Born in the USA

SUSAN LIPPER spent five years photographing life in the backwoods of West Virginia.

The resulting book, Grapevine, reveals a rural community a million miles from the American Dream. Lila Rawlings looks at a selection of the prints in a show at the Portfolio Gallery. Photographs by Susan Lipper.

usan Lipper’s photographic account of life in Grapevine Hollow. deep in the heart of West Virginia’s Appalachian mountains. could be described as Twin Peaks meets Deliverance. This is white trash like you’ve never seen it before. A deer carcass hangs from a basketball hoop. guys congregate around the Dodge pick-up to swill Bud and smoke dope. the women and children gather in their trailer homes for Bible readings. And there are guns. lots of guns.

Following the ‘rites—of—passage’ tradition in American photography, Lipper wanted to explore an element of American life she didn’t know. After travelling the length and breadth of the country. she stumbled upon a tiny rural community of trailer homes in the heart of the coal mining south west settled mostly by Scottish and Irish immigrants. ‘These people have continued to live in the kind of temporary housing in which they were forced to live in Scotland. Constantly moved off the land. they preferred log cabins that could be built relatively quickly. The Scottish and Irish descendants of these people in Grapevine still live in the same way. except they have replaced wood with plastic and aluminium.’

Lipper bristles at the label of documentary photographer. preferring to see her work as a much more subjective. personal thing. ‘After living in New York for so long. I wanted to experience something different. Everyone I knew wore black and went to openings! They had exactly the same lifestyle as me. my life was very pressured and sterile so I was very drawn to the culture of Grapevine and the survival qualities of the people there.’ Lipper stayed in this remote community. an hour and a half by car from the nearest town. for five years.

The gritty realism of Doretha Lange and Walker Evans. who both photographed extreme poverty in America’s Great Depression. can be seen in Lipper’s work. but also the influence of goddess of weird Diane Arbus. Lipper succeeds in treading a fine line between both camps. giving the work a powerful quality she describes as ‘hyper-reality’. If David Lynch stumbled upon Grapevine Hollow. he might well be

forgiven for thinking he had arrived on the set of his next movie.

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16 The List 7-20 Apr 1995