Signs is Peter Granser’s third book about a part of the US (after Sun City and Coney Island), this time focusing on Texas. According to the publisher’s description, Signs “draws a telling picture of life today in America. For it, Granser traveled 12,000 miles through the ‘republic’ of Texas. With keen and objective precision, he focuses in his color photographs on the plethora of relics and signs that proliferate across the landscape and provide us with insights into the strange and contradictory state of contemporary American identity.”
The photography was also part of a show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, which, that shows description states, demonstrates that the US’ “character is not tribal, but rather it is a constantly shifting confluence of traditions, stereotypes, and opinions, as understood from both within the country and from the outside.”
Stereotypes and opinions Signs indeed delivers. So many in fact that by the end of the day, they get into the way of the otherwise often excellent photography. You could easily compare the photography in Signs with a depiction of Germany as consisting of Lederhosen wearing, ultra-conservative Catholics who like to drink huge mugs of beer in their Biergarten (and indeed, Bavaria and Texas occupy very similar spots in their respective countries). While there is no shortage of this being done - even in the mainstream media - from a photography book I do expect a bit more.
It is true, if you go to Texas - an American friend of mine noted how Peter Granser appeared to have gone to a particularly conservative area - you are likely to run into the kind of simplistic, extremely conservative and religious crowds shown in Signs. But while 50.7% of voters supported President Bush, 48.3% did not. And going to portray a small, in fact probably one of the most extreme, fraction of those 50.7% is not a very good approach to either understand what is going on in the country or to paint its portrait.
Add to all of this the intentionally dirty cover - initially, this reviewer thought he had merely received a not-so-splendid copy - and despite its often beautiful landscapes Signs delivers less than it could and should have - or maybe it delivers exactly what it was supposed to. But unfortunately, it’s a fairly skewed, black-and-white view of the US: Exactly the kind of view that Germans (and other Europeans) like to attack President Bush for.
This is too bad really, since we have seen too many such lop-sided views of both the US and Europe over the course of these past seven and a half years, and it’s time to set the record straight, and to present both the US and Europe as the many shades of grey they really are.