12 May 2020
12 May 2020 - Written by Colin Pantall
George Georghiou’s latest book, Americans Parade, is a simple collection of Americans watching parades go by. Within that simplicity, there are faces, bodies, communities, landscapes, and the history of American photography.
George Georghiou, writes David Campany in the introduction to Americans Parade ‘..is wise enough to see the generosity of photography, that it offers more than he can see...’
That was true when the book was published last year. In the aftermath of coronavirus lockdowns, mass isolation, and social distancing, it’s doubly true. This is a book of people, of crowds, of bodies crushed together, of necks craning. It’s a book about people getting out of their houses, united in their desire to stand around watching the world go by.
The images are from a series of parades that Georghiou photographed in 2016. There are images from a George Washington Parade, Gay Pride, St Patrick’s Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving, Black History Month, Martin Luther King Day, a Mermaid Parade, and the defeat of Jesse James.
The parades take place on the West Coast, East Coast, Mid-West, and Deep South of the United States. There are country parades and city parades. Some are packed out affairs, events in themselves, others are quieter parades that people attend to show their appreciation for the cause. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York is a terraced affair with people lined up behind sidewalk barriers, or craning their necks from third storey carparks and restaurants. People have brought their children into the downtown for this, but in parades like the Jesse James Festival Parade in Missouri, Georghiou goes local, photographing a woman and four men in mobility scooters gathered at the end of the street to watch the paraders pass by.
There are community parades, historical parades, and commercial parades, but it’s not about the parades – we never see them. It’s about the people watching them. In this sense, Americans Parade is a book of faces and bodies, it’s a book of the grass and tarmac upon which these spectators sit, it’s a book of the street architecture amidst which everybody finds themselves, it’s a book of economic divides, where run-down storefronts, ill-fitting jeans, and skins toned by diets rich in corn syrup and saturated fats, are all part of the story.
That is the ‘generosity’ that Campany talks about, the way in which a wealth of detail is transmitted across social, visual, and photographic time and lodges itself in the contemporary image. Photography is an inclusive medium if we allow it to be, and Georghiou allows it to be through the diversity of the parades and the environments that he photographs. We don’t get just one beaded Mardi Gras parade, we get several; there are the beaded celebrants packing the sidewalks in downtown New Orleans, set off against the parade watchers gathering beneath an overpass in a suburb of the same city. The day might be the same but there are also environments, life stories, and urban histories contained within these images that point to a very different experience. In the book, the images are two dimensional, but the faces, surfaces and textures that you see are like little beads of sweat on the page, hinting at the organic depths that lie deep beneath the paper. The manner in which we see, read, and understand images cuts through history and time.
Perhaps that’s why there is a universality to Americans Parade, a feeling that they are part of a wider photographic tradition. Partly that is because of the way they are made. The images are controlled and disciplined and the themes that are apparent run from one set of spectators to the next, from one streetscape to the next. They are made to be ‘good’ photographs (not many photographs are made that way nowadays for various reasons) in a New Topographic kind of way, and they fit into a broader tradition of photographing America through the unpeopled landscapes that break up the series of parades. There are mobile homes, palm trees, dilapidated storefronts, and covered cars. These are explicit nods to the grand traditions of American photography, to Evans, Frank, Friedlander, Adams, Baltz, and Strauss so it’s a book about how America has been photographed as well as a book about America.
They are also made with a well-intentioned sensibility so there’s a kind of concerned/Family of Man feel to the images. The Family of Man exhibition might be decried for its mawkish sentimentality, but at the same time the basic message that beyond all our differences we are essentially the same is a far better one to have than the opposing stance; that the surface differences of skin colour, race, religion, sexuality, gender, and place of birth are enough to jail and kill people for. Americans Parade makes a beautiful change to that, and it is not in the least bit mawkish. This is because, with Georgiou’s democratic image-making, there’s a cold-blooded quality, a directness of looking in which all those different elements of gazes, bodies, communities, and landscapes do not sit together entirely happily. Georgiou stares, kindly, but the America in this book is not a happy place, and this is not a happy book.
Americans Parade by George Georgiou
Self-published // Hardcover lay-flat // 31 x 23.5 cm // 126 pages // 58 Photographs // £55
George Georgiou was born in London in 1961. He received a BA honours in photography, film and video arts from the Polytechnic of Central London (University of Westminster) in 1987. In 1999 he joined Panos Pictures in London and began to work exclusively on his own long term projects. He has photographed extensively in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Turkey, living and working in Serbia, Greece and Istanbul, Turkey from 1999 to 2009.
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.