Zzyzx is not exactly a town. Situated on the edge of the Mojave Desert, it is officially known as an ‘unincorporated community’. It’s a non-place, a made-up place, given its unlikely name (which is pronounced ‘Zy-zeks’) in 1944 by one Curtis Howe Springer, a one-time radio evangelist and owner of the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa. Springer hoped the name would make his business the last listing in the phone book, thus guaranteeing some, you imagine, much-needed publicity.
For all those reasons, it’s the perfect name for Gregory Halpern’s voyage into the soul of Los Angeles. For the series of pictures that would become the ZZYZX book, Halpern wandered east to west, from the Mojave Desert edge to the Pacific Ocean, photographing as he went. The result is a dreamlike encounter with the city’s inhabitants, its landscape and architecture.
Halpern first began exploring Los Angeles in 2008. “I live on the East Coast, in a relatively small city called Rochester,” he says. Like many before him, Halpern was drawn to LA’s light and its colours, which felt so alien to his “grey” home town. He was also intrigued by the city’s sheer size. “I felt like I could go out everyday with my camera for ten years and never begin to understand the city,” he says. “In some ways it’s a complete disaster of a place but it’s so fascinating because there are so many different communities and cultures and cities within cities in LA.”
On his regular trips to California, Halpern would take the ‘urban parks’ that dot LA as his starting point. “They intersect with dense urban areas, so I would locate these spots on Google Maps that were almost no-man’s land,” he says.
And then he’d start to wander: but what was he looking for? “It’s hard to say. In some ways I tried not to predetermine it,” he says. “The main thing I was looking for was a surprise, to make a picture that confused me. Then there are things that obviously recur, things that contradict themselves or feel idiosyncratic, things you don’t expect to find in a certain place.
“The pictures are a subjective vision of LA and I imagine some other people experience this city similarly, but I never wanted to claim there was any kind of objective truth to the project,” Halpern says. “I really wanted it to convey the effect of this place on my imagination.”
Halpern has explained his approach as “more than” documentary. In fact, he finds traditional documentary photography problematic. “My earliest book [2003’s Harvard Works Because We Do about the university’s service staff] was traditional documentary but I got really turned off by that way of working,” he says. “It felt pompous and almost arrogant and I didn’t want to work that way again. Even though it was how I felt, it was clearly a fabricated vision [of the subject]. Photography is always just one person’s truth.”
Though the final book follows the organising principle of an east-west journey, that approach only came to light after Halpern had been photographing for some years and the photographer Jason Fulford started to help him shape the project.
When editing a series, Halpern says, “I try to boil it down to maybe 200 or 300 pictures I want to work with and I print them out very little and cut them up into one-
by-two-inch pictures. Then for this I built a series of six or seven shelves, fixed them to the wall and put the pictures up on them. Then I start shuffling them around to find two or three that feel good next to each other. Then much later I’ll put them into a PDF.”
“It felt like I could go out every day for ten years and never begin to understand the city,” Halpern
Halpern says “I love the idea of thinking about pacing and about the structure of a song or a novel. I like the idea of there being little peaks of tension. I almost think of it visually, like a graph of highs and lows. There’s an intro that pulls you in, then you’re swept along in some kind of flow and then at the end I want it to build to some kind of crescendo.”
ZZYZX certainly does that, as the final spreads take the viewer through downtown and on to the coast. “It’s almost a state of the nation address, there are some very big allusions to the state of America,” the book’s publisher Michael Mack says of the work. “I regularly see great photographs and I regularly hear great ideas, but to get both together is very rare.”
For Halpern, the photobook remains a favoured format. “There are so many things I love about photobooks,” he says. “So much of my life is spent looking at a screen, it’s such a relief to look at a book. I love that the quality of reproduction can be so high and I love that you can really control the viewer’s experience in terms of the sequence of images. And usually when people look at a book, they look at the whole thing, so I feel like it’s the best experience of the work you can have. There’s something about it being in the viewer’s home, in their private space, that intimacy it can have. ‘Sacred’ is too strong a word but it’s so cool that books are still really valued.”
“The photobook is a space for exploration. It has produced some wonderful things,” Mack says. “More and more we have come to realise that the relationship between photography and the book is fundamental to certain types of practice.” Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the pages of Halpern’s extraordinary trip.
ZZYZX is published by Mack, £35, see mackbooks.co.uk