Gregory Halpern/Magnum Photos

Book Review Gregory Halpern – ZZYZX

© Gregory Halpern/Magnum Photos

“There’s still a notion of manifest destiny in California but also that it’s the end of the dream… you can go no further.”

─── by Rosie Torres, May 30, 2024
  • Mack presents a fourth edition of Gregory Halpern’s seminal 2016 monograph, “ZZYZX,”  a captivating visual ode to the city of Los Angeles.

    Portrait of a woman with red hair by Gregory Halpern from the book ZZYZX

    One of today’s most creative documentarians, Buffalo, NY-born Halpern, a Magnum associate, creates thought-provoking output that poetically explores the complexities of contemporary American identity.

    Originally released in 2016, “ZZYZX,” which won Photobook of the Year at the 2016 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation Photobook Award, stands as his most iconic work, a masterful piece of storytelling that demonstrates the artistry for which he is renowned.

    Landscape photography of a group of trees in a desert by Gregory Halpern
    Portrait of a man with pink and blonde hair from behind by Gregory Halpern
    Photograph of a bird on a hand by Gregory Halpern

    Named after a village in California’s Mojave Desert (originally called Soda Springs after the spring there and rechristened by an eccentric mineral water pioneer, Curtis Howe Springer, in 1944), the images in the book were shot in Los Angeles and the surrounding area over the course of five years, while the sorting of the nearly thousand rolls of film and subsequent editing took a further year.

    Gregory Halpern documentary photography portrait, man. Magnum photos.

    Halpern was drawn to the ‘beautiful haziness’ of the light in Los Angeles, caused by heavy pollution (the city consistently ranks as having the worst air quality in the US). It’s an interesting dichotomy: something beautiful yet toxic, perhaps a metaphor for Los Angeles itself—a city filled with hope and opportunity but one that often ‘chews up’ and ‘spits out’ so many who make the pilgrimage in search of their destiny, leaving them by the wayside.

    Photo a group of people playing a game by Gregory Halpern

    A number of the images in the book portray the city’s marginalized. Yet Halpern avoids cliches or simplistic narratives. Halpern approaches subjects without imposing a narrative or evoking pity, allowing viewers to draw their own interpretations. Similarly, the landscapes and secluded corners often appear desolate and parched, with images of fires and their aftermath amplifying the sense foreboding.

    Yet, amidst this, Halpern’s adept use of composition and light renders each image undeniably beautiful, presenting a paradox that mirrors the complexity of the city itself.

    Photo a multi-story building with a blue and purple staircase by Gregory Halpern
    Street photography, a man in a suit jacket by Gregory Halpern

    Although rooted in visual storytelling, Halpern describes his work as inhabiting a realm between documentary and a certain enigmatic quality, allowing the viewer’s imagination to roam freely. “ZZYZX” transcends mere transcription; it is as much a creation of fiction as it is of fantasy. The images depict real people and places, but seen through his lens and woven together they become something strange and somewhat surreal, a kind of Lynchian portrait of a place embedded in our collective cultural psyche.

    Book cover by Gregory Halpern

    The images in the book are presented as a journey, beginning in the desert east of Los Angeles and moving westward: through the city to the Pacific Ocean. From its beginning, modern America was born in the East, before expanding West until reaching the Pacific. Halpern has talked about the ‘westward pull’ that feels so powerful in American history and literature, and which he too, has felt.

    It’s this same pull that continues to magnetize so many who head to Los Angeles in search of the promise of fame and fortune; some find it, but for the majority, perhaps those portrayed in the book, the reality is very different—it is the end of the road: empty, a place of shattered dreams.


    All images © Gregory Halpern

    ZZYZX is published by Mack and is available via their website.