Q & A

As anyone who has studied or dipped into histories of photography will appreciate, it is impossible to understate the impact of what we might call American documentary photography. Photographers such as Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth and their respective takes on America are etched into photography’s collective consciousness, and for photographers who have made the trip across the United States – a journey that has become something of a rite of passage for many young photographers – the weight of work depicting America in the 20 th century must surely seem even greater.

These masters of the photographic medium, part of the canon of photography as they are, have created a benchmark that anyone seeking to portray America must, if not live up to, then at least acknowledge. Their depictions of the country have inevitably helped fuel its ‘mythos’ and shaped outsiders’ perceptions of what this place might or must be like.

Before he embarked on his own trip to the U.S. in 2012, Alexander Missen had never visited before. Like many others he had in his mind an idea of America – one we have come to know through cinema, novels, and of course the photographs of others. And while the America Missen discovered did indeed feature Cadillac vehicles, motels and vast mountain ranges, it was not in the way he had expected or been led to believe; any familiar visual tropes or clichés were not ubiquitous but instead had to be “sought out” and “curated”.

Missen found that his camera became a tool to decipher what he encountered, whether this was America’s people, its landscapes, or domestic interiors. Indeed, the very act of photographing became a way to probe the ‘myth of America’, and, more broadly, unpick how we collectively create an understanding of place – a place we may never have visited yet feel we know, as a result, perhaps, of exposure over time to a constant flow of repeated motifs or symbols in various shapes and forms.

Between 2012 and 2015 Missen visited forty states, starting on each occasion in a major city such as Memphis, Houston, or Los Angeles, and then doing what he describes as a “big, circular road trip.” Slowly the project that would become Q & A began to take shape – an exploration of the America we have come to expect and accept through received
visual mores.

Adopting an approach that is less documentary in a traditional sense yet still investigatory, Missen found himself questioning accepted realities, negotiating as he went the somewhat problematic space between the imagined and the actual. What he gives us through this extensive and comprehensive body of work (the entire project shown on this occasion comprises more than seventy prints), is on the one hand a delectable and intriguing slice of American contemporary life, and on the other – on a much deeper level – an interrogation of what America is or could be; our perceptions of it; and photography’s role in the creation and propagation of those perceptions. All of which results in a heady mix of photographs that are, in short, so much more than what they seem to be at a glance: the rather ordinary cluttered interior of a bar, for example, becomes in Missen’s rendering of it like an Aladdin’s Cave – the more you look, the more you see, with inconsequential details popping up all over the frame, becoming suddenly less trivial and, instead, remarkable in ways that are impossible to fathom. Elsewhere, Missen offers a more minimal, stripped back view – a portrait, perhaps, that invites us to ponder its subject’s contemplative expression, or a graphic depiction of a petrol station awning abstracted by bold framing.

While in Q & A Missen dutifully nods to the masters of American colour photography that have gone before him, he playfully disrupts and questions familiar visual tropes and in doing so destabilises our beliefs and assumptions about a place that we may, in truth, know very
little about.

Text by Gemma Padley, photography writer and editor.