The dream of Americanah, the endlessness of the Great Plains, the American dream. Most people living today will have been exposed to some version of this. But what happens when the party ends? This exact question is what the French photographer Philippe Blayo explores in his “American Symbols” series. The symbols that represent the old world order are fading, jostling to find space amongst the shiny new factories of today. In Blayo’s work, the photographer gives these symbols space to breathe, to unfold, perhaps one last time, in all their glory. It is as much a celebration as it is a question of the future, what comes next? A triumph of shapes that most of us are familiar with: vintage cars, the forlorn Cowboy, cities that feel so isolated they could be located on another planet, a ragged American flag. A snapshot of a certain America, far away from the economic coastal hubs, Blayo explores his own relationship to these symbols. His experience stands in for that of the viewer, mirroring the familiar images back at us. Though the series is tinged with a sense of nostalgia, you can’t help but notice a sense of disappointment that runs through the photographs like a current. Below, Philippe Blayo speaks about his wonderful series and gets into the nitty-gritty of how exactly to plan such a vast project.
How did you first get into photography?
I’ve been seriously interested in urban and street photography for six years. I started when I was 20 and wanted to become a photojournalist. Then I completely quit photography for 20 years and resumed with a passion exactly 10 years ago. Those 20 years were dedicated to other kinds of art: composing music and writing novels. Art isn’t linear.
Who would you name as your biggest influences or inspirations?
Old masters were my first source of inspiration: Winogrand, Webb, Egglestone, Gruyart, Depardon and more recently more international collectives such as the iN-PUBLiC collective. My main influence is the French urban photographer Jean-Christophe Bechet who I consider to be my mentor. I attended two of his workshops and he really helped me to develop the “series” mindset, as well as challenging myself during editing, and the ability to gain more depth in my photographic journey.
How did you come up with the concept for this series?
I knew that I was going to cross the USA with very few cities to practice street photography, which is why I decided to work on two series to try and to avoid clichés. The one depicted here on fading symbols, as well as another about the alien mythology. I like challenging myself with these type of assignments!
Whereabouts in the US did you shoot and how did you choose these locations?
I was doing a 5000 km road trip from Las Vegas to Chicago. This territory played an important part in the history of the American West. You simply have to get off the road to see real life and traditions. I spent a lot of time preparing for the trip. For certain locations, I completed the trip on Google street view to track the best places to shoot. Lots of preparation and once I got to the place I worked with a lot of improvisation, intuition, and curiosity.
Your series is called “American Symbols” and in it, you raise the question of what constitutes American cultural heritage. How were you able to explores this question in your work?
My vision of the American cultural heritage is deeply influenced by movies, music, photographs, and politics. I love to work through the stereotypes and fortunately, America is full of them. It’s easy to catch.
It was more difficult to explore nostalgia through the heritage angle. I looked for loneliness, desolation, emptiness, and distance to give another meaning to the word heritage. A bit less sparkling perhaps.
You say that you wanted to look not what America symbolizes for people, but what characterizes it. What did you find?
What I found was somewhat destabilizing. As a European born in the 20th century, I was raised with a fairly ideal vision of the USA. Then I traveled the world and learned that reality is not necessarily what we are shown. The symbols I found here were fading and divided between those from the past and those for the future, with no clear links in between. On the one hand traditions and imagery from the 20th century fight for their survival and on the other hand you have technology and businesses, ignoring each other. I decided to investigate the old symbols and quickly came to believe that it is “the end of the party”.
Your images don’t depict the crass, commercialized version of America, but rather a country that’s deeply rooted in its past and sometimes confuses a sense of nostalgia with history. How do you think that effects Western culture as a whole?
That is the point. For this particular series, I wanted to highlight those symbols and situations that remind us of the glorious past and that are desperately trying to continue existing in this new world. The States is a pragmatic country. It will reinvent itself for decades to come. If history does not allow it to develop, the USA will choose other models, other symbols. It was important to me to freeze this moment in America’s history. This should be a challenge for the Western culture as a whole.
The purpose of my series could be translated like this: from this point onward, everything will change. What do you propose to do?
Can you tell us a little more about your process, while shooting this series?
The good thing about America is that as someone born in the Western world, its history is also a part of ours. We have witnessed a part of its history and it deeply influenced our culture. It’s easier for us to quickly identify the symbols. I simply created a list of American symbols: old cars, isolated cities, vintage buildings, desert roads, the landscape of the West, flags, etc. Everything relates to the traditions and perpetuating a certain American idea.
You used the Leica M-system to shoot this series, what do you consider the advantages of this setup?
My favorite combo is a Leica M10 and a Summilux ASPH 35mm. It covers 99% of my photography. The telemetric system offers a remarkable anticipation of the scenes and the manual focus is exactly what I expect from an “artisan” mindset. Shooting with it simply gives me an additional feeling that I have a strong personal influence on the image I’m creating. It is quick, sharp, discrete, and also comes with a strong sense of heritage.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I’m working on projects in Portugal and India. I’m also self-publishing photo books to showcase my work. Currently, I am preparing two exhibitions in Arles (July – August) and Paris (September) on a very personal black and white series.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their photography?
Practice whenever you can. Open your mind to different disciplines and learn from others. Be strict with yourself when it comes to editing and challenge yourself by showing your work. Take your work seriously and try to deepen the message you want to share.