The New Yorker's Troy Patterson embarks on a journey through the American suburban landscape.
Photographing Charleston, South Carolina, and its environs, James Harvey-Kelly produces a study of ease and order in American suburbia. There is an air of careful idealisation to the portfolio. The visual noise of suburban sprawl is reduced to the happy clamour of a used-car lot, for instance, and signs of both the city’s siege in the American Revolution and its role in the eruption of the American Civil War remain out of frame.
And yet this is not a simple indulgent fantasy of Americana. Though the viewer is sure to detect a certain nostalgia in its eye for the everyday grandeur of architecture and for the art of folksy mailboxes alike, it is a nostalgia in the service of a contemporary vision. In one image, a proud Colonial house, its front columns solid with solemn dignity, stands under a sky intersected by black overhead wires and white vapor trails. The scene, capturing an unmistakable sense of place in an understated way, conveys a lovely weight of local humidity.
Human faces are few and far between in these photographs, and this shortage of portraiture somehow makes the portfolio feel more personal. The choice makes the pictures feel more universal—but in a way that heightens the specific personality of the locale. The facelessness intensifies the intimacy such that a photograph of an unoccupied rocking chair under a portico invites you, the viewer, to sit for a spell. In much the same way, Harvey-Kelly’s mealtime still lifes satisfy an idea of hospitality. Consider a cup of coffee in a chrome-lined diner, steaming with emotional warmth. Drink in the image of a tall glass of iced tea; radiant with daylight, it seems at once to stimulate and to quench the viewer’s thirst.