Adams, “one of the best photographers who can also write…. unpretentious and direct” – and fiction, referencing writers such as Cormack McCarthy, Aimé Césaire, and the genre of magic realism, which has been a huge influence on his own photography.

"So much spoke to me about this idea that Los Angeles is always in this fever-pitch, apocalyptic sense of heightened intensity, always on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own mass."


The first photobook to come off the shelf is one of the most acclaimed of the late 20th century, In Flagrante, by the late Chris Killip, whose class at Harvard University was a life-changer for Halpern. Then comes a succession of acclaimed and some now rare photobooks, including Taryn Simon’s American Index of the Hidden and Familiar, Jitka Hanzlová’s Rokytnik, and Stephen Gill’s Hackney Flowers.

There are also books by family members, including his brother Jake Halpern, a writer, and his wife, Ahndraya Parlato’s photobook, The Spectacle and Nothing Strange, along with some surprises, such as Goodnight Moon and The Bible. The latter was particularly important in the making of Zzyzx, he recalls, especially what he read in the book of Revelation.

“I grew up Jewish, unreligious, but The Bible fascinated me as one of those stories that’s part of us, for better or worse,” he explains. “So much [in Revelation] spoke to me about this idea that Los Angeles is always sort of in this fever-pitch, apocalyptic sense of heightened intensity, always on the verge of collapsing, somehow, under the weight of its own mass.

“There was a lot here that helped me describe L.A. as this place that sat between this ancient desert mythic past and this near-future, perhaps post-apocalyptic state. That section of The Bible helped me see it for what it was.”

Halpern has much more to reveal about his own practice in the video-on-demand class, ‘Documentary Sur-Realism’, filmed by the Magnum Learn team around his native Buffalo. 

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