Susan Lipper

Domesticated Land


The female body has always been conflated with visions and narratives of the land. There are all of the same old tropes, of course; that women are intrinsically linked to nature – even governed by it – in a way that men aren’t, and that the mounds and sweeping curves of the landscape mirror those of the female form. Indeed, Susan Lipper’s Domesticated Land opens with an image of sand dunes in the Californian desert that look more than vaguely reminiscent of the female body, but something entirely different is going on here too.

The notion of gendered landscapes is upturned in Lipper’s Land pictures. On the one hand, she shows us images such as one in which a woman lies face down with her head in the dust in front of a black hole that’s opened up in the ground before her, and another where we see the detritus of kitchen goods strewn across the sand (which may be somewhat symbolic of the author’s thoughts on the notion of woman as homemaker). On the other hand, we have the backdrop of the American West – cracked, fractured, historically male-driven terrain in which military bases and operations are nestled, and where countless male writers have famously journeyed in search of themselves. In some of Lipper’s pictures we see army men and tanks and brutalist concrete structures cutting through the landscape. Though personal and artistic journeys through this place are not new, Lipper navigates this land from a personal, female slant, making images that oscillate between document and fiction, and “putting female subjectivity into relief.” The desert as a land of mysticism, self-enlightenment and spiritual opportunity, roamed by healers and medicine men across decades, is probed too and homes appear abandoned, in one image a single serpent writhes in the ground, in others barbed wire snakes through the frame.

Domesticated Land is the third instalment in a trilogy of books for which Lipper spent nearly thirty years travelling the USA from East to West in search of ‘true’ America. Sun-bleached and washed out, Lipper’s black and white vision of the desert transforms it into a sort of stasis, unnervingly quiet, as if everything that was supposed to happen has happened, and now all we can do is wait. People are tiny in most of the photographs, swallowed up by the landscape and often looking outwards, to the sky or the horizon, watching for the arrival of something unknown. From time to time, the words of women punctuate the images. At the very end of the book, an excerpt from Catherine Haun’s 1849 diary A Woman’s Trip Across the Plains talks of an evening spent singing patriotic songs and celebrating the Declaration of Independence with the firing of a gun or two. ‘…three cheers for the United States and California territory in particular!’ it reads. Most potently, Domesticated Land seems to offer a timely sense of foreboding about the current state of America and its politics, and a possible harbinger of things to come.

Joanna Cresswell

All images courtesy of the artist and MACK. © Susan Lipper

Amani Willett

The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer


In the 1970s, American photographer Amani Willett’s father purchased several acres of New Hampshire forest that a local hermit named Joseph Plummer had disappeared into in the late 1700s, and lived in for 69 years. The two of them, Willett and his father, have rambled those landscapes together ever since, finding traces of Plummer’s legend still lurking there. ‘Getting lost’, Willett tells us simply at the end of his new photobook with Overlapse, The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer, ‘seems to be the point’.

But first to the very beginning. The flurry of images that open the book are of a figure, blurred and hazy, retreating from the camera as they make their way through heavy snow. They are starkly reminiscent of Ori Gersht’s representation of the philosopher Walter Benjamin in his 2009 video, Evaders, in which a figure, playing the part of Benjamin, trudges slowly and purposefully through dark, snowy forest. In the cultural historian Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost she writes of Benjamin, ‘In Benjamin’s terms….one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography’. Willett, who gets just lost enough to learn new things about the landscape each time, but never lost enough not to return, seems struck by this man who went all the way, and never left himself a trail back homewards.

‘Joseph Plummer is remembered because he wished to be alone’, Willett says. What would it do to a person, psychologically, to spend the best part of seven decades on their own in the wilderness? How would their body come to know and relate to the land around them? This book is a result of Willett building a relationship with a man he never knew, and years spent mining Plummer’s almost-lost, barely heard voice from objects and archives. Where he hasn’t found that voice, he’s left us searching.

In the same New England area some years after Plummer retreated, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists would rise to prominence, with their beliefs that people are truly at their best when independent and entirely self-reliant – “intuition over empiricism”. The landscapes in this area of the world hold something enigmatic and elegiac for thinkers, and in the Disappearance of Joseph Plummer, Willett has tangibly managed to distil that, feeling his way through a story that has left barely any clues with such sensitivity. The same figure we see at the beginning of the book recurs throughout it: black and white, blurred, face bleached out, sometimes in almost pitch blackness – there’s always something removing it from reality. The whole landscape as Willett offers it to us is achingly full of solitude. Where water is depicted it’s deathly still – as if taken in those last moments of perfect, wild silence just before dawn. The woods are dark and impenetrable, thick and obscuring, like they would swallow a person whole. At other times, signs of life, houses and cabins, filter in slowly, as though seen by someone somnambulating past. Willett layers different types of images into the book, working and reworking them and experimenting with them in an intuitive sort of way, as if making sense of how he can use photography and images to tell stories, while simultaneously working his way through the land his family owns and making sense of that too. In every sense, this is Willett navigating his own, unmapped territories.

Joanna Cresswell

All images courtesy of the artist and Overlapse. © Amani Willett

Gregory Halpern



There is a place deep within the Mojave Desert, around 100 miles southwest of Las Vegas, called Zzyzx. The name was coined in the 1940s by Curtis Howe Springer – a radio evangelist and self-affirmed doctor who opened a health spa of the same name on the land. Springer – who liked to refer to himself as an “old-time medicine man” while others felt that “quack” was more fitting – was a regular chancer. Bottling water from nearby springs and knocking together potions that were really nothing more than celery and parsley juices, he claimed they were cures for any number of ailments. Zzyzx began in Springer’s mind, and journeyed into a real place over time. He named a road leading to the resort ‘The Boulevard of Dreams’.

Something about the story of Zzyzx conjures up images of a young Sissy Spacek, arriving at a mysterious health spa in a small, dusty Californian desert town in 3 Women. Interestingly, beyond it’s setting, 3 Women is a film that is said to have come to its director, Robert Altman, in a dream, and he chose to pursue it without ever fully understanding what it was. Dreams, then, are a recurring theme, as Gregory Halpern’s own ZZYZX comes from a similar place, and he too saw a version of the bizarre dystopia we see in this book, fragmented in his dreams through time. Piecing together images of real people, and real scenes he reconstructed the place that had existed only in his mind. A fiction that made it’s way into reality.

ZZYZX traces a path that begins in the desert east of Los Angeles, moves through the city and ends up at the Pacific. Halpern uses the iconic idea of the journey West – embarked upon by countless artists and writers before him – as the symbol of a voyage to a better life, and a new start. California, in all of its sublime, inconceivable beauty is often seen as the embodiment of the American Dream – a brilliant, psychedelic, intensely dazzling place. But the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow. Los Angeles is also a fractured, profoundly devastating place. Where there is Hollywood there is skid row not so far away. Halpern’s LA makes your head swirl, oscillating somewhere between the two.

The book opens with the image of a hand with stars drawn upon it, reaching out of the darkness, palm illuminated to the sky. This image sets the chimerical tone of the book: sometimes the scenes we see are scorched in the blinding midday sun, while at other times we survey the city from the shadows. People, places and animals eclipse in and out of vision. The individuals who appear in Halpern’s photographs are often those who exist on the edges of society, and the view we are given as the reader reflects that. Almost always, the subject of the photograph is out of reach, seen from a distance, and obscured by branches or fences. Halpern’s portrayals of the people he meets are touching and very human – a particularly resonant photograph depicts a laughing woman, resting her head in the hands of another.

In the colophon, Halpern thanks Jason Fulford for his formative edit of the work, and that makes a lot of sense, as the images speak to each other in ways that are, at times, quietly reminiscent of Fulford’s own brand of image-editing. Subtle connections based on form and colour and symbol emerge between scenes. A cluster of criss-crossing branches gives way to the intersecting lines of a stairwell. A man, jaw agape and front teeth missing, appears opposite a shattered windscreen, it’s arch echoing the curve of his mouth. Everything leads from one thing to another.

There is a constant sense of movement in ZZYZX, and the book carries us forward at an uneasy pace. With flashes of characters and quiet moments, it’s something akin to somnambulation. As Halpern sweeps across the city, things seem to get bigger – a small fire as a book burns on the beach later gives way to a forest blaze, pushing plumes of smoke across the sky. It always seems to be teetering on the brink here. Are things about to collapse? Halpern has recently said that in LA it feels like the world is always, slowly ending. Pathways, freeways and stairs recur throughout the book – ways in and ways up. Furthermore, Halpern wanted for there to be something biblical about this project, and certainly it feels like his pilgrimage. His attempt to distill Los Angeles – this terrifying, awful, beautiful, sprawling, almost mythical city – and everything that goes on inside of its parameters is exquisite and at times, painful. Towards the end of the book, Halpern moves back out, across sea and land. The penultimate image he offers us is phantasmagoric, of two overlapping squares of light falling across the sand. The place we saw, if only for a while, disappears, shimmering in the evening light.

Joanna Cresswell

All images courtesy of MACK. © Gregory Halpern