During his recent US tour with My Two Toms, photographer Tom Cops trained his camera on the Midwest, the people he met there and the places he passed through in the states sometimes referred to as “the real America.” The resulting book is a wonderful tribute to small town USA and its values, which can get crowded out by stereotypical extremes. We spoke to Tom to find out more…
Is it possible to see the Midwest as a singular entity, or do all the different states you feature have separate identities?
Only as much as you could see a country as a singular entity. I’m not even sure I see the states as having singular identities (although people from those states would probably disagree). I tend to think of the Midwest in terms of the towns we visited – certain places, like Fort Collins, CO and Butte, MT have a very specific character based on the industry in those towns and the kind of people they attract.
Other places, like Denver, CO are almost too large to have a specific character and tend to feel more like cities anywhere. This project is deliberately called Midwest not “The Midwest” because I’m not making a definitive comment, or work, on the area. This is merely a record of my experience travelling through a part of it playing music in an almost random collection of places.
How did you choose who to photograph? What was your impression of the people you met?
I didn’t really choose who to photograph. I’m a very shy person, and I made a decision before I left for the tour that I would attempt to photograph everyone I met (and had a conversation with) as a way of getting over my shyness more than anything else. There are certain limitations that I put on it; I would only photograph each person twice (close-up and further away) and I could only photograph with natural light (because I don’t like what flash does to the picture).
This meant that there were some amazing people I didn’t photograph, and that was slightly frustrating at times! But once I had those rules it was a bit like collecting, and I became a bit obsessed with it.
Of all the people I asked to photograph, no one said no and everyone (even those that look a little terrifying) was incredibly nice and patient with me. And as a social exercise it worked well – I got to know far more people than I normally would!
What do you think Charlie Parr means by the phrase “living graveyard” in the book’s foreword?
I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I read the phrase “living graveyard” as being a collection of memories, like tombstones, that are captured at that moment, in a very still way. There is no real movement in my images – the portraits are quiet moments, and the landscapes are largely empty of people.
The phrase is not used in a negative way, and it’s a phrase that he uses in various forms a few times. I think he’s talking specifically about some of the places we visited, where the industry has moved out of town and the buildings and people remain, almost as monuments to the past; my photographs serve the same function.
There is it seems a certain sadness, a faded grandeur to the landscape pictures? Was that deliberate?
I think there is a faded grandeur to the landscape out there. It’s so vast that they don’t need to knock down old buildings to build new ones. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t office blocks and Starbucks, but in amongst it all are these odd little places, some still active, others not; you can see the history of the place right in front of you.
I think I deliberately photographed the old faded details because that’s what I’m interested in, but I actually don’t see sadness there, just a quiet beauty. I think it probably says more about being on tour than it does about the places – it’s about long journeys, lots of waiting around, walking around towns after everything’s shut and waking up in weird motel rooms.