Andrew Phelps (b. 1967, Mesa, AZ & residing in Austria since 1991) returns infrequently to the place of his birth, the arid and desert communities surrounding the regions of Mesa and Phoenix in the American Southwest. His childhood home is resplendent with past memories and with a family visit an expectation to resume old roles with family and friends entertaining with children playing in backyard pools at night.
In my first reading I sense an uncomfortable undercurrent and edge in Phelps photographs, as though everything is not right. Andrews is now having lived in Austria for the past 24 years and on his return he is a now bit of a stranger in a slightly familiar land, perhaps not unlike his feelings of being disconnected during his two weeks in Niigata Japan some years before which was documented in his book Not Niigata.
Daily evolving changes are usually hardly perceptible, such as when one vainly attempts to watch grass grow. When events such as a visiting a distant location after a long absence, the perceived changes can be startling. I liken it to seeing a young cousin after a year’s lapse, in which you observe that the lad has grown at least a foot, while those who live with him have hardly noticed his change in growing stature.
I will have to first admit that I read Phelps recent book Haboob with mixed emotions, having lived for a short period in Phoenix and then later in Yuma an even more desolate, dry, and if possible, hotter location in the Southern Arizona desert. Likewise I have visited Austria a number of times, the place where Phelps now lives, and I can appreciate the vast cultural and physical differences between these two regions. There is an enormous cultural and physical departure from the desert and the verdant lushness of his current home in Austria. He may well have stepped off onto the moon. His eyes have become conditioned to the European culture and landscape, thus this America landscape and ensuing cultural rites are oddly, if perhaps alarmingly, foreign.
The desert communities are surrounded by flat, arid landscapes with barren mountains looming in the background, with small sparse bushes or cactus populating the land. The air is so dry that even in 100˚F degree (plus) heat that permeates this place most of the year it is even difficult for a person to perspire. (yes, I have tried and it takes an enormous amount of energy to break into a sweat) The air is mostly sparkling clear under a cloudless blue sky unless a wind stirs the sand dispersing some fine particles into the air. On occasion, a strong wind whips up a Haboob, a threatening desert storm, which appears on the far horizon as a towering wall of sand advancing from the desert to obviate any vision in the darkness that soon envelops. While living in Yuma, we lived through an enormous Haboob, an experience that I can still vividly recall. Phelps does not capture an huge Haboob, but investigates an autobiographical metaphor of change (and threat) that it represents.
Phelps reminds me in his photographs of the playing children that youth are resilient. They appear in their innocence to accommodate even these harsh arid conditions and still have fun. Thus in reading Haboob, I sense another undercurrent, that of hope.
As a book object the printing and binding are excellent as you would expect from a Kehrer publication. The layout of the photographs is classical with ample white margins and a nice cadence in the flow of photographs. The front cover has a lacquer coating that depending on how the book is held, will reveal to the reader the silhouette of what appears as two running horses. This a subtle hint at the wild animals which had at one time roamed what is now trim and proper suburban neighborhoods. An interesting layering, as this lacquer coating is situated on the subject of the cover photograph; paint strips used to select colors for decorating homes, which appear to be discarded on the desert floor.
Phelps previous book Not Niigata reviewed on The PhotoBook; here.