Photographer Evan Jenkins grew up in the coastal town of Ventura, California before moving to Chicago in 2006. In the 12 years that followed, the photographer’s perceptions of his home state shifted, not only his ideas of childhood nostalgia but also in the context of the Californian symbol and its contentious status resembling a place of hope and reinvention.
So between 2012 and 2018, Evan Jenkins made several trips back to southern California. Over these four years, he documented the West coast state with the lens of a returnee. In turn, he created Sunflower Sutra, a collection of found and created imagery that avoids the traditional documentary mode of photography, opting instead for an examination of California as both a real and imagined place.
“The project borrows its titled from the Allen Ginsberg poem in which the narrator is struck by the beauty of a solitary sunflower in the midst of a modernised, desolate landscape,” explains Evan. “The analogy summarises both the dream and the desperation that California and its mythology traditionally represent,” he adds. Though there’s still a feeling of familiarity for Evan in the place he grew up, he’s now also able to examine the place through the numerous films and media that constantly refer to the dreaminess of the state.
“As a kid, the landscape and atmosphere was just a normal setting to me,” says the Chicago-based photographer, “but now I understand that people project a lot onto the West in general, particularly on southern California.” Though its mainstream perception often harks back to movie stardom and glamour, Evan assesses how, “the reality is that when people project so much hope and desire onto a place or a thing, there’s bound to be just as much desperation and failure as there is success.”
For six years, in between visiting family and friends, Evan completed Sunflower Sutra. While he visited loved ones, he had the luxury of slowly getting to know his subjects before photographing them. Sometimes he only produced one good image per trip but that didn’t matter as the series gradually built up with a sense of depth that came with each personal connection.
After his bank of imagery organically grew over the years, Evan finally edited and curated the series. “I had to spend a lot of time analysing my own feelings about what I shot and decide what I wanted to say with it.” Though he’d like to present the viewer with a sense of intrigue, he thinks it’s useless to have too much intentionally tied to his work. “It’s impossible to guarantee that someone will understand and react according to my plans. And even if I could guarantee that, why would I want to manipulate someone else so thoroughly? In the end, I hope someone feels the same way as when they read a good poem or hear a good song – emotionally intrigued, even if only for a tiny amount of time.”
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