Whether it’s two Mormons sitting on the curb of a parking lot eating McDonald’s or it’s a man taking a picture of an abstract sculpture in front of a food mart, it’s no accident that Eli Durst’s photographs resemble stills from a film. “When I applied for my undergraduate at Wesleyan University, I originally wanted to study film,” Eli admits. “But the film programme was really industry-centric and that put me off. At the same time, I was taking photography courses in the art department. I was completely seduced by the freedom of making art — just me, the camera, and the world.”
In his project Pinnacle Realty, the New York and Austin-based photographer turns his lens on the American suburbs. Fed up with the reductive stereotypes that have formed of the outskirts, Eli deployed his skills to challenge these preconceptions. “For some, the suburbs signify the ideal societal organisation while for others it represents an utterly boring and repressive way to live. I wanted to make work that resisted these stereotypical extremes. I wanted to explore how the American suburban landscape both reflects and resists the fantasies imposed upon it.” The result is a series of unconventional and enigmatic images that invite the viewer to imagine the context behind each photograph. Although themes often associated with American suburbia — like religion and fast food — make multiple appearances in Pinnacle Realty, Eli doesn’t stop there. His images offer a rounded portrait of the suburbs that challenges and builds on the simplistic impressions many might have of city outskirts.
The soft, warm light Eli captures was achieved by shooting in the early mornings or in the late afternoon. “I wanted to give the images a visual importance, a seriousness not normally associated with the mundane, suburban landscapes that I was photographing,” he says. “I wanted to transform and reimagine the ordinary. The light in the photographs was the foundation for this.”
Pinnacle Realty offers a compelling visual narrative of life in American suburbia, prompting the viewer to interact with the photographs. From groups of adults spending their evenings fencing in medieval costumes, to a man dressed up as the Statue of Liberty carrying a “Liberty Tax Service” sign, Eli’s filmic images feel as though they are about to get interrupted by someone either appearing in or disappearing from the frame.“When taking photos, I’m always looking for a certain tension that keeps drawing the viewer back — images that may shift and slip between funny and sad, sincere and sceptical, beautiful and repulsive,” Eli says. It is this ambivalence — an uncertainty of what might happen next — that renders Eli’s photography so compelling. In this way, Eli’s strength lies in his ability to engage the viewer, prompting them to imagine and place themselves in the universe in which his photographs belong.