Our perception of the American landscape is inevitably informed by events that are said to have taken place on a given site, just as our understanding of history is influenced by the landscape that is its necessary backdrop. Contemporary cinema has come to play an increasingly important role in complicating these associations by shifting the textual representation of history to a Hollywood simulacrum that combines mythology, fiction and entertainment with notions of truth, historical record and the illusion of reality. American Histories is a series of color photographs that explores this progressively complex relationship between landscape, history and film.
Each photograph in the series looks at a specific site that is tied to a particularly significant or disturbing event. These events are culled from history as well as cinema and are comprised of both fact and fiction, or some combination of the two. The accompanying text details the events associated with each place in a manner that invokes reportage and the objective tone of historical analysis. Issues of conflict and violence in our history and culture are prevalent throughout the text but the places that remain are at times quiet, seductive and ignorantly beautiful. By combining film narratives with historical events into a classical, documentary format of text and image, the series addresses photography’s role in the entanglement between media, representation and truth.
Text and images © Joshua Dudley Greer
On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. The burglary aroused suspicion and media attention because of the unusual circumstances of the crime. The men were found with $2,300 in sequential hundred-dollar bills, walkie-talkies, lock picks, door-jimmys, a police scanner, two cameras along with 40 rolls of unused film and sophisticated recording devices. One of the men was a former CIA agent and current security guard for President Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. Notebooks found on two of the men contained a phone number followed by the inscription ‘W House.’
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein researched the case and wrote coverage of the story over a period of two years eventually uncovering evidence that implicated members of the Nixon administration. Woodward’s secret source for much of the information was a highly placed official within the Executive Branch, code name Deep Throat. Only Woodward knew of the man’s identity and the two would meet in this parking garage to relay information.
Parking Garage, 2040 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, California, 2008
On the night of June 23, 1993, John Wayne Bobbitt came home late after a night of drinking. John’s wife Lorena was awoken by his attempts to initiate sexual intercourse but she complained about his unwillingness to allow her to orgasm and refused his advances. Falling in and out of consciousness, John then allegedly forced her to have sex. Afterwards, John passed out on the bed while Lorena went to the kitchen to get a drink of water. She noticed a large kitchen knife on the counter and with thoughts of previous abuse in her head, Lorena grabbed the knife and proceeded to the bedroom where she violently cut off more than half of John’s penis.
Lorena immediately drove off with John’s penis, which she threw out of her car window into this grassy area less than a mile from their home. She later gathered herself and called 911, informing authorities of the situation and the location of the penis. John, who was severely injured and bleeding, was helped by a friend to a nearby hospital. Teams of police and fire department personnel were dispatched to the scene to recover the penis and after a nine-hour surgery John’s penis was successfully reattached.
Lorena Bobbitt was tried for malicious wounding in 1994 but was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. After his surgery, John Wayne Bobbitt made a brief living as a porn star, appearing in such films as Frankenpenis and John Wayne Bobbitt – Uncut.
Maplewood Drive and Old Centreville Rd, Manassas, Virginia, 2008
Melanie Daniels was boating across this bay when she was unexpectedly and violently struck in the head by a passing bird. The incident was the first in a dramatic series of unprompted bird attacks that plagued the town of Bodega Bay in 1963. Witnesses reported massive migrations of sparrows, seagulls, and crows overwhelming people and property on ten separate occasions. The birds seemed to deliberately attack in waves, resulting in dozens of injuries and the deaths of at least three people. The birds’ behavior could not be explained.
Bodega Bay, California, 2008
In 1998, a pickup basketball game on these courts turned into a confrontation between a group of neo-Nazis and African Americans. Derek Vinyard, a young skinhead leader, stepped into the game and led his team to victory, taunting his opponents with a swastika tattoo on his chest. The black men were told to leave and never come back.
Later that night, a number of black players attempted to steal Vinyard’s truck outside his home. Vinyard drew his pistol, shooting and killing one man while injuring a second. Wounded and bleeding, the young man tried to crawl away but Vinyard forced him to open his mouth onto a concrete curb where he kicked in the back of his head, killing him instantly. Derek Vinyard was sentenced to just three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.
Venice Beach, California, 2008
In 1862, a Confederate food transport was en route to soldiers when it was misdirected and surrounded by Union troops. General Robert E. Lee ordered an attempt to rescue the rations resulting in the Battle of Petersburg. It was here that Confederate troops led by Colonel Ben Cameron attacked the Union entrenchments under Captain Phil Stoneman. The two men were childhood schoolmates whose families were very close despite being from different sides of the Mason Dixon line. Colonel Cameron and his men had already overtaken two waves of opposition when he unexpectedly delayed an advance to come to the aid of a wounded Union soldier. Northern troops cheered when they saw the gesture and the colonel’s life was spared when his final charge was ineffective and most of his men were killed.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Burbank, California, 2007
On October 25, 1994 Susan Smith allowed her car to drift into this lake with her two sons trapped inside. The case received national attention when Smith claimed to have been carjacked by an African-American man before ultimately confessing nine days later.
In 1996, two families drove to this spot to pay their respects and visit a nearby memorial that had been erected. Without warning, one of the vehicles began to drift into the lake with five passengers trapped inside. Two adults jumped in to save their children but drowned along with everyone in the car.
John D. Long Lake, Near Union, South Carolina, 2006
Bonnie Parker first saw Clyde Barrow as he was attempting to steal her mother’s car in 1930. That same day, Bonnie watched as Clyde robbed a general store and the two drove off together. The duo soon teamed up with Clyde’s brother Buck and a number of other accomplices to form the Barrow Gang. Over the next four years, the gang robbed numerous establishments in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Iowa, including this bank.
In 1934, Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed by Louisiana police officers who were tipped off by an accomplice’s father. Without warning or an attempt to make an arrest, four police officers fired approximately 130 rounds into the fugitives’ car, killing both instantly. Bonnie Parker was 23 years old, Clyde Barrow was 25.
Farmers and Merchants Bank Building, Pilot Point, Texas, 2007
Student filmmakers Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard disappeared somewhere in these woods near Burkittsville, Maryland in October 1994. The students had set out to make a documentary about a local legend known to haunt the surrounding area.
One year later, badly deteriorated video and sound equipment was found belonging to the three students. The fragmented footage showed the team getting lost and growing despondent over a period of days. Mysterious events were partially recorded including the sounds of strange screaming, a collection of stick figures hanging from trees and the appearance of partial human remains outside their tent. The last frames of footage show the basement of an abandoned house located deep within the woods. Screams can be heard and the camera appears to fall to the ground. The three students are still considered missing, but are presumed dead.
Seneca Creek State Park, Gaithersburg, Maryland, 2009
79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee from the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s car at this McDonald’s drive-thru on February 27, 1992. Her grandson stopped the car so she could add cream and sugar and in the process of removing the lid, Stella spilled the entire drink into her lap. The coffee, which was served at a temperature over 180 degrees, caused third-degree burns and scalding over 6% of her body including her thighs, groin and buttocks. Stella was taken to the hospital where she stayed for eight days while undergoing a number of painful skin graft operations.
Stella Liebeck initially sought $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, but McDonald’s refused to settle. A product liability lawsuit was then brought against McDonald’s and in 1994 a jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 plus an additional $2.7 million in punitive damages. The final figure was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
5001 Gibson Boulevard SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2007
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed during a parade through Dealey Plaza in the city of Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested just hours later and charged with the assassination. Authorities suggested that Oswald acted alone, firing three shots from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository which overlooked the parade route on Elm Street. Fifty-one eyewitnesses, who were present at the time of the shooting, reported that they heard additional shots coming from behind this fence.
Dealey Plaza, Elm Street, Dallas, Texas, 2005
On Wednesday March 28, 1979 Reactor II of this nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown resulting in the most significant nuclear accident on American soil. No citizens were harmed in the accident and no illnesses or deaths have been attributed to the exposure of radioactive waste in the neighboring communities. The accident came at a crucial time of public opinion regarding the safety and efficiency of nuclear power followed by the disaster at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986. While much of the world continues its research and development of new sites, the production of new reactors has been halted dramatically in the United States.
Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, Near Middleton, Pennsylvania, 2007
On August 18, 1973, Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin were traveling through Texas with three friends in hopes of finding an old family house. The five young adults stopped at this Bar-B-Q shack to get gas and ask for directions. Only Sally would ever be seen again.
She would later claim that during their search for the house, all three of her friends had gone missing. Setting out to find them, she and her brother were passing through a patch of brush, when a large man wearing a mask burst out of the trees and brutally attacked Franklin with a chainsaw. Sally ran as the man chased her back to this store. Delirious and out of breath, Sally tried to explain what had happened to the store’s owner. It was here that the owner beat her unconscious, tied her hands with rope and took her back to his home. When she awoke, Sally was tied to a chair surrounded by a family of psychotics who proceeded to harass and torture her. One of the men untied her hands while another attempted to bludgeon her over the head with a hammer. Sally struggled free and escaped by jumping out of a window. She managed to run to a nearby road and flag down a passing truck, which drove her to safety.
The bodies of Sally’s brother and three friends were never found and no arrests were ever made.
Highway 304, Bastrop County, Texas, 2004