In 2020, the pandemic was near its peak and much of the world was stuck indoors. Greek-Swedish-American photographer Florence Montmare was thinking about the world beyond. While she was working in New York as a cultural attaché for Sweden and engaging in diplomatic work, she gained an acute awareness of the climate crisis’s severity and began to think of ways she could explore while minimising her carbon emitting impact. “We were all isolated and staying small,” Montmare recalls. “I really wanted to burst out of that bubble, so I picked up the camera.”
In autumn 2021 she set out across the USA, in a coast-to-coast odyssey across its highways in classic style. Instead of hitting the open roads in a gas guzzling muscle motor, she used a Ford electric car, pulling into wherever she could to recharge, recoup, and make pictures. From Walker Evans in the 1930s to Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, Thomas Hoepker, and Jacob Holdt in the decades following – several iconic photographers from decades past have undertaken such marathon drives, crossing the continent and creating photographic surveys of the USA that they found.
Yet as those names suggest, the character of the roving photographer has traditionally been dominated by white American men. As a woman and a migrant, Montmare’s 2023 journey took the traditional format and flipped its lens. “I really wanted to have an alternative view of America,” she explains. “Everything has always been told by white men, so as an immigrant with many different backgrounds and cultures, I wanted to see what my view would be like. Of course, we’ve been so influenced by their images but [I wanted to see] what the view would be today and what would be an updated version of that road trip.”
The journey she took, and the pictures she made across the roughly half a year spent away from home is now documented in her new photobook America Series. From classic Americana hotspots such as Las Vegas or Austin, Texas to Native American reservations rarely visited by outsiders, and even far-flung corners of the country’s deserts – the black-and white pictures examine the diversity of life, people, and culture in the USA.
In a country that on surface level can seem more divided than ever – 77% of Americans said that they believed the country was more divided now than before the pandemic outbreak – Montmare found commonality when she spoke to people. Part of that was expressed in the photographs, with each of her sitters standing in front of the same white canvas background that she travelled with. “There’s a lot of aggression in the political realm, but when it comes to people and you just meet them and have them see you and look at you and meet you,” she says. “All the masks fell off, and it felt like ‘wow, we’re just the same’ – you can scale away all those signifiers of culture, age and gender and socioeconomic stuff, but in the end we all want the same things.
“People wanted safety – basic things, like being in a place where you can afford healthcare,” she continues. “But also love and friendships and connection. Within a couple of minutes [of me meeting them] people started crying when I lifted the camera – there was a sense of ‘now I’m being seen’, or ‘I’m actually allowing you in to see me’.”
On top of the people she met and made portraits of, there’s a heavy focus on the beautiful, rugged landscape of the USA, and the wildlife within it. As the climate crisis worsens and disrupts the earth around us, America Series reminds us of its grandiose presence. Often pictures of the people and land are placed side-by-side, while interviews Montmare conducted sees Americans interrogate the relationships they have with the country and land around them.
“I really wanted to get across this contrast between those portraits and these people photographed in the same way – standing and dreaming in front of that white canvas background,” she says. “And then [landscapes] in contrast with the simplicity. Because these landscapes are kind of doom, there’s a sense of drama or something is about to happen – this is really about the climate without us.
“It’s my pilgrimage, across a continent that I have called home for a very, very long time,” she continues. “And it’s a meditation on the people and landscapes of America.”
America Series by Florence Montmare is published by Damiani
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