It’s April when I start thinking and already mid-April when I start writing about Gregory Eddi Jones’ Promise Land. The book starts with a quote from T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, published one hundred years ago, after both WWI and the Spanish Flu had ravaged the world. From the perspective of today, in the aftermath of the pandemic and with war-torn Ukraine in sight, it is a relieving exercise to imagine Europe then and take it on faith that it will all pass. April was never cruel to me, as it is for the first voice of the poem, that of Austrian Countess Marie Larisch, but this April, making sense of the world has become a burden.
The reason why The Waste Land is deemed one of the most important modernist literary works is precisely because Eliot recognizes that the world has gone through changes that left Romantic language incapable of representing it in its new form. The London of the poem is a heterogenous space, constructed from an array of urban voices, each with its particular musicality, but it is nonetheless a waste land that echoes the barren kingdom from the legend of the Fisher King. Multiple other references are tucked in the five chapters of the work, from the Bible and Hindu mythology to Greek philosophers, Latin poets, Dante, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire, which are actualised in a series of disparate vignettes, that in turn give the poem a fragmentary, collage-like feeling.
Jones’ photobook, although titled Promise Land, is only in ostensible opposition to Eliot’s desolate landscape. With stock and advertising imagery as his primary sources, he builds a luminous, colourful universe that resembles the perfection of a carefully curated social media feed. As the commonplace imagery of our time, stock photography needs to be empty of meaning and open enough for multiple clients to be interested in acquiring it, while the industry of advertising is entirely based on the promise that the pictured product can change one’s life for the better. Departing from photography’s own indexical commitment to the real, commercial imagery exhibits a hyperreal aesthetic – heavily retouched digitally, it only bears a vague semblance to the original image, enough to maintain the perception that it depicts a real subject.
With stock and advertising imagery as his primary sources, Jones builds a luminous, colourful universe that resembles the perfection of a carefully curated social media feed.
At first glance, Jones’ images come across as paintings; they are, in fact, photographs which have been completely transformed through a process of digital manipulation and printing on non-absorbent paper, where the inks can blend together. It’s difficult to keep believing in an image that has been visibly altered; although on most occasions we can sense when images serve a mercantile function, Jones’ process completely dismantles the promise of the real. This act of displacement from their original function prompts the question – if they don’t sell, what do these images do?
The structure of the publication follows that of the poem, with five chapters, each having their own sequencing rhythm. The first one is comprised of single images, either full bleed or occupying a significant space on the page. Many are landscapes devoid of life, dry fields lying in the scorching sun, with an occasional sight of water, a praying family of angels, or racing gazelles. Two contrasting portraits stand out – a figure seemingly transfigured by awe, gazing into the distance, and an anxious one covered by a white mask, a cross between a drama mask and a skincare sheet mask.
The second chapter mostly retains the size of the images in the first, but here some of them start to be overlapped, repeated and reversed. The setting is primarily urban and describes the comforts of middle-class life, from picnics and pools, to fitness and having one’s home professionally cleaned. The repetition and reversal of images is again employed in the third chapter, with some being severed and parts of them continuing on separate pages. Here a light-hearted mood prevails, this series starting with a picture of a rainbow and continuing with what appear to be holiday images, only interrupted by a variation of the anxious figure.
Promise Land is a universe of references and symbols at the junction of age-old religious iconography and the visual culture of the consumerist 20th century.
As the fourth chapter continues this leisure aesthetic, smaller black-and-white pictures add up at the top of the pages. These seem to be snapshots that have a strong connection to the idea of memory and remembrance, because they refer to specific places and dates or they have titles such as ‘Picture for Remembering’ and ‘It’s Hard to Remember’. The body at this stage of the book becomes statuesque, with a focus on cut out busts and torsos. The final chapter shows faces that become one with the background, as well as hands held together, a priest figure followed by fire on the next page, ghostly shapes, mountainous landscapes, and another reiteration of the anxious face.
Jones’ Promise Land is a universe of references and symbols at the junction of age-old religious iconography and the visual culture of the consumerist 20th century. For example, the presence of water indicates a fertile ground, but also relaxation and leisure, both being connected to the idea of paradise, disconnection from the ordinary, grey life and reaching a state of grace. Here, in the Elysian Plains of Greek marble statues, people with smooth, beautiful skin and desirable bodies are always smiling, daydreaming and picking flowers. There is no time, nor labour, there is only mouth-watering food and rainbows. However, this life (or afterlife?) is sometimes interrupted by a vision of dead lands, a ‘Dark City’, ‘Dark Falls’, ‘Dark Flowers’, the turn-to-stone Gorgon and the inevitability of the ‘Fire Sermon’. Under the veneer of tranquillity hides an apprehensive self that is chasing the Promise, a symbolic land of milk and honey.
Promise Land explores the spiritual poverty of common cultural pictures, and condemns a shallow contemporary popular culture that glorifies appearance, leisure and materialism.
One particularly photographic motif is that of the lens flare. Originally considered a technical mistake, this visual artefact appears in images when light from a bright source is scattered through the lens before reaching the film or the camera’s sensor; it has acquired, however, the allure of poetic charm, and now it is often used to enhance the romanticism of a scene or the idea of authenticity in cinematography (i.e. Terrence Malick) and commercial genres of photography. Here it acts as a mark of wonder and blessing that has the power to transform an empty, sterile landscape into a space of potential, and a caught fish into a Christian symbol.
Promise Land explores the spiritual poverty of common cultural pictures, and condemns a shallow contemporary popular culture that glorifies appearance, leisure and materialism. The religious iconography is particularly important, and although apparently in opposition to the consumerist aims of the advertising image, I want to argue that they in fact support one another. Published in 1905, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism examined the relationship between several protestant denominations and the accumulation of wealth in the respective communities. As opposed to other Christian branches, which value renouncing worldly possessions, Protestantism sees work as a calling and the wealth produced by one’s own labour as a sign of virtue. One has a duty to profit, Weber argues, as financial opportunities come from God, who helps those who help themselves – an idea that encourages a sense of individualism and inflated self-confidence. Although a secular economy, American neoliberalism cannot be understood outside of these values. If the more one owns, the more blessed one is, and one may labour to be rich for God, then our current image culture is a profoundly spiritual one.
Gregory Eddi Jones’ Promise Land is a complex example of work that departs from photography and tests contemporary images against cultural tradition, much like T. S. Eliot undertaking in The Waste Land. If advertising and stock banks are the visual language of our needs and desires, Promise Land is a distorting mirror, a caricaturising visual narrative that uncovers a deep-seated dread below a comfortable America: is being #blessed just another transaction on the free market?