Gregory Halpern (b. 1977 in Buffalo, NY, USA) is the fourth laureate of Immersion, a French-American Photography Commission. Launched in 2014 by the Fondation dentreprise Hermès, Immersion celebrates the work of contemporary photographers through residencies, exhibitions and publications.
As part of a three-year partnership with the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
in Paris and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Immersion invites each laureate to present a solo exhibition at the outcome of his or her residency, at both of these institutions.
The exhibitions are accompanied by a bilingual photobook in English and French.
From September 8 to October 18, 2020 at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, and in 2022 at SFMOMA, Gregory Halperns exhibition Soleil cou coupé (Let the Sun Beheaded Be) presents an ensemble of photographs taken during his 2019 residency in Guadeloupe. Guided by his personal curiosity, the islands rich diversity and its vernacular culture, Halperns images embrace and develop the Caribbean Surrealism of Martinican writer Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), from whose work the exhibitions title is borrowed.
American photographer Gregory Halpernlaureate of the 2018 edition of Immersion, a French-American Photography Commissionchose Guadeloupe as the destination for his residency, guided by the islands history and the poetry of Aimé Césaire (1913-2008). Halpern set out to discover the islands people, fauna and flora but was fascinated, too, by the burden of history and its traces in everyday surroundings. The exhibition Soleil cou coupé (Let the Sun Beheaded Be) is accompanied by Halperns monograph of the same name, published by Aperture.
The book includes a preface by Clément Chéroux,* former Senior Curator of Photography at SFMOMA and the photographers mentor throughout his residency.
When asked about the reasons he chose Guadeloupe for his project, Gregory Halpern replies: I think I knew I would find a certain form of surrealism there. Indeed, there is something in his photographs of the Caribbean surrealism incarnated by the writer Aimé Césaire. In three successive journeysthe longest of which, in the spring of 2019, lasted two monthsHalpern traveled to Guadeloupe as part of Immersion, a French-American Photography Commission of the Fondation dentreprise Hermès. Every day, from late morning until sunset, he set out to photograph what he saw. With the perseverance of a gold digger sifting through river sand in the hope of finding a nugget, he scoured the island, most often on foot. What brought Halperns process close to that of surrealist wandering was, first of all, the way he set out to photograph. As he had already done elsewhere, he laid himself open to receiving what the place had to give. For André Breton (1896-1966), surrealist writers were modest recording instruments, or mere collector[s] of indirect loans. Halpern was likewise hypersensitive, photographing in a state of maximum receptivity. He waited for surprises, alert to the bubbling source, watching out for epiphaniesthose small instantaneous miracles that can arise at each street corner. His photographs often recall those of Éli Lotar in Europe during the late 1920s and the following decade: pigs trotters carefully lined up on the pavement, an odd section of a wall, a sea urchin in a handalthough created outside the Surrealist group, these images enter fully into its aesthetic. In Halperns photographs, there is the same uncanny strangeness, circumstantial magic, or convulsive beautyto use some of Bretons favorite phraseswith the difference that the Parisian grisaille is replaced by the radiance of the tropics. [...]
In Guadeloupe, Halpern explains, slavery memorials are everywhere, so the weight of that history is much more perceptible than in the United States. On Grande Anse beach, near Deshaies, he met and photographed a young man with a shoulder tattoo of the Decree of the National Convention abolishing slavery. In the city of Les Abymes, he documented a commemorative structure consisting of a sort of doorway opening onto a vertical concrete slab, thin as a blade and covered by a metallic black-and white photograph of the setting sun. In Capesterre-Belle-Eau, at the top of a tall Tuscan column, he photographed a bust with a plaque that reads Christ Columb referring to Christopher Columbus. The monument has been vandalized: the inscriptions crossed out in spray paint, the face in Carrara marbleknown for its whitenes covered in black paint and disfigured with a chisel. Left in this state, the monument offers a combined representation of both colonization and slavery, a startling, abridged version of the history of violence in this part of the world.
Before leaving for Guadeloupe, Halpern did considerable research, knowing that he would be challenged by this complicated history. But on his arrival, the exuberance of nature came as a surprise: the omnipresent sea, the rocky peaks in which birds nested, the vegetation cropping up amid urban interstices, the innumerable species of multicolored flora, the shimmering light. Guadeloupe is often described as paradise regained, and it is easy for a photographer to merely reproduce its postcard iconography. This is precisely what Halpern sought to avoid, counterbalancing his representations of Guadeloupean nature with elements that recall the places terrible history. [...]
Halperns wanderings in the archipelago provided opportunity for numerous encounters with its residents. In broken French, he explained his plan in a few words: a series of photographs, an exhibition, a book, where the common denominator was the place they inhabit. After a conversation, he might suggest a very simple pose, photographing them sometimes from the back or in three-quarter view, but most often from the front, eye to eye. [...]
Women, men, young and old, Black, mixed-race, whitethere is great diversity in Halperns Guadeloupean photographs, representative of the people who live there. These images allow a glimpse of what forms their communalitya combination of pride and vulnerability. Halpern loves this duality. [...]
Because history has made the Caribbean into a labora-tory for hybridization, for Halpern, the Caribbean is a particularly appropriate observation post for understanding a world that is increasingly subject to migration. In this sense, a photographer born in Buffalo, New Yorkto which his family emigrated from Hungary in the 1920s to escape anti-Semitism documenting a land that is geographically part of the Americas but under Frances jurisdiction, together with its colonial past, was bound to produce a fascinating recombining of the cultures of the world [...]
Halperns Guadeloupean photographs in many ways recall those that Walker Evans took in Cuba, Alabama, and Florida. Both artists photographed a particular geographical regionthe Caribbean, the American Southprofoundly marked by slavery, and they both chose subjects that, by their vernacular status, metaphorically reflect this history. At no time while in Guadeloupe did Halpern experience the need to photograph everything he saw. To use a journalistic expression, he never saw his project as one of covering his subject. This might describe the approach of photographers working for magazines or tourist guides. Instead, Halpern was guided by his curiosity, his intuition, his desires. He photographed the traces of an eminently turbulent history; he strove to capture the spirit of these places and the people who inhabit them; he detected an animal presence, and meaning in the vernacular.
Excerpts from the essay "GH/971" by Clément Chéroux published in Let the Sun Beheaded Be (2020) Bilingual catalogue English/French in 3,000 copies by Aperture 21 x 28.5 cm, 112 pages
* In February 2020, Clément Chéroux was appointed The Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography at MoMA, New York, with effect from July 2020.