Having talked with photographer Michael Mergen in previous segments about his Civil War landscapes and the parallel Civil Rights series, today we talk about the glorious shabbiness of American democracy. This is something he explored in two works we talk about here – one a series in which he photographs buildings across the country that share one commonality – the address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The other is a survey polling places where Americans vote.
One of the things I noticed in that series is the way that, as in a lot of your work, the object of your study doesn’t live up to the place that those events hold in our memory. So, you talk about Lee’s Retreat being a Walgreen’s parking lot right now. Or this great, historic Civil Rights Movement march, which is now in our history 50 years back, and yet the town is still suffering a whole lot of the same economic problems. And then, something like the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue series— the idea of taking an address that has such a fixed point in our social consciousness, and looking at it in all the ways that it’s expressed throughout the country. So, what led you to that particular project?
That was the first project where I feel like I was, as a photographer or as an artist, really looking at a national landscape. It’s an arbitrary address, but it’s one address that is synonymous with the home of the president, the political center of power of the United States. So, it has all of this history of politics, power, and military and has so much wrapped up in it. It was one of those ideas where it’s like, “I wonder if there’s more. Are there other 1600 Pennsylvania Avenues?” I found out that there were maybe two dozen or so–I think there was 27 or 28 at the time–it just became a conceptual framework that had political and historical connotations to it. But a conceptual framework that allowed me to travel the United States and look at the built landscape of the country through this one address. And then, just kind of look at some of the visual disparities, some of the visual similarities across the country. And I think, in some ways, it had a little bit of humor to it. Kind of has a bit of poignancy to it. It serves, hopefully, as a kind of interesting conceptualization, or conceptual view, or conceptual framework of looking at a real American landscape.
And yeah, the expectations vs. reality is something that I’m certainly interested in; up through looking at the Lee’s Retreat landscapes—what we think something is and what it actually is, right? That’s definitely a layer to that voting work [in the exhibition]—thinking about voting as an important and solemn civic act or civic duty. But then, is that solemnity undermined when you’re voting in a liquor display? When you’re being enticed to buy Jose Cuervo, does that somehow negate the civic weight of casting a vote?
The flipside is walking into someone’s living room and walking past framed portraits of their loved ones in uniform, in the military–is that a strange kind of conflict or collision of public and private, like the public act of voting in a private-owned space? Or is it this kind of quintessential, grassroots Americana, where we as neighbors and citizens on a given day get together in someone’s house and choose our leader, choose our elected representative.
When I think about the different entry points of the work, you could look at some of that voting work and see a critical position. I think you could see a celebrating of American democracy that is fluid and nimble enough to exist in all these different kinds of spaces. Or is it less than honorific to vote in a diner? I don’t know. I remember being in a pizza shop in Philly where I started the project. I remember someone started joking, because he said, “Do these votes even count?” How does your vote in a pizza place in 9th and Reed Street or wherever maybe, how does that vote make its way back to the White House somehow?
What does that connection look like? That path is murkier than if you’re going to a school, or firehouse, or a library.
And yet, there’s something so egalitarian about that, you know? It fits right into the notion of what we think we are as Americans. It’s gonna happen in this ordinary place.
Sure. I remember showing [the series] to a history professor when I was in grad school. I remember he walked in and chuckled, and he was sort of beaming. His name was Tom. I was like, “Tom, what is it?” He’s like, “Well, I’ve lived my entire life in Rhode Island…I’ve only ever voted in Rhode Island, but I know if I go to California, I’ll get it.” And to me, that’s a testament to American democracy. I’d never seen the work from that perspective. I was like, “Huh. I guess you’re right.”
I’ve been to countless polling places over 10 or a dozen or so states. So, it is kind of all the same, the set-up is sort of the same. There’s a table. Usually, some sweet old ladies volunteer, coffee, some machines. Even though it isn’t radically different visually, there is a shared system that I guess does allow for, in a 21st century culture where people move across states all the time, you’ve probably lived in four/five/six houses through the course of your adult life, there is a kind of a nimbleness to the project to suggest that “Move to Texas, looks like this; move to Maine, looks like that. You’ll figure it out. It’s not that different.”
Yeah, but at the same time, it’s also kind of a throwback notion, you know? It feels like one of the few places where those kind of democratic, communal experiences still happen.
Oh, absolutely. I tend to seek out academic books and use research to bolster my own understanding of the work. So, Michael Schudson wrote this great book called The Good Citizen and in it he talks about voting as not merely an act of choosing one candidate over the other, but it’s this moment of collected gathering—that time where, living in the United States, when you seem like a citizen. And it’ll only be for 10 minutes once a year, or twice a year, but there’s that moment you’re reminded [that] you didn’t just get up, take your kids to school, and go to work. You take a slight detour to remind yourself of being a citizen. But it’s only when you only leave the United States that you describe yourself as an American. The second you get in the airplane, you give your passport, and you’re like, “I’m American.” Well, when you get back home, you’re like, “I’m a Virginian or I’m from Minnesota or I’m from Farmville.” Everything is very specific.
But on Election Day, we have a different kind of quality to it. There’s that collectiveness that happens where you identify something else than your own little pod, your own little circle for that time.
Michael Mergen’s work can be found at his site: www.mimages.com