Gregory Halpern was born in Buffalo in 1977. When he was a teenager, he became enthralled by a book of photos called “Triptychs” by Milton Rogovin, a Buffalo native who didn’t pick up photography until he was in his 50s. Since then, Halpern has had a particular fascination with photo books. He’s widely known for the artist’s books he has created with his photography throughout his career.
His new book, “Omaha Sketchbook,” was originally released as a spiral-bound artist’s book made up of laser prints by J&L Books, a publisher founded by photographer Jason Fulford and artist Leanne Shapton. That version of the book is no longer widely available. Now reissued by MACK Books, it’s again available to a wider audience. And it’s a unique book for several reasons.
The first thing that strikes you is that the book looks as though it’s made of construction paper. The photos are printed very small. This is intended to be a facsimile of the way Halpern originally approached the work. As he was working on the project, he would print the contact sheets and then paste them into a sketchbook made of construction paper he found in Omaha.
The next thing you might notice is that the book is almost all about men.
In an interview with fellow photographer Matthew Leifheit, editor of Matte magazine, on the Magnum Photos website, Halpern addresses this:
The book depicts men almost exclusively. And they are often doing things traditionally associated with masculinity, or with a certain kind of masculine ideal. There are also of course quieter or more ambiguous moments — a man dancing, a man standing alone in the dark, a man staring out the window. I’d say I’m simultaneously fascinated by and repulsed by certain traditional displays of masculinity. I can just as quickly get sucked into a boxing match on television as I can be maddened by the male privilege assumed by some of my students, or even little boys on the playground. I have two daughters, the youngest of whom was born the night [Donald] Trump was elected, and it’s been impossible not to see the world through the eyes of a young girl ever since. And to see my own privilege and blindness as well.
Ultimately, “Omaha Sketchbook” isn’t merely an examination of male life in the American Midwest, but a meditation on “Americanness” overall. At least that’s how Amanda Maddox from the J. Paul Getty Museum sees it.
She has written of Halpern’s work:
Throughout his career, Gregory Halpern has explored the elusive, inchoate notion of Americanness. It is both a difficult subject and a lofty prospect for any photographer and it remains an absolutely essential line of investigation, particularly in the context of the current political maelstrom. Traveling to the nation’s heartland — a vague construct increasingly synonymous with the Bible belt — Halpern continues to mine this idea of Americanness in a place bounded by prairie and steeped in pioneer history. His work in the Midwestern city of Omaha reveals America as pluralized, fragmented, and teeming with its own “brand of hypermasculinity,” as he terms it: adolescents on the cusp of promise or obscurity, land that seemingly leads to nowhere, a sense of unending time and a dark side to domesticity. Halpern’s efforts to visualize America yield an opportunity to learn about the country by staring back at images of it that breed their own complexity.
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