American photographer and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Gregory Halpern shares the story behind ZZYZX, a visual journey from the Californian desert to the Pacific coast
I like titles that refuse to interpret the work for the reader and in that sense I liked ZZYZX. Its origin is the name of a small desert town, Zzyzx, California (technically an “unincorporated community”) outside Los Angeles. The made-up name was given to the area in 1944 by Curtis Howe Springer, claiming it to be the last word in the English language.
The pictures in the book begin in the desert East of Los Angeles and move West through the city, ending at the Pacific. That Westward pull feels so powerful in American history and literature, and to me personally. And there’s that first, devastating Westward drive, the original expansion of America, which was born in the East and which hungrily drove itself West until reaching the Pacific, thereby fulfilling its “manifest” destiny.
I borrow from the documentary tradition/aesthetic, but the work isn’t documentary or reportage because I’m not motivated by the desire to ‘document’ or the desire to present my images as having any degree of objective truth. As I see it, photographs provide a highly subjective vision, but are often misleadingly presented as a form of objectivity.
At first I was inspired simply by the light, the colours, the extremes. It feels simultaneously like paradise and its demise. I think the pictures evoke something simultaneously contemporary and ancient. In some ways it’s a response to Los Angeles right now. In some ways, it’s not so literal. The space is also somewhat mythical, the timeline somewhat Biblical.
ZZYZX is published by Mack. Available from 17 September 2016
Photography Gregory Halpern