Is America great again? Peter Dench goes beyond the red, white and blue to document the “land of the free”.
A country of conflict & change, or bikini contests & baseball? Photographer Peter Dench’s latest project explores the truth behind daily life in the new USA
Over the years he’s created a huge archive of images documenting ‘Britishness’, covering topics such as Brits abroad and alcohol consumption in England. Now Peter Dench has his sights set on America.
In the summer of 2015, commissioned by Olympus, Dench travelled to Dallas to record his first instalment in documenting the daily life of the people who live there. He photographed everything from a bikini contest to Buddhist monks, baseball fans and Sunday worshippers, capturing in his images the essence of what it means to be American in the 21st century. He’s also photographed in Miami and San Francisco, all part of his quest “to challenge what I thought I knew of the country.”
Dench, a pro photographer for more than 20 years, has long been fascinated by America. As a teenager in the 1980s he remembers how he “voraciously consumed the American soap operas Dallas and Baywatch”, and when he was studying photography he read books by Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Tony Ray-Jones. These photographers “alerted me to the fact that America was much more than high school pranks, toga parties and hot women running in slow motion… It was a much darker place, a country of conflict and change.”
Never more so than now, given the recent election of Trump as president. But Dench isn’t driven by politics. “I’m inspired by the likes of Joel Sternfeld and other photographers who’ve contributed their voices to the history of America,” he says. “I want to be part of that. In ten years’ time I want this archive to equal the one I’ve got on Britain and Britishness.”
During his time in Dallas, Dench clocked up 20km each day, and says he was grateful to have a camera that was light and discreet. “It was 30 degrees plus and I was going out at seven in the morning and coming back at eight at night. So it makes a difference when you lighten the load… Before I went to Dallas, I was in a creative rut,” he adds. “I needed a trigger to get me back to how I know I can be as a photographer.” The Olympus mirrorless camera he used on the trip was that trigger, he says. “I wanted to point it at people, and I tightened up my compositions. I paid more attention to light. I used less flash as one of the camera’s strengths is shooting in lowlight conditions, and the image stabilisation which gives the ability to shoot on the move. It gave me a renewed enthusiasm that may have dipped with other cameras.”
With Dallas, Miami, and San Francisco under his belt, Dench plans to travel to the North and South of the US next as he embarks on the next chapters of his epic American adventure. “It’s a big statement to say, ‘I’m going to document a country’, so you have to do it thoroughly and well. The work has to be geographically and socially diverse, [covering] rich and poor and everything in between.”
As with much of his work, Dench, whose clients include The Sunday Times Magazine, The New Yorker, the Telegraph Magazine, and Stern Magazine, likes to gets in close to his subjects, to be able to respond to the people and scenes he’s shooting. He never hides what he is doing. “I don’t make excuses. If someone asks, ‘are you photographing me?’ if I am, I’ll say, ‘yes’, and then explain why. I won’t bumble out of it.”
In this way, having a camera like the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which he now favours, that is easy to carry and use is essential. “I got into photography because I’m into kit, gadgets and technology, but more than that, because of my passion for travel, and I’ve certainly read more travel brochures than instruction manuals,” he says. “What I want from a camera is to be able to capture what I see as quickly, flawlessly and in as fuss-free a way as possible… The Olympus cameras I’ve been using have made me a better photographer and given my photography a new lease of life.”
For Dench, who was brought up on Benny Hill, the Carry On films, and later ’Allo ’Allo, taking photographs is about seeing the funny side of things, but it’s also important to have something to say, he says. “There’s humour in my work, but it’s only a tool. You can disarm people with humour, and make them relaxed; but I learnt early on that you can’t just make funny pictures. Humour is difficult to get right because you can be accused of sneering at your subjects or taking advantage, so it’s a fine line to tread and hopefully I stay on the right side of it.”
Article featured on BJP Online March 2017