America

Liner Notes For a Book by Horst Hamann

Horst Hamann, AmericaTake Downtown. The dictionary offers the definition: Business district in the inner city. In the USA this applies to every inner city with at least one store, to every one-horse town. Downtown is defined therefore not on the basis of the size of the town. Business district says just as little about the quality of these businesses, which do not even have to be in operation. Some downtowns are completely dead, some are booming, some experience this in a continual state of change. Many have been extolled, but even more forgotten. But one thing has to be remembered above all: Americans have not yet been living so long in cities, perhaps they lack a little practice. From some downtowns Lady Luck – for example in the form of gold or oil – has moved on after a brief guest appearance, and nature is reconquering what was taken from it decades ago. Yet others are being kept alive artificially by pumping water urgently needed elsewhere hundreds of miles across the desert, while others owe their prosperity to tiny chips. If anything at all endures in America, it is transience. Over the last two decades, DIY stores have flourished above all, where the handyman could have the large plywood panels sawn to size in order to nail up the shop fronts. Some rows of shops give the impression that their owners are expecting a hurricane, even in regions far removed from such storms.

The Southdale Mall, the first shopping centre of this type, was opened in Edina, Minnesota in 1954, an event which was to have devastating effects on all downtowns of the United States, particularly in the 1960’s, because these shopping emporia built on green-field sites sucked the life out of the town and city centres. Out here there was plenty of room for parking, and real estate taxes especially were much lower, and in any case, the Minnesotans for example cannot be blamed if they wanted to avoid the usual outdoor temperatures common in these latitudes when shopping, which for example only allow three months for road repairs, and even the midges have to compete if they want to be successful: the 10,000 lakes produce billions of these annoying pests.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the National Interstate Highway & Defense Act – the expansion of the highway network was intended not only to connect American towns and cities, but also to facilitate the defense of the country in the event of an emergency. This act spurred the success of the malls, because they became more easily accessible. Around the malls spread the rank growth of the suburbs and around these the suburbs of the suburbs, benignly known as urban sprawl. The inner cities became abandoned and fell into disrepair, whole rows of houses were torn down, until there were once again plenty of parking places in downtown – but for who? Today in Europe, we now also know the stories about city districts such as Berlin-Neukölln, where taxi-drivers and even the police no longer dare to venture. In Detroit, there are rows of houses, where in addition to the gangs, wild animals have also moved in from the remaining woodland, because they are less disturbed here. But perhaps not for much longer: thanks to the housing crisis, the McMansions in suburbia, the housing units, are now selling, the residents are fed up with mowing acres of lawn and having to drive up to two hours to work, or sitting in a traffic jam, especially at today’s ever-increasing energy prices and the almost non-existent local public transport system. But even this is improving: Dallas now has a streetcar network, and L. A. is rapidly extending its metro network. Americans generally have little enough time available as it is, since it has been calculated that they spend five years of their lives standing in queues, and another eight months opening junk-mail and spam. The tense economic situation is bringing an end to the urban sprawl, many people are returning to the town, the suburbs are now falling into disrepair, sooner or later the police will not want to venture there, although as in Florida, the alligators will, no kidding. And there are always people who will make big bucks out of these developments. One indicator is the rise in price of inner-city real estate, and some places are now hardly recognizable: Indianapolis for example is once again a fully-functioning city even outside the race season, at least for tourists who are interested in musicals and stagecoach rides.

As an old aficionado of America, Horst Hamann always travels in the dramatically correct order: Go West!, therefore from East to West, because the landscape becomes more spectacular as one travels further West. If one really has to return, the road leads back into the real world from West to East. For professional reasons, Mr. Hamann occasionally prefers the zigzag course, as if he is trying to shake someone off his trail.

It is difficult at first to comprehend the size of the country. Flying over it is easy and also quite imposing. Professionals refer to the whole Mid-west as flyover states. But coast-tocoast by land, that is something completely different again. You have to wait for your breath to catch up with you. In Wyoming I once heard a coach-driver called Marv say: “Seven hours through Wyoming – it took the pioneers seven weeks, and they didn’t even have any salad!” Salad is however now available even in Greyhound coach stations. And it quickly becomes apparent too why the Americans sometimes get out of touch with the rest of the world: they can drive for days on end and still remain within their own national borders. What European visiting the States has not had something like this happen to them: You get into the taxi somewhere and say: “To the train station!”. The driver nods, but makes no move to drive off. A description of the route follows. He nods again. There now follows a definition of the term train station. “Oh,” he says, “I didn’t know that we have a train station here!” We set off. You can almost see the cogwheels revolving inside his head. After a while he asks: “Where you from?” “Germany.” He nods again. More cogitation. Finally: “Did you come all the way from Germany by train?”

Horst Hamann made his trips by car, since the images do not simply present themselves to the photographer. His travels are no Kerouac revisions, no silly lone wolf trips looking for something or for oneself – Jack Kerouac incidentally could not even drive a car! Horst Hamann occasionally had his two children with him as travel companions, who provided the musical background and waited patiently at every picture stop. They often had to be out of bed early, because the light is best in the mornings. And also to stay up later in the evenings, since the light conditions are also not bad at this time. But how to find the images? This must simply be left to chance – although one quickly develops the right feel. There is always a slight tingling sensation when the files with the photos of Horst Hamann come in. His photos are windows that give an insight into a different, sometimes alien world. We got to know each other over a decade ago in New York, when the former cultural attaché of the German Mission to the United Nations still hosted soirees, which sounds more pompous than it really is: I simply recounted my stories of America to the best of my ability in his living room, the atmosphere was casual and warm, and afterwards someone told me in broadest Monnemerisch that it was nice to hear the good old Kurpfalz dialect once again: Horst Hamann. Over the years we have met each other occasionally, and of course our common love brings us together again: America. It can perhaps be called a love-hate relationship, obsession or whatever you like.

The Americans have fortunately designed their country very conveniently: government in Washington D.C., computers in Seattle, Austin or in Silicon Valley, gambling in Las Vegas, film-making in Hollywood, Jazz in New Orleans, Soul in Detroit, Country and Western in Nashville. There is also the belt system: The cotton belt or the Bible belt, almost fully overlapping, although the latter is expanding by the hour, even towards the North, where it meets the rust belt, which is explained by the excessive spreading of salt in the winter, which causes the cars to rust. Every town has its strip malls and its downtown. One comes to know the place quickly, including the hotels and restaurants. The fear of the Americans of the egalitarianism of communism must be surprising in hindsight, because the everyday life of Americans is strictly standardised.

But how does a world power come to terms with such an ailing infrastructure? The roads do not feel as if too many tax dollars have been spent on their maintenance, even after four years of Obama, bridges are rotten, trains are regularly derailed, and at the Fargo Airport, buckets had to be placed everywhere in the terminal shortly after its reopening, as the roof was by no means watertight, at least when it was raining. Who prefers investing his money in weapons should not be surprised if resources are lacking elsewhere. After the largest blackout in the history of America in August 2003, the former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said: “We are a major superpower with a power grid of the third world.” Perhaps one should give the Americans the tip that it is also possible to lay cables underground. But without poles along the highway, something would be missing from the landscapes, they make them typically American, a sign of solidarity. Michael Moore – who else? – posed the question: “How do we, the richest nation in the world, come to the point that sick people who cannot pay their bills are simply thrown out onto the street like garbage?” In spite of all the shortcomings the Americans are powerfully proud of their country, more than ever, in some empty business, the windows are hung with the Stars & stripes. The optimism seems undiminished, even on the most ridiculous and ruined building there still hangs a For Sale sign.

America has given the world impressive photographers such as William Eggleston, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans and Stephen Shore, each with his own approach, his own point of view, always new and different. As a European, Horst Hamann has yet another different way of looking at things. The West in particular offers varied interpretation possibilities. Many Americans do not necessarily have access to the beauties of their country, such as could be seen on a train trip through the Glacier National Park in brilliant weather, in the Amtrak lounge car, through whose glass observation dome one could enjoy a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. The many visitors however only had eyes for the film flickering on the four monitors, and these were not even showing landscape videos of the National Park.

Let’s take a look for some clues. How does Kirsten Dunst as Claire put it in the film Elizabethtown: “Everyone should make a road trip. Just you and the music!” So, nothing like getting moving, in the car of course. This was confirmed by the great Elmore Leonard: “Anyone who walks makes themselves suspicious!” Hamann starts in New England, a place to be avoided above all on weekends during the Indian summer, because then all Boston and half of New York is out on the streets, not to mention the tourists. The small towns look inviting, and very hospitable, but it was in Vermont that I saw this sticker: Welcome to Vermont, now go home!

Chicago is the most important transport hub in the USA, but was also long known as Johannesburg on the lake, because nowhere else amongst the major cities was racial segregation more firmly ensconced. The nickname was coined by the radio legend Studs Terkel, also known as Mr. Chicago. Now times have changed: Chicago is today the base of Barack Obama. Studs Terkel once again: “No standing still. Only someone who keeps moving senses the present, and the future is never unachievable. The past on the other hand means standstill, and anyone who stands still is going backwards.” Don’t even think of parking here!

The emblem of the National Park Service shows a buffalo, a redwood and a snow-capped mountain peak. The buffalo have been hunted almost to extinction, the redwoods are being felled, and global warming will take care of the snow-capped mountain peak. For many Americans, the sign Keep your forest green still means throwing only green bottles out of the window. Sooner or later, climatic change will have swept the so-called gas holes, their gas-guzzling SUVs off the roads. The Americans, who have been eating synthetic food for decades, have spent the last half-century developing lemonades in the most bizarre colours, instead of developing automobiles more suitable for the times.

Iowa, the Dakotas, the Great Plains – these are landscapes which are often underrated, the eyes-closed-and-drive-through states. An illustration in an article about the Badlands in a travel magazine showed three road signs one after the other along the highway. (1): Only 200 miles to more (2) of the (3) same. The sky. The emptiness. Endless room for one’s own thoughts. In a country overflowing with stimuli, boredom can sometimes even be a little comforting. The buffalos found this region completely to their liking, and the Indians found holy places here. The Indians have since found a better and more contemporary way of defending themselves: Casinos! And it was the Seminoles in Florida who at the end of 2006 took over the Hard Rock Café chain.

Quiet small-town America, where women can cross the street alone at night in safety, but what for? The buildings bear witness to a time when doctors could still smoke in their surgeries. The abandoned settings of minor and major dramas, the showplaces of soapoperas. The streets straight as an arrow, as if God had forgotten to roll up his measuring tape. The spacing between the billboards goes according to the speed limit. Six seconds are allowed to digest the message. A bumper sticker: Drive to live, live to drive. If this is God’s own country, perhaps it might not be inappropriate to ask: Does he come home occasionally to check if everything is in order?

The West imposes no restraints upon itself where clichés are concerned: men in leather chaps with an awkward gait; pickups with dogs tied up in the truck bed, the Winchester on its rack across the rear window; fishing rods to be swung against the permanent blue of the sky; but also more sensitive types, who whisper into the ears of horses. The music on the radio varies between Country and Western, and the rest are cowboy songs. As devoid as this region is of people – who do they think is listening to the radio? Whoever takes too close a look at America would be advised to listen to classics on National Public Radio as an antidote. The landscape remains consistently imposing, sometimes we climb massive mountains, almost as craggy as Robert Redford’s face – a comparison which comes easily to mind in Montana – sometimes covered in pine forests, in other places grandiose valleys open up, wide, bleak and empty. The German observer might well ask himself whether it was not a mistake to shoot the innumerable Karl May films in Croatia. As a European however, one should take advantage of every opportunity to appreciate the vastness of these wide-open spaces.

Cody’s downtown consists of four museums, one of which is the Firearms Museum, certainly not an attraction for pinko liberals from the east coast. We are now in the states of the north-west, where it is much better not to be seen, driving a car with California plates: the Californicators are not popular, and are regarded as rude, permissive and godless, and are in any case sure to drive up the real estate prices; many such visitors return to their cars to find that the windscreen has been smashed. The state of Montana is as large in area as Germany, although it numbers only one million inhabitants. The feeling sometimes creeps up on one of travelling through still-inhabited ghost-towns, although in fact there are still real people living here. It is difficult to imagine that Horst Hamann has sometimes sent them away round the corner simply so that he could take his photo. The search for the idyll of the province is everywhere in vain, even in the most remote spots one finds huge advertising billboards for methadone users, so there must be a clientele somewhere. Ghost-towns, that could mean deserted by all good spirits, not just the inhabitants. Allyou-can-eat-landscape, but sometimes one thinks: is there perhaps a curfew in force here? But why? Where have all the people gone? Further west, to throw themselves into the sea like lemmings? The West has long since been filled to the point of overflowing, at least the coastal strip, and: the West is bankrupt, at least California.

The Idaho state border, where according to the billboard the Nez Percé Trail suddenly begins, and on leaving the state one cannot shake off the disquieting feeling that by this Idaho wants rather to celebrate the disappearance of the Indians. The Indians have to learn their own language as a foreign tongue. The potato states should instead write on the number-plates: Where Hemingway shot himself.

Idaho is so thinly populated that it can get by with only seven prisons. The Wild West makes every effort to fulfil all expectations with signs such as Diamond Ranch or greetings like Howdy, stranger. Horses are tied up everywhere to conform to the image. In Bend, Oregon, they discuss in the 21st Century whether it is proper to put the washing out to dry on the line, in a country where washer-dryers consume around six percent of the electricity used by all American households. America lives by its contradictions. In food-stamp America the motels are cheap. In the better hotels, guests can choose between soft and firm when it comes to pillows, but the air-conditioning system has only two settings – on and on. On the other hand, Madonna once forked out the equivalent of Euro 19,000 for an overnight stay in the Setai Miami Beach. In Castro Valley a dog was given silicon testicle implants to spare it the trauma of castration. Southern California is the most dangerous part of the trip. Simply breathing in L.A. has been condemned as harmful to health on 100 days in the year. In San Diego and San Francisco, the air is so heavily contaminated with exhaust fumes that school sports have to be postponed to the evening hours. In Oakland, burglars have to wear respirator masks, simple handkerchiefs are not enough. Business is booming for small companies which produce the yellow-and-black plastic tapes used by the police to cordon off crime scenes. Twelve times as many American kids are killed as anywhere else in the world, while four times as many commit suicide than in 1950. When New Orleans years ago imposed a curfew for young people under the age of 17, the number of offences fell by 28 percent. In California, more state funds (if available) are invested in prisons than in education, 9.9 percent of the state budget in comparison to 9.6 percent. In Hollandale, Mississippi, young people are paid two Dollars per hour by the city administration simply for attending classes. 2.3 million US citizens are incarcerated as convicted criminals, nearly one percent of the total population. In Michigan and North Dakota, even blind people are allowed to carry guns, although they do have to take a test first. After all.

In the West, the heat does its worst: sooner or later, the gallon of water will replace the Dollar as the local currency. The people in California and Nevada know that. They are living right on the edge, even now. When they are not involved in some sort of sporting activity, they spend their time saving as much water as they can.

The drive-thru landscape is populated by modern icons such as semi-derelict houses, rusteaten cars and abandoned filling stations, and this has now been realized by the tourist offices. The auto wrecks sometimes look as if they have been put there by an over-zealous tourism manager, who wants to provide motifs for everyone with a longing. The cars are frequently left sitting where they stop, and are not collected for disposal, because the transport costs would be more than the value of the vehicle. Set against cacti like electricity pylons that have been robbed of their cables. The desert. A bumper sticker: I brake for hallucinations! The clouds look as if someone has set them out on a glass platter. Here in the south-west are the teams who hold photo-shoots and film advertising spots for cars, fashion and ice-cold drinks. Frequently one is blinded by the huge reflectors.

With its spectacular red sandstone rocks, which naturally shimmer even redder in the red sunset, Utah has plenty to offer in the way of landscape – perhaps this state even has a hotline to the Almighty. Why they then have to present him with such tasteless temples remains incomprehensible. Biologists of the University of Utah incidentally succeeded last year in reversing the sexual orientation of nematode worms. Seriously.

On the highways of Colorado, such as between Denver and Boulder for example, they sometimes suck the prairie dogs out of their holes using huge vacuum-cleaners, because their extensive burrows destroy the highway embankments. The geographical centre of the USA lies in Lebanon, Kansas, although certainly not the spiritual centre. As the musician Andrew Ratshin accurately remarked: “After we had passed through Kansas, we noticed that there was nothing to notice there”. People are also moving out of Kansas. Get lost! This is the state in which they still disbelieve Darwin. Simply moving on further also reveals a certain geographical arrogance: If we have anything, it is space. Sometimes it is curiosity which drives people on, sometimes fear. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, Neil Young once sang. Rising unemployment naturally produces more ghosttowns, probably there will soon be photo volumes of rotting suburbs. Bearing in mind the ugliness of their homes, they may probably imagine no more magic moments. The observer will frequently ask himself how the earlier inhabitants even managed to leave their dwellings, since the dilapidated wooden houses are frequently surrounded by fleets of rusting vehicles. The photographs of Horst Hamann suggest many possible stories. They offer plenty of room. They set no bounds on the imagination. The poetry of everyday life reveals its allure.

America shows America in its unvarnished state, but also its resilience. The inconsistencies create friction, tension. Horst Hamann’s view of this great but puzzling country is as remorseless as it is loving, because without love, nobody would ever undertake such a trip. A regular guy with horse-sense. So this book should also not be mistaken for a farewell. Melancholy should not be confused with sadness. America – as in the case of Obama – has always understood how to re-define itself, even if these changes do not appear profound at first sight. Horst Hamann provides this first insight – and the second, from both near and far.

Global-Text, Heidelberg / Mr. Mark Woolfe

Horst Hamann, America
Edition Panorama, Mannheim 2012