'Hyper-American' photos of life in rural Texas

'Hyper-American' photos of life in rural Texas
Edward Thompson's portraits of Texas Hill Country during the George W. Bush years are both timeless and deeply personal.

In the summer of 2003, Edward Thompson was just entering the third year as a photography student when he was invited to a family friend’s wedding. It was taking place on a picturesque ranch in the rural Texas Hill Country, and Thompson saw it as a chance to flex some of the skills that he had been learning over the past few years in his study.

“I was using my 1955 Super Ikonta camera – it’s literally the worst kit you could try and shoot a wedding with,” Thompson laughs. “It was absurd, but the film came back blank. It was a nightmare.”

On top of leaving a newly wedded bride and groom without photographs of their big day, Thompson also lost all the other pictures he had taken on the trip. He'd spent time journeying around the Central Texas area, having been ensnared by its scenic beauty and charming Americana. Spending most of his formative years in the UK, but also some very early time in the Southern States, he became engrossed in capturing the way of life, its people and, most presciently for him, its aesthetic.

“My dad was working in mines in Alabama and I was due to go over with my mum and be born there, but I was a few weeks premature," Thompson explains. "For the first few years of my life I was a toddler in Alabama, so on some psycho-geographical level there's a Southern vibe going on.”

He vowed to go back to Texas Hill Country after the blank film incident, and would return three years later to "attempt a photographic odyssey” – then again in 2007 to complete it. Now, two decades since that wedding, a number of Thompson's pictures are presented in his self-published photobook When in the Lone Star State – a wide spanning exploration of local life during the George W. Bush years (Texas was then home to the former president's second home, the 'Western Whitehouse'). 

“It's unlike anything I’ve ever photographed,” he says. “If you think of America – Texas is like, they’ve got America and distilled it down in a pot. It’s this sort of weird, meta, hyper-America.”

Part of the attraction stemmed from a longstanding obsession with American cinema. “Everything was so completely different, but at the same time familiar to me,” he says. “The funny thing is I did try to dress a bit Texan, but it didn’t work out because I was shopping in Topman, so I looked a bit like Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part III when Dr. Brown dresses him up as a cowboy.”

The pictures are an examination of rural America, but also the particularities of Texas. There’s an only-in-USA biker church among the photographs, and patriotism is on full display – as is racism. One shot is taken inside a bedroom decorated with confederate flag sheets and a portrait of Robert E. Lee. Another features a pick-up truck covered in handmade signs reading: “ROME WAS DISTROYED [SIC] BY LIBERALS, ILLEGAL ALIENS, AND TERRORISTS” and “NO AMNESTY FOR ILLEGALS."

“I saw people like Bob and his pick-up truck and thought 'all the other people I’m chatting to are pretty friendly, he must be the oddity...'," Thompson says. "Then, fast forward, and Trump happens. It seemed for eight years that side of America had disappeared, but it turns out there’s fucking loads of it.”

While the photographs stand the test of time in terms of what they say about the US at large, they're also deeply personal to Thompson. In 2007 he lost his father to cancer, while his mother struggled financially in the face of the global financial crisis. With shots of dead animals, abandoned buildings and a man drumming with a missing hand, the photographs project a sense of loss and longing.

"I was going through some massive changes in my life. It was a recession, my dad had died. I had times in Texas where I was obviously depressed. I didn’t want to leave the ranch I was on," says Thompson.

"I think back to my time as a younger photographer and it’s a hard thing to shirk," he continues. "When you go outside doing documentary photography, it’s almost like the world mirrors your inner state."

When in the Lone Star State by Edward Thompson is available from his official website.

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