“Probably the most interesting surprise concerned the number of people I saw who seemed, incredibly, to have stepped right out of the movie screen and into LA life,” Alex Frayne says of his recent trip to LA.
“I saw farm workers on buses that I knew from Steinbeck. I saw an older African-American woman on a bus reading a Bible who told me that ‘LA is where all the sinners go’. She glared at me as if to say, ‘I mean you!’.
“I thought she might have a point.”
Frayne says curiosity is his “photographic furnace” – the thing that fires him up and drives him. And for the past couple of decades he has been curious about the United States of America. A lifetime of movies, music and popular culture have conspired to form a vivid picture of the country in his mind, but he wondered: What is it really like? What is its “true nature”?
He thought that the only way to answer these questions was by going there and studying and photographing it for himself.
“Through the lens I will gain some sense of knowledge of the place and, if I’m lucky, learn more about myself.”
Frayne originally planned to travel to the US in 2020 to photograph scenes from the American election campaign, but the pandemic intervened and instead he ended up working on Landscapes of South Australia, which was published by Wakefield Press and followed his previous photographic books Adelaide Noir and Theatre of Life.
The images in Landscapes – which range from a dust bowl in mallee country at Borrika, to a bright yellow field of canola at Woodchester – could hardly be more different from the photos Frayne has shared from his trip to Los Angeles last month, when he finally started to satisfy that long-burning curiosity about America.
“When I stepped out onto the ‘sidewalk’ at LAX airport, I felt a massive surge of energy pass through me – like a wave,” he tells InReview.
“I knew that I would either be defeated by this crazy energy or ride the wave; I chose the latter and embraced it. This particularly American energy is unique but often associated with New York. LA felt like New York on steroids with a pound of Botox and a gallon of Ozempic.”
While LA and Adelaide may have some similarities in terms of weather and geography, Frayne says the vibe is a world apart.
“It [Adelaide] is far more laidback and suffused with a sort of ironic posture which has much to do with inherent juxtapositions – something I’ve explored in my landscape work.”
He and his partner Katie chose to base themselves in Downtown LA rather than stay in one of the so-called “nice, safe places” like Hollywood, Venice, Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, which are popular with travellers.
“The racial mix in Downtown was 60 per cent Hispanic, 30 per cent African-American and 10 per cent white. I loved this place. I loved the freedom and carefree spirits that roamed around with their beat-boxes, stereos, music blaring from cars, and I relished the otherness of this great nation that seemed as fascinating to its own inhabitants as it does to foreigners.”
His photos capture LA in all its diversity and eccentricity, showing a place both colourful and full of contrasts – from the deserted Pink Motel to a monochromatic Sunset Boulevard, from a mournful-looking clown on Venice Beach to a resplendent-in-red drag queen in Hollywood.
The series sees Frayne return to doing more portrait-based work, alongside his architectural and landscape photography. He sees the subject – America – as political, and says taking photographs of people in situ is an important element of shining a light on a place.
One especially quirky image shows a Willie Nelson lookalike whom Frayne says “cut a curious figure in liberal Long Beach”, singing songs such as the unofficial Confederate anthem “Dixie’s Land” while selling items including Rambo DVDs, survivalist manuals and Trump coffee mugs from a table draped in the American flag.
It is that constantly burning curiosity he mentioned earlier that attracts the photographer to certain portrait subjects.
“If we look at the clown image, I know that clowns represent happiness and sadness… but what interested me was the context of finding him at Venice Beach, which itself is supposed to represent happiness and optimism and good vibes. The fact that he looked so downbeat provided a stark juxtaposition to the surrounding landscape of happiness.”
The most immediate surprise for Frayne when he arrived in LA was the number of people smoking cannabis, which was legalised for recreational use in California in 2016. He saw many Angelenos laughing and fooling about, “high as kites”. In the Hollywood and Vine district, he even spotted someone dressed as Micky Mouse simulating a sex act with Minnie Mouse while mock smoking a mock reefer.
“For 10 bucks you could take a photo and there was no shortage of photographers willing to pay, including me. Anything for a price in America.”
The most confronting place he ventured was the Downtown neighbourhood of Skid Row, which Frayne says has the feel of one of Dante’s realms.
“Imagine 10,000 people living in tents in the middle of a CBD. The lucky ones live in old 1930s buildings; the less fortunate are so afflicted by disease and mental illness that they form a sort of tragic chorus in a play, speaking in tongues, hallucinating, writhing, blabbering, and praying to a God that seems not to hear them. Except this isn’t a play or a movie, this is real and very, very hard to photograph.”
Frayne says California is an “outlier” state, thought by many Americans to be atypical. For his photographic series, which he is calling Overworld, he plans to travel to as many states as he can over four years to capture the full diversity of the country. Next on the list will be the south-west, including Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, followed by the south, the eastern seaboard, and then “down the middle to see the wheatbelt and rustbelt”.
The end result of the project may be another book or exhibition, or perhaps even a performance like Music for Other Worlds, in which Paul Grabowsky created an improvised soundtrack for some of his projected images at the 2023 Adelaide Festival.
“The incredible diversity of the place means that an honest photographic essay will require many states and many visits,” Frayne says of Overworld.
“The story is the story of America in its exuberance, hubris and decline, and what drives the story will be the brief moments in time captured through my lens.”
See more of Alex Frayne’s photographs on Instagram @alex.frayne. Wakefield Press will be publishing the hardcover sequel to Frayne’s Landscapes of South Australia, titled Distance and Desire, in autumn 2024.
An Aussie in LA: A selection of Alex Frayne’s photos:
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