State of the Union, Gregg Segal’s personal photo essay that appeared in Time magazine’s recent Civil War Anniversary issue, is nothing short of wonderful. In the extensive series of environmental portraits Segal studies the “juxtaposition of two contrastive eras: an idealized Civil War embodied by period reenactors vs. the commercialism of contemporary life.” It was recently selected as a winning editorial photographic series in 2011 Communication Arts Photography Annual and I feel it deserves much wider recognition.
Segal recently reminded me that we met originally in the black and white darkroom at USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts in 1995. I was teaching a beginning class, which was enjoying the revelatory experience of processing film. He was pursuing his Masters in Education with an Independent Study in photography, allowing him darkroom access. I followed his work afterward and increasingly appreciated his strength in bridging environmental and conceptually based portraiture. Gregg Segal’s highly intelligent approach to image making was undoubtedly honed with a good deal of critical thinking as well as attention paid to social content in his undergraduate work at Cal Arts. I always thought of him as something of a cultural anthropologist.
Over the years I was able to offer Segal a handful of strong editorial portrait assignments. His call offering a first look at a new photo series back in 2005 wasn’t his first pitch to me, but it was the first I was able to have published. I’ve often referred to the act of selling an editor on a photographic idea, especially a photo essay, as feeling a lot like trying to sell a used car. You point out the benefits, kick the tires, try to downplay any drawbacks. Segal’s Super Heroes at Home was anything but a tough sell. The vivid portraits managed to be both funny and oddly poignant. His powerful graphic style took the costumed action characters lining Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater way beyond the easy perception of kitsch. Most of us locals view the people in costume with suspicion. Their sweaty, dingy presence cast as the Incredible Hulk or Spiderman are primarily seen as obstacles as they pester tourists for money to share in a photograph and cause us to walk a little more quickly as we pass. By following the “actors” home and photographing them in costume, on their own turf, Segal took the series beyond the obvious. In that domestic context, the need to dress as comic characters became more pronounced, more obsessive, than on the street where it made show-biz sense. It was a no-brainer for a perfect portrait portfolio for Los Angeles magazine.
Following the publication of Superheroes at Home we were able to mount a terrific show of the work at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood. The Arclight first opened with Robert Brugeman directing the exhibition program and actively pursuing high quality artwork relevant to the city and to cinema. Since Mr. Brugeman moved on, exhibition standards slipped for the most part, but for a time it was an exciting alternative space. Gregg Segal’s intensely saturated color images were accompanied by a wry, ironic backstage photo essay on B-movie production by the wonderful photographer David Strick. The combination of the two bodies of work was perfect for the location and I was told over a million people saw the exhibition. If only there had been a book to accompany it.
The idea for Gregg’s second costumed series, Pirates at Work came, like many good things, by chance. The city of Los Angeles has been lucky to have a great photo editor in Lisa Thackaberry (currently at Angelino), but at the time, she was Segal’s agent. In the 90s her work as Photo Editor at Los Angeles Times magazine produced what I consider to be its finest issues. I was editing at LA Weekly at the time and I looked forward to whatever she pulled out of her hat each week. She eventually left the Times for Los Angeles magazine and after a couple of years, decided to try her hand at running her own photo agency. While I took her position at the magazine, she opened Negative Artists, moved to New York and began representing some very talented photographers including Trujillo + Paumier, Jennifer Rocholl, Alyson Aliano, Naomi Harris and Gregg Segal. Even as Negative Artists began to be successful, selling didn’t come naturally and Thackaberry longed for her creative home in the West. Her move to the L.A. suburb of Sherman Oaks, led to her re-discovery of Los Angeles’ bounty of strange wonders. When she phoned with giddy excitement to inform me of a fantastic pirate supply store called Enchanted Deva’s Last Wish and Treasures, she was like a kid in a candy store. I generally preferred to generate my own ideas of photographers to fit assignments. After all, that’s the creative fun. In this case, Thackaberry was right and I knew it. Gregg Segal was the perfect guy for the job. On the heels of the Superheroes at Home, it couldn’t have been a better fit and Pirates at Work was born.
Segal writes of his initial pirate encounter:
“I went to a pirate get together at Enchanted Devas where I met members of the Port Royal Privateers and Brethren of the Coast. Inspired by Hollywood and historical texts and the tales of Robert Louis Stephenson, these LA Pirates are devoted to their identities: they make scrupulous reproductions of 17th century waistcoats and make deals on EBay for just the right pantaloons. Some freebooters manage to make money off their pirate personas, performing reenactments at tall ship festivals and the like. But for most, pirating is a way of expressing themselves in a manner they otherwise couldn’t in the modern world.
As with the super heroes I’d photographed, I chose a context which allowed for a contrast of the spectacular and routine. I asked the part-time buccaneers to wear their pirate regalia and go about their workaday lives.”
After two very strong portrait galleries featuring people compelled to dress in costume, I recall telling Segal that if he could make one more powerful series utilizing that construct, he might well have a terrific book. The Civil War photo series provides the conceptual and visual icing on the cake and Gregg Segal is now busy preparing and submitting book proposals.
“The portraits in State of the Union were taken on the actual sites of specific battles in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee,” writes Segal. The earnest reenactors stay in character, completely engaged with their period props of makeshift tents and rucksacks, seemingly lost way off course in housing developments and parking lots that once were battle scenes. Time magazine had the good sense to give the gallery a lot of editorial space and the series runs over many pages. No small feat in a publication that has sadly grown wafer thin.
More images from State of the Union can be found at Gregg Segal and on Time’s website. Also, a video with Segal’s observations and interviews with his subjects as they discuss their dismay over the rapid development of historic locations in “State of the Union” is available here.
These days Segal continues to be a very busy editorial and commercial photographer, who on occasion crosses those lines and ventures into realms of fine art. That work is wry, quirky, and sometimes sad, in spite of the obvious humor and juicy, juicy color. I am no publisher, but please, someone give this man a book deal. He is represented by Marilyn Cadenbach at http://www.cadenbach.com/.