Here’s part of what we know: the American tradition of road photography, as established by Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and others, has captured thousands of faces from the far-flung corners of a vastly unequal nation. Here’s what I recall after hearing the words of 37-year-old photographer Curran Hatleberg—photographs of other people force interest in lives other than our own.
Hatleberg’s recorded voice is on the Whitney Museum website as part of the Washington D.C.-born, Baltimore-based photographer’s contribution to the 2019 Whitney Biennial (until 22 September). The subject of a mini solo exhibition on the third floor of the museum, his pictures portray an America hypnotized by strangeness and recognition, paralyzed by an aching desire for connection and an increasingly violent vindication of separateness, which the photographer infiltrates in order to render its ironies affectionately. How else to portray America today, his pictures demand, but with love?
The product of extensive travels across thousands of E-Z Pass and you-can-hardly-pass miles, his 16 photographs at the Whitney nail the American paradox of egalitarianism and individualism like a wet catfish to a pine plank. The closeness he achieves with his subjects bespeaks formidable trust. In Hatleberg’s pictures—his image-communion with a group of African-American men playing dominoes on the street, for one; a second picture-pact reached with a white family on their front porch, another—you can almost touch the heat, feel the sheen on the couch on which the photographer will land after one too many beers. Certain people retain a gift for contact despite their individual backgrounds. On the evidence, Hatleberg is one of them.
Because his pictures appear at once so local and archetypal, Hatleberg prefers not to disclose the location of his photographs. Rather than have them be about, say, West Virginia or Arkansas, his more arresting snaps instead serve as open-ended cues for lushly allusive narrative possibilities. Consider (Untitled) Girl with Snake (2016): a picture of a schoolgirl seated inside the ruins of a collapsed cinder block structure holding a snake for a Barbie: the image sprouts a Medusa’s head worth of storylines. The fact that not all of them are tied down by the stereotypes and misconceptions attendant to being poor, white, and multi-generationally down-and-out is only part of what keeps Hatleberg’s pictures from parroting the conventional photo-documentary line.
A fourth picture that bucks strict Dorothea Lange expectations is Untitled (Mantis) (2018). A frankly surreal picture that conjures up, among other enduring mysteries, the magical thinking that has the country during the past few years. It features a middle-aged dame in a sleeveless tee puzzling over a praying mantis crawling up a companion’s arm. A forest of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines that include a body of water, a tabletop, a Virginia Slims cigarette and several empty bottles of Miller High Life, the picture captures not a vision of this-or-that poll-able phenomenon so much as a collision of unresolved emotional forces. Were this picture a short story, it would have been penned by Raymond Carver.
Who has a voice? The question goes to the very heart of democracy. In his best, most affecting and paradoxical pictures, Hatleberg melds his own artistic vision with the hundreds of voices he has given a face to on his coast-to-coast encounters. His hard-won message, as contained at the Whitney, is also heard on the museum’s website: “It’s only through others that we’ll really understand ourselves, our country and our current moment.”