Omaha Sketchbook was the Charcoal Book Club selection for August 2019. Had it not been for Charcoal, I probably wouldn’t have picked up a copy of it. First off, I’ve been on a photobook buying hiatus since June 2019; second off, well, I don’t have a good reason. Gregory Halpern’s work is excellent, and Omaha Sketchbook is definitely interesting.
The first thing that struck me, and what made me almost dismissive of this book, is that it’s a really excellent bit of tromp l’oeil. Halpern spent 15 years collecting material for the book, shooting 6/4.5 format Fuji and Kodak 400 stocks (maybe others) around on various visits to Omaha.
It seems that he made a sort of sketchbook for himself from a sheaf of cheap, colored construction paper, placing individual photographs and small groups here and there, working on a sequence and layout and all that. Then, and I don’t know why, really, Michal Mack and Mack Books printed the whole thing. Not just the pictures, enlarged or otherwise modified to fit the book format, but the color variations in the paper, coffee stains, discolorations from sun or stickers or whatever. In the video above you can see me occasionally stroke the pages, re-verifying that the paper is, in fact, rather slick and not the dry roughness of construction paper. The pictures even have a four or five step, hand-applied shadow effect thing that makes them look like they’ve been pasted to the paper, like the edges are curled up or something.
Really, that’s the first thing that struck me. The tromp l’oeil aspect of Omaha Sketchbook really distracts from the photographs.
So, now, months later, I’ve finally sat down and forced myself to focus on the photographs, their form and content, their arrangement and sequencing, and try to divorce that from the printing and binding of the book.
It’s hard to do, for me.
I asked Blake Andrews about the book, on Instagram, I think. Some people on Twitter talked a bit of smack about the size of the pictures in the book, and I was curious about swerdnaekalb’s view of it. He said (paraphrasing) that he didn’t notice the size much, but that he was used to working with 645 sized contact prints. For me, I have to lean in close and really focus.
And it was worth it.
Halpern’s portraits capture mostly working class people, prisoners, and the like, and they all look pretty much like the people I knew in Springfield, IL, like the people I grew up with. So there’s a nostalgia for me, more or less, even if it’s largely imagined. After all, my mom pulled us out, more or less, pulled us out of the working class and into the professional class, more or less, and as much as I romanticize the people and places of my childhood, and as much as I’ve tried to get back there, try to remain, even in my imagination, a part of that contingent, well, I’m really only a dilettante, a spectator, a visitor, and in the case of Omaha Sketchbook, a voyeur, and I disrespect the subjects by claiming myself as a part of them. I’m not. I’m a boring researcher and mouse clicker, a lower-middle manager of no repute. Sure, I’m a wage slave like many of Halpern’s subjects, but I have and had opportunities they haven’t and won’t, and may God bless them and forgive me.
So I focus on the pictures themselves, and not their content. Again, it’s hard, but Halpern knows his craft and his tools, and so with 15 years of negatives to work with, the photographs are, really, photographs (as one might suspect). The craft is there and there’s no denying it.
His pictures of a blast furnace are incredible and shocking. Likewise some of the pictures of young men in prisons and children performing the boy scout salute, butchers at what looks like a deer processing facility. Near the end, there’s a set of pages: two portraits of middle aged white men with a photograph of a car in a showroom in between them, one smiling enthusiastically, the other questioning; on the next spread, two portraits, an African American gentleman with a prosthetic leg, and two Caucasian men with a dog, both in some sort of Institutional setting (my bias says prison; could be a camp of some sort); then a single portrait of a shaggy-haired white boy behind the counter at a drug store (or gas station, but his uniform says drugstore). One wonders if these are the options for men in Omaha.* The photographs in churches are frighteningly familiar, but far far away from my present reality. The small-time wrestling and boxing matches look less like high drama than actual brawls, and really capture the sort of dullness of the prairie, what it’s like to live in flyover country.
There are light leaks, over- and underexposed frames, and all manner of carefully crafted (or at least expertly noticed) accidents, that really work to make this a collection a sort of work-in-progress that it’s clearly not, much like it’s clearly not a sheaf of construction paper with some photographs pasted on.
But to focus only on the photographs does the book itself (and Mack Books, and Halpern too) a disservice. It’s a package deal, and you can’t take one without the other, and the highlights on various reviews and announcements are, quite simply, lies, in that they don’t show the full sheet of (fake) construction paper, don’t feature the (reproduced) discoloration and stains, and make the photographs appear much larger and more legible than they are in person.
Given my rating scheme, and its weight on both concept and design, I give Omaha Sketchbook a surprising 4.5 stars.
Now. To call Omaha Sketchbook a photobook is sort of strange. It is, but it’s a photobook that’s as much about the printing of it as it is about the photography inside. In any case, it’s an interesting book and worth taking a look at, if not adding to your collection. I wouldn’t pick it up to study Halpern’s photography, as the prints are just too small to really pick up detail. That said, they are little jewel-like studies in form and structure, so ymmv. I suspect it will remain in my collection as one of the more curious publications, not for the content, really, but for the presentation.
*I feel dirty and classist looking at this book. smh.