In 2004, photographer Gregory Halpern was living in San Francisco, fresh out of graduate school, barely employed and seriously uninspired. He applied to a number of artist residencies, and one place accepted him – the Bemis Centre for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska

Although it’s the most populous city in the state, Omaha feels remote and typically midwestern. Aside from billionaire Warren Buffet, who was born in the city and has attracted a number of Fortune 500 companies to settle there, the city’s claims to fame are mostly practical and unglamorous – Omaha is the home of TV dinners and raisin bran. 

It was a far cry from San Francisco, or even Halpern’s home city of Buffalo, New York. But the contrast proved invigorating. The aggressive, rough-hewn masculinity idealised in the local culture, through which vulnerability and loneliness can be occasionally glimpsed, quickly became Halpern’s main photographic subject.

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He began photographing Omahaian daily life: the high school football matches, card games, Boy Scout meetings and park hangouts. His subjects are often young men, the kind who wouldn’t appreciate showing much vulnerability before a camera or to an outsider. “It’s hard,” Halpern told The Independent of approaching his subjects. “I still get nervous because I’m actually quite introverted, and I have to work up the energy. I try to be extremely respectful, positive, honest and direct about what I’m doing.” 

In 2009, Halpern released the photobook Omaha Sketchbook, in which small prints were tacked to a duplicate of his own sketchbook made from coloured construction paper from an Omaha art store. This presentation mirrored the intimate, personal nature of his work in the city, full of the mundanity and ambivalence which will be familiar to residents of minor cities everywhere. Now, he’s released an updated version of the book, having returned to Omaha after the 2016 election which saw Nebraska gripped by Maga fever.

He didn’t include any Trump rallies in his updated book, feeling the images were simplistic towards the point of caricature. “With a portrait, there has to be something that defies expectations,” he says. “Something beautiful in a totally non-traditional sense of the word. Something that surprises or unsettles or nags at you. Something that makes you think, not something that simply reaffirms what you already know or feel.” His pictures have a dreamy, lost-in-time quality. But as America turns towards the midwest to understand its own political climate, his work feels precisely relevant.

‘Omaha Sketchbook’ is published by MACK; Gregory Halpern’s work is at the Huxley Gallery, London, until 12 October 2019

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