Political campaigns, the fallout from the opioid crisis, the effects of racial tension and the shock waves rippling from a global pandemic. These are some of the threads tying together photographer Philip Montgomery’s book, “American Mirror” (Aperture, 2021).

Montgomery is one of the most distinctive photographers working today. His work illuminates myriad issues that seem to be driving the division in the United States has been experiencing for some time. Over the past several years, Montgomery has been present for most of the key events shaping life in the United States — from hurricanes to covid and the opioid crisis. Montgomery’s photos are stark and cut to the bone, an appropriate reflection of the many traumatic situations he has found himself in.

With everything amplified through social media and the 24/7 nature of televised news, newspapers, websites and podcasts, it takes the kind of unique approach that Montgomery uses just to glean a pinprick of attention these days. “American Mirror” showcases Montgomery’s photographic virtuosity. Whether he’s taking photos on a campaign trail or plumbing the dark depths of the opioid crisis or the coronavirus scourge, Montgomery has documented it all in his signature style.

There is an undeniable power to the technical side of Montgomery’s photographs. They aren’t subtle — they are often as brutal as the situations they depict. He’ll often enlist the raw, flattening effect of a flash’s artificial light in the construction of his images. But just as often, Montgomery zeros in on the emotion of the situation — a tear on the face of a woman inside a “detox” wing of a county jail; demonstrators embracing before a curfew goes into effect after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Writing in an introduction to “American Mirror,” Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker says:

“For more than seven years, Montgomery has borne witness to a series of watersheds, dates and locales whose reference call to mind conflict the way that the names of pivotal battles in a war do. . . .Montgomery turned his camera to a place bound by the creed of ‘we the people’ that has eternally struggled to define whom that appellation applies to . . . . In their totality, these seventy-one images seem like a series of exhibits of the sort presented to a jury — whether this is a case for our collective defense or our prosecution remains to be seen.”

If we have anything that unites us during these turbulent times, it is the sense of being constantly bombarded day after day by crisis after crisis. “American Mirror” is an eloquent and unflinching reminder of this. It’s not an easy book to look at; it’s not supposed to be.

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