Alexa Cushing: Due West
Projects featured this week were selected from our most recent call-for-submissions. I was able to interview each of these artists to gain further insight into the bodies of work they shared. Today, we are looking at the series Due West by Alexa Cushing.
Alexa Cushing is a photographer based in Boston, MA. She is a recent graduate of Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she earned a BFA in Photography. She travels around her rural New England home by car, searching for photographs that extract a sense of magic from the everyday landscape. Most recently Alexa has made several journeys out west, where she has been making photographs for her on-going project documenting Los Angeles, California.
For generations, countless artists and authors have traveled westward across America to take part in a voyage symbolic of a better life and a fresh start. By following the western expansion of the country, those who embark on this trip become a sort of embodiment for the American dream. Lured by the opportunity of the Golden State in a way that is almost as biblical as the promised land, the promises of Los Angeles can appear virtually mythical to most. The city is bright and sprawling, filled with marriages of the contemporary and antiquated. Los Angeles, in all of its contradictions, exists in a way that refuses any definition.
Due West joins in on the conversation that has been ongoing between photographers throughout America’s history, in attempt to define what it means for a city to exist that seemingly refutes itself. The landscape of Southern California becomes subverted through these photographs, transforming the recognizable and often represented city into a more alien landscape. The Los Angeles that exists in this work is an unlikely combination of glamour and fracture, which in turn highlights the uneasiness of the city. Los Angeles is a subject that has been illuminated by its own existence.
Daniel George: You mention in your biography that you seek out photographic subject matter by car. So with that in mind, how did you land in Los Angeles for this project, when you could have literally stopped anywhere else? What was the allure?
Alexa Cushing: I have always been drawn to work made about both the American west and cross-country road trips. Work from photographers such as Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams and Stephen Shore. The idea of travelling from east to west simultaneously reflects both American and photographic history, something I find very fascinating. So many artists, photographers, and authors have attempted to define the west through their own perspective, which made me eager to be able to add my voice to that historic dialogue.
My first trip to Los Angeles was during a Boston winter, so the differences between the East Coast and West Coast couldn’t have been more jarring. Although it was starkly different from New England, I was surprised to find that Los Angeles embodied a lot of the same elements I photographed at home. I am always looking for ways to transform the ordinary into something unexpected and beautiful. That sense of magical realism is so rampant in Los Angeles. The contrast between ordinary and beautiful is an idea that LA is known for. It seemed like the perfect place to rent a car and make photographs.
DG: I am a transplant to the West, and I personally find its mythology consuming. There is so much to unpack. Since you have spent some time out here, are there any aspects of the “promised land” that lived up to your expectations? What fell short?
AC: The romanticism of California as the promised land is so intriguing. When formulating my project specifically about Los Angeles, I wanted to avoid the typical Hollywood dream-factory narrative. When you discuss California with an outsider that is often what is brought up, but that’s not what I found so interesting about LA. So many types people have migrated to Los Angeles to pursue their individual ambitions. That feeling of a communal attraction to the mythology of California is what makes this place so engaging to me.
DG: You write that your photographs highlight “the uneasiness of the city.” Is this based on your experience as an outsider? Tell me more about your decision to approach from that angle.
AC: Los Angeles is the antithesis of my New England home. It’s brighter, flatter, sprawling. And it is certainly a place of polarizing extremes within itself– physically, visually, socioeconomically. These extremes make Los Angeles feel like an impossible city. Arriving as an outsider only heightened these differences, which is why I felt compelled to emphasize my perspective.
DG: Aside from a few exceptions in this edit, your scenes are rather tightly composed—a far cry from traditional approaches to landscape photography in the West. For me, this creates a more lived-in experience—like I’m part of the city. What significance do you see in getting so close?
AC: I made a conscious effort to compose my images in a way that contrasted traditional western landscape photographs. I often captured small details, because these overlooked subtleties are what construct the feeling of a place for me. Not being overly descriptive of what surrounds my images allows for a sense of multiple realities. If the viewer has limited context, it lets the setting feel a bit more alien. Disrupting the landscape in this way was a tool for me to visually convey the unease of a place like Los Angeles.
DG: You also write that this project is currently ongoing. What do you anticipate looking forward, and how might it culminate? And throughout this process, do you feel that you will have “become a sort of embodiment of the American dream?”
AC: This is an ongoing project for me because my working process is all about going out and searching. While I set out to photograph with an idea of what I’m looking for, I will often end up being drawn to something completely new and different. I like to keep my mind open and make sure I am out in the world looking. I think my work will feel like a more comprehensive interpretation of Los Angeles the longer I am able to spend gathering details.
I think participating in this ongoing conversation about the American west allows any artist to interpret the American dream for themselves.
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