Happy 4th of July to all my US-based and ex-Pat readers, if any. Simon Kossoff’s Altered States of Agoraphobia came to my attention thanks to @swerdnaekalb and I preordered the book about halfway through the November 2021 interview. Altered States gives a good picture of a rather documentaryish-photogenic part of the United States, and seems an appropriate way to shoot off some fireworks on this most patriotic of days.
I’ll say right out that I appreciate this book and the work that went into it. I want to make that clear right here, right now. Altered States of Agoraphobia just is the United States in the last half of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, and if we all feel a bit hopeless (or triumphant: ymmv) these days, what with the dissolution of Roe and various Supreme Court rulings agains the Environment and good sense, well, here it is in book form. And, again, your mileage may vary.
In addition to the great interview on his blog, Blake Andrews contributed the introduction to Altered States. Andrews is sensitive to photographs in ways that I’m not, and sees things in pictures that I never do. After all these years with a camera in hand, all these years buying, looking at, and reviewing photobooks, I still barely ever get beyond surface level interpretations. Despite reading, re-reading, studying, and re-re-reading Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs, which makes clear the difference between a photograph and whatever the photograph depicts, I still mostly only see the subject. Anyway, @swerdnaekalb does a good job of introducing Kossoff and his work.
For Altered States, Kossoff spent 5 years traveling around the US, working random jobs, finding random places to stay, dealing with the US healthcare
scam system (The Greatest, #1 Healthcare System In the world™*), before settling in Arkansas, of all places (not too far from Mom). Given how Kossoff travelled, and the sorts of jobs he worked, and the sorts of shelter he could find in wherever he was, it’s almost no wonder that he found the subjects and scenes that populate the book, and if you watch my unboxing video carefully, you’ll see how I feel about some of my dear fellow citizens and their traitorous ideals.** In this way, Altered States reminds me some of The Americans, and it seems that it takes a foreigner to really dig into and see the parts of this great country where I no longer feel welcome, especially when traveling with my darling, adorable wife.
It’s not a pretty picture, not really. Sure, there are some pretty pictures: gleaming mid-Century automobiles; flash-lit Stetson’s on a fake-wood rack, backlit by strip fluorescents; and… I didn’t find any others. I’m reminded of my mom’s handyman friend, Mohammed (“Mo”), an Arab Israeli from Nazareth who lives in Arkansas. The only people that were really willing to make friends with him are the sorts of people who make friends with pretty much anyone who’s friendly with them. If Mo wasn’t a good handyman, my mom wouldn’t know him and neither would her friends. One of Mo’s buddies took him to a Klan rally… smh. Give Mohammed a camera, and have him photograph for five years, and I bet he’d come up with some similar subjects to Kossoff, though without the obvious ability to see and frame or the excellent flash technique.
Once I get past the subjects, Kossoff’s talent and skill is obvious. I might see the picture, maybe, on a good day, but I simply don’t have the skill to produce the picture. And the flash technique alone is worth the price of admission. Altered States of Agoraphobia really is a great book, even if it doesn’t show the (admittedly boring and big-box store bland) sorts of vistas and locales that I inhabit. It’s just that so very few photographic books focus on things I really recognize from my daily life. It’s always something from my past or something from over there. Of course, I’m the only person that can photograph the locales and vistas I inhabit, and I do (or did). I made a throw-away zine that, as far as I know, only one person actually read, and, God bless him, Andrew Molitor wrote a great piece on it. And nobody else really wants to see a photobook about themselves, nobody except Mo’s friends there in Arkansas. They’d find Altered States quite the hoot, I’m sure. The rarified Photoland crowd wants to see the Other, as awful and colonial and racist or classist as all that is, and I’m as guilty as anyone, really. Probably worse.
Anyway. Altered States of Agoraphobia is another great entry into the Photographs of America books that probably began with The Americans (and only later looked back and claimed American Pictures). I’d stack it up there with any of the great On the Road books from pretty much any genre. It compares especially well to Shinya Fujiwara’s American Roulette I think, and it’s well worth your time and money.
Overall, I rate Altered States of Agoraphobia a solid 4.3 stars.
Kossoff runs a blog that gets deep into his process and all, and the interview on B is likewise worth a read. Altered States remains available direct from Eyeshot, and they’ve done a nice job with the printing and binding.
*”We’re #1! We have the Most Expensive healthcare with the Worst Outcomes! GoGo!
** I fucking hate fucking racists. May God bless every last one of those sorry motherfuckers: I want nothing to do with them. I feel only slightly less enmity towards traitors in general, including the mothefucking MAGA crowd and the damnable, hopelessly-misguided-but-nonetheless-wholly-blameworthy Q believers.