Photographer Gregory Halpern has focussed his career on an exploration of the elusive, nascent notion of Americanness. Halpern’s 2019 series, Omaha Sketchbook, makes the Midwestern city of Omaha, Nebraska, his backdrop for exploring the interconnected concepts of nationhood, masculinity and belonging.
Located on the border of Nebraska and Iowa, Omaha has become, in many ways, the epitome of ‘Heartland America’. For the last fifteen years, Halpern has been documenting life in Omaha, steadily compiling a lyrical, if equivocal, response to this mythic American Heartland. The series explores notions of cognitive dissonance and unexpected harmonies, playing on a sense of simultaneous repulsion and attraction to the place. Halpern’s photographs depict the complexity and contradiction of the city, its communities and their traditions. He has photographed boy scouts and marching bands as well as Omaha’s landscapes and infrastructure, creating a nuanced and intricate anthology of place.
The series provides a rich meditation on the multi-faceted nature of masculinity, and the way a certain kind of masculinity fostered, in part, by the social and political atmosphere of America’s Midwest. In particular, Halpern examines the transition of boy to man in this atmosphere, as the adolescents he photographs appear just on the cusp of either promise or obscurity.
The series is ultimately a meditation on America, on the men and boys who inhabit it, and on the mechanics of aggression, inadequacy, and power which permeate the construction of the concept of nationhood. Halpern is particularly interested in the exploration of power in relation to traditional masculine values and how these have manifested and become entrenched within the fabric of American society and politics. Halpern’s exploration of these themes reveals both their deep rootedness as well as the inherent construction of Americanness, its aesthetics, rituals and beliefs.
Halpern does not seek to simply critique what he views as ‘hypermasculinity’ and its prevalence in society but to offer a view of America that is pluralised, fragmented and deeply insecure. While the photographs themselves ebb and flow to the rhythm of small town life, there is an urgency to the series which is prescient in the context of America’s current political upheaval
(By Alexandra MacKay)