America's Idea of a Good Time
by Simon James
with Introduction by
Dewi Lewis Publishing, England
Born in New York and brought up in Malibu, California, Kate Schermerhorn studied photography under Joel Sternfeld at Sarah Lawrence College, New York. After finishing her degree the wandering urge took her overseas to spend time traveling in Asia and the Far East. She moved to Italy, and Can You See, her first exhibition, was held in Hong Kong whereshe lived for a while before returning to the USA. Her latest series of work, America's Idea of Good Time, accompanied by an excellent essay from best-selling author Simon Winchester, has just been published in book form. I suspect breed considerable controversy in the land of its birth.
In the manner of some of the best ideas, the series began accidentally. It was 1993; she was living in Venice, California, and a friend asked her to go and see her belly dancing in a parade. Schermerhorn says that she hadn't been to a parade since childhood but something must have sparked in her about the significance of these events the USA has adopted as its own. At surface level everybody knows America loves a parade, and from America's Idea of A Good Time we learn that around 7,000 take place in the USA every year. Parades also have a deeper, and perhaps until now slightly overlooked, significance within the structures of ideas and values that combine to form the American psyche. Parades are one of the invisible bindings that bring otherwise disparate communities together. As well as this, in a society whose fundamental building blocks are the family, pioneer spirit and notions of community, they allow Americans to publicly affirm their essential Americanness: a subject that has fascinated American photographers for more than 100 years and continues so to do. Even the most casual glance at the star spangled banner affirms the importance that Americans place upon a national identity. While at school American children pledge daily allegiance to the flag. Schermerhorn informs us, at any given time only around 16 percent of US citizens hold a passport to travel abroad. Anyone wanting to experience the wonders of the outside world can after all find many of them reconstructed a relatively short internal flight away within the comfortable confines of the theme park known as Las Vegas. In the majority America draws its experience and values from itself; and its photographers continue resolutely to pursue the Holy Grail of true Americanness.
Over the course of several years, in a personal examination of America's resolute pursuance of the happiness to which it feels constitutionally entitled, Kate Schermerhorn has photographed nearly a hundred parades and pageants across the breadth of the continental USA. Her camera, however, never quite gets around to recording glory of the spectacle, choosing instead to reach beyond the razzmatazz and settle into the dust of the surrounding minutiae which inform the structure of the whole. Intangibles such as concentration form a fundamental part of the events: in Pasadena for example we find a perfectly made up, high heeled, suspender and stocking clad gentleman applying the final adjustments to his face paint before taking part in a parade. Lace seems significant to a Hollywood Halloween party while a poodle in a pet pouch across its owner's chest watches a Washington tricycle race. Taking the whole thing seriously is very much an issue here: there is a commitment in the participants which is appreciated by the spectators.
Gradually happiness itself became the central element of the series, and Schermerhorn extended the project to regard the ideal of America in search of enjoyment. This in turn raised the series above that of a conventional piece of documentary photography; for, as can easily be evidenced by ancient Rome, a nation's idea of a good time is as crucial to its existence as its ideas of right and wrong. The politics and heritage of the USA crept quietly in. Another constitutionally enshrined right of American citizens, fiercely defended by the all powerful National Rifle Association, is the right to bear arms. It is therefore unsurprising to note an entertainment available in the Western state of Nevada is machine gun rental. Back in Massachusetts they seem content to shoot paint at one another, rather than lead, but there seems something relevant in the fact that the activity takes place in an old kitchenware factory: Tupperware has given over to the rule of the gun.
So what sort of message might this collection of images begin to generate? Are they just funny pictures of Americanshaving fun or is there a deeper subtext? Returning to Washington state, originally reached overland by covered wagon, it is matching wheel covers on a recreational vehicle that catch Schermerhorn's eye. We aren't on this occasion informed of the event in progress, but I found myself thinking back to a photograph of a car in California, covered with a dust sheet in Robert Frank's famous book The Americans: the journey completed and the covers put on. At other times the images seem to add to the contribution of Bill Owens' previously unsurpassed Suburbia.
Commitment is there to be seen and notions of abundance or plenty frequently feature in the diversity of events. In Phoenix, Arizona, for example spectators have brought living room furniture out into their driveway and comfortably settled in to watch a parade: a notion of communal spirit, both national and local flows throughout the book. The high school band rehearses in the back yard, while in Beaux Bridge, Louisiana, a uniformly striped couple step seriously out for the annual crawfish festival.
Unlike Robert Frank, who photographed his Americans as a new immigrant while he tried to make sense of the land to become his home, Owens is a native Californian. He lived on the Hayward estate where he made his famous pictures, and his own family appear in several of the pictures. Schermerhorn also photographs with the affection and understanding of one born and brought up in the USA: her own ancestors having been very early settlers who made the then perilous journey across the Atlantic under sail in 1638. As such her imagery tends to be questioning rather than critical but piercing for all that. The book opens with an image of Mount Rushmore, again avoiding the splendor, instead simply allowing the head of George Washington to break the bottom of the frame. Whether he is to be viewed as sinking, or perhaps resurfacing to take a new look at the nation he fathered is a decision left to the viewer. Quietly, behind it's humorous, light hearted, and gently superficial veil, America's Idea of a Good Time asks some very subtle questions. And as her Amish farmer rollerblades off into the sunset, I am left with the conviction that Kate Schermerhorn's is a journey that's only just begun.
SIMON JAMES IS A PHOTOGRAPHER LIVING AND WORKING IN LONDON, ENGLAND.