A vision of America: Michael Ormerod, a British photographer, died in a road accident in Arizona in 1991. The pictures he left behind show a country in decline: empty, edgy, damaged, fake

Jan Morris
Saturday 03 July 1993 23:02
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EVERY European generation finds - or creates - its own America. De Crevecoeur, before the Revolution, found what he thought was a New Man. The 19th-

century travellers found spittoons, brag, frontier hospitality: Don't Shoot the Pianist. Between the world wars all seemed to be dustbowl and Al Capone.

By the time I got there, in the 1950s, they were, above all, images of optimism that seduced the foreign sensibility. Everything in America seemed impetuous then. It was the country where nothing was impossible. The cars were the newest and biggest, the clothes were the smartest, the music was the raciest, the stars were the starriest, the suburbs were the richest, the rural folk were the homiest, the gentry was the most gentlemanly and the greetings of one and all were without question the most welcoming. Give or take some political unpleasantness now and then, a bit of corruption here and there and the little problem of the blacks, all seemed for the best in the best of all possible countries.

I was not fool enough, of course, to take all this as gospel, but it is not reason that sets up a milieu in the mind. These were the furnishings of my response, among which I deployed my more precise and rational judgments. Four decades have passed since then. And if I went to the United States at one of its moments of grand confidence, victorious in war, unrivalled in peace, Michael Ormerod, travelling more than two decades later, found an America fearfully disillusioned.

By his time the nation had tasted many sorts of defeat, on the battlefield and in the heart. Racialism, poverty, the scrambling of morality, the loss of old certainties, all had weakened the marvellous assurance that had greeted me so long before. Being a Super Power had not brought much satisfaction after all. The problems of race were as sour as ever. Old-school Americans felt that their beloved country was disappearing before their eyes, beneath a flood of immigrants. Young blacks and hispanics felt themselves discarded by a society that did not want them.

This, then, is the mise-en-scene of Ormerod's America, but whereas my American stage was a private half-fiction, his is visible for all of us to share.

He was not saying in these pictures that all America was there: but he was giving reality to a vision, and the vision was very bleak. My America was above all the prosperous Middle West, dry-martini suburbia, family groups on clapboard porches, chromium grilles of Detroit and silos of Wisconsin. Michael Ormerod's America is - well, where?

We have some hints now and then. We see US70 signed to St Louis, and the Golden Gate, and a cattle-ranch somewhere, and an outcrop that looks like Arizona, but in general it is an indeterminate, state-less America that he is unforgettably creating. It is as though all the varied excitements of America have abandoned the country - the thrill of the big city, the charm of small town life, the majesty of the open west, the ocean's splendour. We are left in a kind of all-American limbo, where all the icons are rusted and the vigour has ebbed away. We do not see the magic letters HOLLYWOOD standing proud above the great city: only an oil company name, silhouetted against a wasteland.

It is a listless, mean and littered place. It is a place of trainers and bubble-gum, but no cheerleaders. Its cars are either unnoticeable or wrecked. Its shops sell schoolmarm fashions. Its one American Indian stands among the graves in a cemetery. The drive-in movies look anything but festive, the fast-food signs stand unenticing beside the empty highway. Even the Greyhound bus, generally seen as an engine of enterprise and enjoyment, looks dispirited here, as it labours all alone from one nowhere to another. Even the lovers beside the Golden Gate seem lovers of despair.

The master-picture of the whole collection, it might be said, is the one that shows a boarded-up cafe or gas station, with a solitary telegraph pole, a few scraggly trees and what looks like an outside lavatory, on the edge of a dirt track beneath the slogan FRONTIER RARIN' TO GO.

It is the emptiness of everything that seals the dinginess of this setting. There are few people about. The one picture that shows us someone we recognise President Bush electioneering behind his loveless screen of security guards comes somehow as a comfort. It makes us feel that outside these frames all the rest of America is teeming still, that what we are seeing is a space cleared in the nation, or perhaps a space cleared in time.

There is a waiting feeling here. The performance may resume. When, just for that one pageimage, George Bush steps into the arena, it suggests that one day everyone else may come crowding in, too, and bring back to this desolate place of the imagination all the old American energy.

I don't know if this is how Michael Ormerod saw the America of his creation, or whether he thought this a definitive image more than just the scenery, but the play itself. His sad death means that we shall never know. I can only hope, though for am I not a child of the shiny years? that these surpassingly brilliant pictures, by an artist of such insight, may one day be seen as the record of a turning-point, and that other generations of Europeans will once again be imagining Americas as happy as mine was.

(Photograph omitted)

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