British photographer Carl Bigmore is living out a childhood obsession with the USA. The Londoner has just rounded off a project called Between Two Mysteries that’s seen him trawling the Pacific Northwest documenting the daily lives of its inhabitants; using personal pop culture references to contextualise the people he meets. “Since settlers followed the perilous Oregon Trail in search of prosperity in the 1800s,” he says, “the American imagination has left its imprint on the landscape. Oregon is forever haunted by the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining and its chilling analysis of the nation’s conflicted soul.”
Spurred on by Stanley Kubrick, Kurt Cobain and Ken Kesey, Carl has taken his 1958 Rolleiflex out into a landscape he knows only through film and rock music to find out the reality of the region, and also to create some new fictions.
As a British photographer where does your interest in the Pacific Northwest come from?
As a kid I was completely obsessed by films, and as with a lot of people of my generation The Goonies was a real favourite; when I was young I wished I was in that landscape and having those adventures. So my associations with the region became tethered to those fictional narratives quite early on. Then as I grew up the popular culture references changed and I was into Twin Peaks, grunge, The Shining or Ken Keasey novels. It was only retrospectively that I realised all these influences came from one region. Then ten years ago I visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time and I felt like I was moving through a fictional landscape. Ever since then I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind that I would like to create work there.
Do you feel like Kurt Cobain, David Lynch and Ken Kesey have influenced the way we perceive that part of the world?
For me it has absolutely coloured the way I see the region and those people that the project has really connected with seem to have the same associations too. I think American culture in general is such a huge global export that it is very hard to not have those associations influence your perception of the region, particularly if you are of a certain generation. The fact that Twin Peaks is set to return next year and a new Kurt Cobain documentary is being released soon shows the endurance of these pop culture references.
“I think American culture in general is such a huge global export that it is very hard to not have those associations influence your perception of the region, particularly if you are of a certain generation.”
The texts that accompany the images are taken from popular culture – old songs or quotes from TV shows – but the images focus mostly on nature. Was it a conscious decision to pair these two seemingly disparate things and if so what’s the effect you’re intending to produce?
I’m really interested in creating a strong sense of place in my work. So much of this project is about the relationship between those pop culture references and the landscape; the use of text came about quite organically in the editing process. I knew with certain images I wanted to have text that gave the viewer a clear indication of the relationship between the two. For example the image titled The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah River, Aberdeen, Washington is the river that runs through Kurt Cobain’s hometown, so I knew I wanted to use a Nirvana lyric in conjunction with that image. I then trawled through their lyrics and found something that resonated when placed next to the image. Other times I would have a piece of text that when placed next to a certain image seemed to create its own meaning. For example the fawn lost in downtown Anacortes placed next to the log lady quote from Twin Peaks speaks to the themes of the real and imagined; the natural and the constructed environment.
Do you think the imagined realities you’re trying to explore only exist to an outsider and the native inhabitants lead quite an ordinary existence?
To an extent yes, it is perhaps more amplified to an outsider. Certainly there’s this tension in what I’m doing where I’m projecting my associations onto this landscape and that’s not how its residents necessarily perceive it – it was something I was conscious of while making the work. But much of the portraiture in the project really speaks to the ordinary lives of the people in the Pacific Northwest. Sure, they might aesthetically fit my imagined reality of the region but, without wishing to sound trite, each person I photographed had a story that was very much about the reality of life there.
“I’m really interested in creating a strong sense of place in my work. So much of this project is about the relationship between those pop culture references and the landscape.”
What do these photographs evoke for you when you look at them?
It’s quite difficult to separate what these images evoke from the experience of having made them. If I try to ignore the experience, I feel like I’m looking at an imagined reality, like frozen moments of fragmented memories coming together to create their own narrative. In some ways they feel like a collection of film stills and it’s for the viewer to bring as much as they wish to the narrative reading. My favourite photographers create work that has a quiet reflective quality allowing room for ambiguity. There is this strong sense of place that I mentioned earlier and even though it may not be a traditional narrative I feel it portrays a tone and ambience that is honest to the experience.
Is this ongoing or a project that you feel is ‘finished’?
My approach to making work, and particularly this project, is quite fluid. So whilst the collection of images I have presented feels complete, my interest in the Pacific Northwest and creating work there is very much unfinished.
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