24 September 2019

A Study of Hypermasculinity in the American Heartland

24 September 2019 - Written by Laurence Cornet

For more than a decade, Gregory Halpern has been documenting everyday life in Omaha, Nebraska, steadily compiling a lyrical meditation on America and on the men and boys who inhabit it. Mack Books recently transformed the archive into a sketchbook-like monograph.

© Mack Books. Spread from Omaha Sketchbook by Gregory Halpern

Throughout the last decade and beyond, Gregory Halpern has been compiling lyrical photographs that muse on the concept of "Americanness". A follow up to his award-winning book ZZYZX, which drew an ambiguous portrait of Los Angeles, Omaha Sketchbook approaches the American heartland through the prism of class and masculinity. Young, old, long-haired, boy scout, prisoner, farmer, Apollo-like, weapon-focused, sport, pious, officer, cool-headed - Halpern portrays them all, and for each, he uses a visual language that echoes his subject – some shot on the fly, some posed more carefully.

Landscapes and stills complement this impressive gallery of men. Spread across the book, they are additional symbols of power and machismo – towers erected towards the sky, snakes undulating vigorously, cars and trucks showcasing their shiny coach-works. In this unapologetically masculine context, women are limited to objects of seduction.

© Mack Books. Spread from Omaha Sketchbook by Gregory Halpern

Using archetypes, Halpern nonetheless steps with each photograph further away from the possibility of grasping masculinity. Looking closely at the images, one starts to notice nuances and contradictions. The size of the photographs, slightly larger than contact sheets, triggers these two layers of reading. At first, we see a cliché. Upon second glance, we notice ambiguities – the Batmobile-like bolide parked by the side of a concrete wall is in fact covered with dust and dead leaves, not having roared in a long time.

"I’m interested in creating work with contradictory degrees of discomfort and reassurance built into it. […] I like how you can be attracted and repelled by something at the same moment. I want my images to create cognitive dissonance”, Halpern explained in an interview for Magnum when he was nominated as a member of the agency. Little by little, fragility invites itself to virility. Again, the layout of the book accentuates this ambiguity – conceived as a hand-made family album on construction-paper sketchbooks, the book feels like we are encountering a big family. Halpern’s at times spontaneous, low-key, framing emphasises this impression.

© Mack Books. Spread from Omaha Sketchbook by Gregory Halpern

Multiple realities may intersect, they all seem to be part of a shared story. And if it holds together, it’s because Halpern never explains literally. Instead, he installs a mystery that we solve ourselves, filling in the gaps in the narrative that he deploys for us. Or maybe that is like in theatre drama, a strong unity of place that supports the narrative, regardless of whether it means flirting with fiction.


Omaha Sketchbook by Gregory Halpern

Published by Mack Books in September 2019

Paperback with linen spine // 144 pages // 29 x 23 cm // £40



Gregory Halpern is a documentary photographer based in the United States. He holds a BA from Harvard University and an MFA from California College of the Arts. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Nominee Member of Magnum Photos, and a Professor of Photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow him on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

3 minutes

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