The body of work, States of America, is the photographic legacy of one of the UK’s leading photographic talents whose untimely death in 1991 ended prematurely the highly promising career of a distinctive and powerful photographic voice.
Michael Ormerod was born in Cheshire in 1947. He lived in Newcastle, but spent many years travelling America. Fascinated by the American image, and following in the footsteps of Robert Frank, Ormerod took to the American West to find a washed out dream of capitalism. His images capture a strange juxtaposition of an American beauty tainted by a hidden sense of menace and corruption.
The photographs are understated, but show an unseen America, where the industrial heartland is decaying, highways stand empty and towns are deserted. The subjects of Ormerod’s work are the disenfranchised. A teenager cycles through her neighbourhood wearing a Halloween-style hockey mask, a Native American man stands in a graveyard, their expressions are unreadable.
The work subverts traditional American icons. A white picket fence is staved in, a huge billboard for Miss Teen Dakota USA stands next to an empty highway. Inverting the famous Hollywood sign, Ormerod photographs a Texaco sign from the back, dominating the empty, Western landscape.
The works also show humour – a giant fake dinosaur looms in the distance of a desert landscape, a stuffed moose head is displayed in the window of a diner. The subjects of the work are unconventional, surreal and sometimes mundane, but create an atmosphere of an eerie backwater America.
His photographs are those of the outsider, constantly travelling through a no-man’s-land. A sense of pessimism pervades, showing how the commercial boom of the 1950s has collapsed, leaving deserted streets, rubbish dumps and alienation. It is a land where the American Dream has turned sour.
Ormerod’s book, States of America, was published shortly after he died to mark an exhibition held at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery, London. Since then, only one major exhibition of his work has taken place in Sheffield in 2003. A reappraisal of his powerful and uncompromising chronicle of America is long overdue.