“It’s a bizarre phenomenon,” says the US photographer Gregory Halpern. “People take these junkyard cars and fix them up so that the engine works, even though the shell is a total wreck. Then the cars drive around in a muddy arena, spewing dirt everywhere and ramming into each other – and the last car still driving wins.”
He’s talking about a very American motor sport called demolition derby, one of many striking activities he documented during his visits to Nebraska over the past 14 years. Halpern (born in Buffalo, New York state, in 1977) was invited to do an artist’s residency in the state’s largest city, Omaha. Taking photos of midwestern life over the course of six months, he gradually zeroed in on the subject of hypermasculinity, which he felt was “much more celebrated and part of the visual culture in Nebraska” than in coastal cities such as San Francisco, where he was teaching photography at the time.
Out of the photos from his first visit, he created Omaha Sketchbook, self-published in 2009 using a laser printer and running to just 35 copies. Ten years and several return visits later, Halpern – who received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 – has updated (and upgraded) Omaha Sketchbook for a wider readership, though the images remain at contact-sheet dimensions.
At the demolition derby, Halpern captured the winner standing triumphantly on the roof of his battered car as smoke spews out in all directions. It may look like something out of Mad Max but Halpern says the event felt “good-natured: the crowd is drinking and cheering. Sometimes fights will break out, but generally speaking it’s bizarrely fun”.
He expresses similar affection for midwestern life in all its eccentricities. “There were times when I felt on the outside, like I was witnessing something I didn’t feel terribly comfortable about – such as young boys playing soldiers. But in moments like the demolition derby, I could be swept up in it and totally appreciate the fun.”
Omaha Sketchbook is published by Mack Books and will be launched at Tate Modern on 16 September, with Gregory Halpern in conversation. An exhibition of Omaha Sketchbook runs at Huxley-Parlour, London W1, from 19 September to 12 October