America's Idea of a Good Time
by Kate Schermerhorn
A review by Leah Bobal
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is this last theme that photographer Kate Schermerhorn focuses on in her first book, America’s Idea of a Good Time.
So what is America’s idea of a good time?
Six years ago, Schermerhorn set out to find the answer with camera in hand, her infant son at her side. She traversed throughout the U.S., snapping photos of everything from hot dog eating contests to gay pride parades. What she found is both strange and comforting — a surreal land full of characters and their many stages.
At first glance, these photographs are just plain hilarious. Dogs are wearing bridal party outfits at an outdoor wedding. A local beauty queen — blond, tan and buff — poses with a greasy-haired guy who just won a demolition derby in Washington.
But look a little deeper, and the meanings change. There is wit and charm in each of the over 100 photos featured in the book, but also an eerie sense of unknown. It is this quality that sets Schermerhorn’s work apart from say, a collection of photos from Life magazine. Schermerhorn, much like photographer Mary Ellen Mark, has an eye for the strange and unusual.
One of the starkest images was captured during Mardi Gras, the pinnacle of American celebrations of happiness. From high atop a float, masked men in full regalia toss traditional Mardi Gras necklaces. Schermerhorn fixes one man in her frame in such a way that he is looking directly at us. He is almost scary, and for a moment, the photo suggests a darkness waiting to unfold.
In one portrait, an old, semi-wrinkled woman is slouched in a seat at an oxygen bar in Florida. Look closer and a sky lightened with large, fluffy clouds hangs just behind her. It’s almost as if the old lady is looking heavenward.
What makes these photos ironic and charming instead of grotesque is Schermerhorn’s perspective. She’s an optimist, and it shows throughout her work. There is hope among the people in these images; there is community, there is, well, happiness.
America’s Idea of a Good Time is a must-read, especially after the tragic events of 9/11 and during the ensuing war, for it reveals the simple, oft-forgotten things that make America a strange and wonderful place.