Imagine the twelve bar blues, a late night club in Memphis or loud in your headphones. The bass line is the same in nearly every song. Almost always, the first line of the lyrics is sung, then repeated. There is some counterpoint line, but then the first line comes again. There are guitar or organ licks thrown between what little makes up a melody. The chord progression is predictable. The sentiment—the idea—of every song is the same. Somebody done wrong.
It would be easy to say the twelve bar blues, music so deeply American it always seems odd and nostalgic and sad to hear it somewhere else, is repetitive and under-imagined. But everyone knows that isn’t true. Given the form, there is a world of individual voice and expression. You would never confuse BB King with Albert King. You would never confuse Eric Clapton with Joe Bonamassa. They all work the same ground but the way they work it is as nuanced as an attentive kiss.
I am thinking about this because I am looking at the images by Kim Llerena in a collection called American Scrapbook. At one level, I have seen every one of these images before. Her work is American landscape work. Mountains and desert and roadways. Dilapidated buildings. Abandoned storefronts. Odd signs. Odd things in people’s yards. Sometimes Route 66 type stuff. And it would be easy to say this collection is derivative. But, like some new voice playing a blues tune we’ve heard a thousand times, this series of images is a fresh take. Every image is enjoyable and new.
In the text for her project, Llerena says, “…these images seek out iconography from various interconnected systems that direct our collective national consciousness—business, infrastructure, religion, climate, natural resources, domestic space, borders, racism, power, tourism, leisure, and more…In many images there is a sense that something is missing, whether physical or contextual, underscoring the incomplete narratives that photographs can often tell.”
From my point of view, Llerena’s approach is ironic more than it is sad or nostalgic. There is an edge to nearly every shot, though some of her landscape images are simply loving. Some hint at decay, provoking a fine sense of wonder about what kind of stories might lurk in these landscapes. Yes, I’ve seen images of cars with their front ends stuck in the ground before. Yes, I’ve seen the blown out sign and the cornfield and the child’s toy before. But not quite this way. That’s the real strength here. Llerena makes the familiar and predictable fresh again.
Llerena says, “Taken individually, each image tells the story of a very particular place—someone’s yard, a small town with a notable attraction, something that’s been built or dismantled. Viewed together, relationships between disparate places and structures emerge, highlighting…a shared American sensibility….”
I know that American sensibility. Others have been singing that song for a long time. It’s a pleasure to hear again, all new.